As Russian guns bombard Ukrainian cities and the world watches in horror, New Zealanders, too, are recoiling at Russia’s aggression. The threat of nuclear weapons being used compounds the shock of war. A devastating human cost is being borne by the Ukrainian people.
So where is NZ’s Minister of Defence, Peeni Henare? What does he think of the invasion by Russia of its neighbour and its threat to use nuclear weapons? And is he checking the state of NZ’s armed forces, to be ready to do whatever must be done if Vladimir Putin sparks a wider war?
Henare spoke in Parliament yesterday in the general debate (remotely) and expressed his eagerly awaited thoughts.
He began by endorsing the words of Deputy PM Grant Robertson on what Wellingtonians have endured over the past weeks. The occupation of the area around Parliament, he thought, was
”… testament to the challenges that our people have faced in Wellington and in other parts of our country. What we want, though, is for our country to go back to normal as quick as possible, and this Government’s focus is to make sure that where we can, we will secure our future off the great health decisions and the great health leadership that we have done to make sure our country comes through this particular pandemic”.
Henare went on to say that COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins had talked about the change of managed isolation rules.
“I want to, as defence Minister, thank all of our defence force personnel for their contribution to Operation Protect, which has seen hundreds of our defence force personnel represent us all in this country. As they continue to carry out their duties at managed isolation and quarantine, they have done it with aplomb, they have done it with extreme professionalism, and I want to acknowledge them. I want to acknowledge them because, as well as that, they have continued to be ready to respond when Aotearoa New Zealand needs them the most.
“It is that reason that as we look towards our priorities for defence force, I want to, once again, reiterate the priorities that this Government has agreed to, and two of those particular priorities are people and infrastructure in the defence force.”
This highlighting of the government’s Defence priorities at a time when Russia threatens to trigger a nuclear war is illuminating.
Henare went on:
“ Investing in our infrastructure ensures that our defence force personnel live and work in buildings that are not only healthy but they are safe and fit for purpose. It also provides much-needed economic stimulus for the regions where our people are based.
“A good example of this is the Manawatū-Whanganui region. The new $250 million facility to support the new P-8A Poseidon aircraft being built at the base in Ōhākea currently provides work for 250 people and it is expected to grow to 400 at its peak. The workforce consists of 25 main subcontractors, of which a third of them, approximately, are from that particular region. These are good examples of strong investment that will continue to secure our resilience and our future.
“Also for the defence force, the Linton maintenance support facility replaces the aged and obsolete army workshop used to repair military equipment. Construction for this commenced in July 2021, using a local Manawatū contractor, and it is progressing to schedule and budget and is due for completion in May 2023.
“The project employs up to 180 people in the region directly, and 360 indirectly through local subcontractors and suppliers. Approved funding for the build is about $53.5 million.
“These are the examples of securing our future as we come towards this stage of the pandemic. I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, and I’m proud of the decisions that we’ve made to continue to support our recovery and our resilience. But let’s be quite clear: we are in the grip of Omicron.”
Thus Henare reminded us of the war that (presumably) is important to him – the one against Covid-19. It reminds us, too, he is an Associate Minister of Health and that he represents a Maori electorate, Tāmaki Makaurau:
“Last week, Māori Ministers made the announcement of a further $140 million to continue to support Māori Omicron and Pacific Omicron response in our community. I’m proud of the work we’ve done. The Prime Minister has already shouted that praise in answer to oral questions today, and I want to commend her support and the support of this Government for our Māori health providers and our Pacific health providers. I’ve spoken to a number of them, and they’re absolutely thrilled that there is more money there to continue to help them to secure their workforce into the future to continue to add to the capacity to allow them to respond to Omicron.
”In my final seconds: 12 months ago, I started out on one of three tours around the country to push the vaccine amongst Māori communities. We still have a challenge up in front of us, whānau, and this is my plea to all Māori health providers and our communities: while tamariki vaccine rates continue to fall behind and Māori rates lag behind that of non-Māori, my plea is to every member of this House and to our community to bring our tamariki forward to make the right decision and to vaccinate. Kia ora, Mr Speaker”
Not a word, then, from the Minister of Defence on what he thinks of Putin’s belligerence or how NZ should respond and – militarily – how it might be geared to respond if necessary.
But, hullo. Here is the Minister of Disarmament, Phil Twyford.
So what does he think, as he follows Henare?
He has a very different script – and he had no trouble mentioning the name of the villain of the piece:
“President Putin’s invasion is a clear act of aggression, a blatant breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a violation of international law and the UN Charter by a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
“It’s the act of a bully brutally using its power in breach of international law. We’re seeing a devastating human cost as a result of Russia’s disregard for its obligations under the UN Charter and disregard for humanity, and I know that this House stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine.
”In recent days, Russia has put its nuclear forces on high alert, a decision that increases the risk of miscalculation and with it, potentially catastrophic consequences for humanity. We’ve also seen neighbouring Belarus rightfully condemned for moves to allow Russia’s nuclear weapons to be stationed within its borders.
“In Kyiv and other major cities, civilians and civilian infrastructure are being targeted and hit by explosive weapons, bringing war directly into the backyards of innocent non-combatants and in violation of international humanitarian law. Credible reports of the use of cluster munitions have begun to come through; an indiscriminate weapon, which many countries, New Zealand included, recognise as being illegal under international law.
“As disarmament and arms control Minister, times like these bring into sharp focus the need for a renewed focus internationally on disarmament and particularly the threat of nuclear weapons. This means not only limiting destruction when conflict occurs but reducing the tensions that lead to war breaking out in the first place. It’s a tough climate right now for nuclear disarmament. The nuclear weapon States who also happen to be the permanent members of the Security Council, of which Russia is one, argue that the international security climate is too uncertain and too unstable to be ambitious about following through on their commitments to reduce and eliminate their nuclear arsenals. But President Putin, in threatening the use of nuclear weapons in the course of an unprovoked invasion of a neighbouring country, has surely demonstrated that the opposite is true.”
In times of crisis, Twyford said, the need for strong international law and multilateral institutions was most urgent.
“This is the very time we turn to the rules, norms, and safeguards to prevent conflict and reduce the suffering of civilians in war. While it’s hard right now to imagine Russia sitting down with the other nuclear weapon states to agree new commitments to reduce and eliminate their nuclear weapons that is precisely what is needed.
“As the world now works together to impose sanctions on Russia and to support Ukraine, we must be equally muscular and equally united in building out some multilateral institutions and strengthening international law. If we don’t, how will we avoid a renewed arms race, more breaches of the UN charter, more conflict, and a much more dangerous world?”
That was why New Zealand continued to advocate for States to uphold their existing obligations under international law, to hold accountable those which violate these obligations, and pushed for additional controls as new threats to peace and security emerged.
“A strong response by the international community to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that the world is capable of coming together and taking action on issues that matter. Our job now is to harness that unity and sense of purpose as we address the big disarmament issues of our time; issues that relate both to the prevention of conflict and to the protection of civilians when those efforts fail.
”In New Zealand, you know, we may feel a long way from the war in Ukraine. History has shown again that conflict reverberates far beyond where the bombs are going off. And that’s true for a conventional conflict and even more where the use of nuclear weapons would be catastrophic, cross border and intergenerational effects has been put on the table”
Point of Order has not always seen eye to eye with Twyford. But here, setting an admirable example to his colleagues, was a speech that captured the moment.