John Armstrong: Defence Minister Ron Mark has shafted Labour in order to benefit NZ First

You've got to hand it to Ron Mark. To put it bluntly, the veteran MP and Minister of Defence has effectively shafted Labour in order to benefit New Zealand First.

He has exploited a heaven-sent opportunity to drastically alter the thrust of the governing coalition's stance on defence matters far more in his party's favour — and far more to the right.

At the same time, however, in fronting to the public to announce the purchase of four brand-spanking-new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, Mark and Winston Peters risked shafting themselves.

Not surprisingly, there was one question on just about everyone's lips: How was the coalition government able to come up with the money to meet the eye-watering price of $2.3 billion for the planes, while insisting it could not scrape together any more cash to make a better pay offer to nurses working in public hospitals and thus avert another 24-hour strike in the health sector?

The coinciding of the set-to over nurse wages and working conditions with the splashing of cash on big-ticket military hardware seemed to bear all the hallmarks of a classic "guns versus butter" argument.

But things are not quite as simple as that.

As capital items, the cost of the planes will be spread over the next eight financial years. Any increase in nurses' wages is designated as operational spending and has to be met from current tax revenue.

That is why the Acting Prime Minister has been pleading with nurses to accept the existing pay offer in expectation that next year's Budget will have a large enough surplus to enable a further top-up of wages and salaries for health workers.

Peters and Mark are also punting that the public well understands why money will be forked out for new reconnaissance planes for the Air Force.

Regardless of whatever other functions those aircraft might or might not carry out out, there is a bottom-line requirement that New Zealand authorities have the capacity to mount search-and-rescue operations on the high seas.

The Air Force's six P-3K2 Orions have undertaken that vital role since they were purchased half a century ago.

Those aircrafts will reach the end of their operational life in 2025. Given the lead time between placing an order and delivery, it was essential that the Cabinet gave priority to the matter.

Mark has been smart enough to see the opportunity this offered to New Zealand First. If he was going to be the public face of a less than popular decision, then he was going to sell it on his terms—not Labour's.

His take on the purchase will horrify many in Labour's ranks. The latter would envisage the aircraft being deployed mostly for civilian duties.

In contrast, Mark has been steadfast in describing the planes as "military" aircraft first and foremost. He has brushed aside the objections of the Greens to the planes being equipped with what are euphemistically described as "enhanced weapon capabilities".

These capabilities include "over the horizon" anti-shipping Harpoon guided missiles.

When Labour was last in power, Helen Clark effectively abolished the Defence Force's air strike capability by withdrawing the Air Force's Skyhawk fighters from service and putting them up for sale.

Clark's intention was to reduce the combat capability of the armed forces such that any overseas deployment would be confined to supplying personnel or military hardware to peace-keeping operations conducted under the mandate of the United Nations — and only the United Nations.

That way, New Zealand would be seen within the international community as an "honest broker" running an independent foreign policy, rather than signing up to the latest American-led military adventure - be that in Iraq or elsewhere.

In contrast, Mark would view the installation of missile-delivery systems on a maritime patrol plane as in part fulfilling his party's manifesto plan promising a return of the Air Force's previous "offensive" capability.

He would note that for all the talk by Labour and the Greens about having an independent foreign policy, New Zealand still ended up sending military personnel to Iraq as part of an American-led force.

The notion that New Zealand has an independent foreign policy is thus a myth.

There are zero votes in making that admission, however.

There is also nothing independent in going it alone, only to end up sponging off friends and allies when the going gets tough.

In New Zealand's case, the pretence that this country can act independently of others has become an excuse to do nothing, especially when it comes to equipping and modernising the armed forces.

It was easy to duck that responsibility when the South Pacific was truly the "benign strategic environment" which Clark claimed it was when she was prime minister.

That is no longer the case. China is not spraying vast quantities of aid across the region's island states for the fun of it. At some point, it will come knocking on those countries' doors demanding something in return.

No one should be so naive as not to realise that Beijing is intent on creating a "sphere of influence" in the region.

A recent media report that Vanuatu was to allow the Chinese to build a naval base on its territory should have sent shockwaves through the foreign affairs and defence bureaucracies in Wellington, Canberra and further afield, even though no evidence was turned up that it was actually going to happen.

That such an eventuality was conceivable is grist to the mill of politicians like Peters who are wracking their brains when it comes to finding the means of shutting the door to China.

The new maritime patrol aircrafts are very much part of Peters' "Pacific Reset" policy of increasing aid to the region.

That does not entail mounting escapades to hunt down Chinese submarines. It does mean escalating surveillance in the region to counter illegal fishing which threatens the most important resource — and thus the incomes of South Pacific nations.

The message to those countries which is implicit in the purchase of the planes is crystal clear.

You cannot trust China will not pillage your resources; you can trust us to do our best to protect them.

Minister for Defence Ron Mark said the new aircraft will help New Zealand deliver marine and disaster relief in the Pacific.
Source: 1 NEWS