On his first mission abroad as Defence Minister, Peeni Henare says he is seeking to “regenerate New Zealand’s defence force readiness and capability in a post-Covid world”.
In that phrase he (in effect) underlines how heavily committed defence elements have been in their various roles during the prolonged pandemic. It will be with relief that those forces can now get back to what they enlisted to be.
But Henare now has to get to grips with the vital role of securing NZ’s defences – as NZ always has done – with its allies and partners, particularly with his Pacific focus.
After talks in Fiji on how best to support Pacific partners to work together to provide solutions to the region’s challenges, he goes on to Australia which is New Zealand’s only formal defence ally and one of its closest security and bilateral partners.
There he is to hold talks with the formidable Peter Dutton.
Whether he packed a flak jacket to take with him is not known but he may need it.
Dutton made headlines when – in an earlier ministerial role – he talked of “taking the trash out” when deporting former NZ criminals from Australia.
Of course, he will know that our defence minister bears a highly respected name in NZ’s defence history, but even so Henare could face some brusque exchanges on what NZ is actually planning to do to “regenerate” NZ’s defence capability alongside Australia.
Only this month the Australian Government announced the Australian Defence Force will undergo the biggest expansion in nearly 40 years.
The number of ADF personnel will be boosted from 60,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen and women to about 80,000.
The $A38 billion defence expansion will be the biggest since the Vietnam War and comes amid rising tensions with China and Russia.
When unveiling the government plan at Brisbane’s Gallipoli Barracks the Australian PM, Scott Morrison, said it was a significant investment in “in our future”.
“We don’t leave our tasks of defence to others. We take it up ourselves.”
Morrison noted that when the Coalition came into power, defence spending as a percentage of GDP was at its lowest level since the Second World War.
“If we had kept defence force spending at the same rate as what the Labor Party left us, there would be $A55 billion less spent in our defence forces today,” he said.
“That’s a real gap. That’s a yawning gap.”
Dutton on that occasion raised the spectre of Russia and China.
“People who believe that President Putin’s only ambition is for the Ukraine don’t understand the history that our military leaders understand,” he said.
“If people think that the ambitions within the Indo-Pacific are restricted just to Taiwan and there won’t be knock-on impacts, if we don’t provide a deterrent effect and work closely with our colleagues and with our allies, then they don’t understand the lessons of history.”
He took a swing at the Australian Labor party’s past management of the ADF.
“The reality is, to be very, very frank about it, the Labor (party) lost control of our borders,” Dutton said.
“Labor lost control of our borders and if you can’t protect your borders and if you can’t stare down people smugglers, how on earth can you pretend that you’re the same as this government.”
Henare might find similar words ringing in his ears as he emerges from his meeting with Dutton.