Gentleman’s agreement, Tony Simpson

Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror
Nicky Hager 
Craig Potton Publishing, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877517693

About a year ago, shortly after this book was published, I heard Nicky Hager in an interview deploring the media reaction which had largely confined itself to one small aspect of the book in relation to the CIA – which was of little significance in itself – and which had ignored its main thesis. His chagrin is understandable given the success of his previous works in the run-up to an election. Also, given that this book unveiled an equally scandalous situation in relation to New Zealand’s defence policies. But the media response cannot have been unexpected since it is inherent in the thesis Hager is expounding.

The fact is New Zealanders do not discuss our defence policies in any strategic sense. That does not prevent us from fastening on particular defence issues from time to time, but these are useful largely as ways of discussing other, usually domestic, political matters at one remove. Instances of this might be the 1949 debate and referendum over peacetime conscription (the exhaustion of Labour as a government in the aftermath of the war); our involvement in the Vietnam War (the transition from the RSA/ WWII generation of political leadership to the baby boomers); nuclear ship visits (ditto); and the internal row over our commitment to Afghanistan, which essentially destroyed the Alliance Party as a left-wing parliamentary force (a failure by the Left to make the transition from the politics of opposition to the politics of government). We are not really interested in talking about defence policy in the round.

The result is, says Hager, that the formulation and implementation of such policies is left to a small elite of officials, politicians and right-wing ex-military academics who usually come up with approaches seriously out of step with what most New Zealanders want their defence policy to look like. That is to say, the officials want us to abandon our anti-nuclear stance and to re-integrate our naval and air forces into the larger Australian and United States whole, and proceed subservient to their policies as we used to do.

What most of us want instead, whenever we are asked, is an emphasis on peacekeeping operations, and a broad neutrality in our foreign relations, while remaining on good terms with our traditional and developing trading partners. We also prefer the deployment of our air, ground and naval forces within our own region and the South Pacific to protect our economic rather than our directly military interests and those of our small political neighbours with whom we have historical and increasingly cultural affinities. Hager backs this up with detailed research into what we have actually been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Is he right? Yes, he is. How can I say so unequivocally?  Because for 15 years I was a senior policy aide to Jim Anderton, during nine of those years in his role as Deputy Prime Minister and then as number three in the Cabinet. That put me in an almost unique position to observe a great deal of what was going on and to have input into the formulation of defence policy in one way or another.

It is also quite important if you are approaching this topic to be aware that for some decades from the 1950s there was a sort of gentleman’s agreement between National and Labour that they would avoid controversy over defence matters when conducting the affairs of whichever select committee had responsibility for them. The result was that the military pretty much had its own way in getting what it wanted operationally by way of equipment and where they were committed. As a further result, they got very complacent or even careless about their accountability, leading to occasional public fiascoes, such as that over the purchase of the entirely unsuitable troop carrier, the Charles Upham.

The advent of MMP put an end to that. It brought into Parliament a number of MPs who were not party to the gentleman’s agreement and who, furthermore, had no interest in becoming so. Interestingly, that applied to both ends of the political spectrum (the Alliance and ACT, both represented on the 1996 to 1999 Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committee).

It took the military a while, however, to realise that the rules had changed. I once had the pleasure of attending a “briefing” for the committee as back-up for one of its members, Matt Robson, and treeing the head of our navy, who turned out to have been seriously misinformed on some key issues by his advisors.

What they apparently didn’t know, because in the past it didn’t matter, was that Anderton’s staff contained at least two senior people, one of whom had published military history and analysis, and another who was fully conversant with many of the technical aspects of contemporary weapons and military communications systems and technology. They were clearly astounded when we began to ask fairly pointed questions. It was a delightful moment when it transpired that we knew the answers and could cite chapter and verse and they could not.

But the really revealing moment came when the Alliance Party entered government in 1999 and had access to Cabinet papers on defence matters. When a furious US administration had New Zealand ostensibly kicked out of ANZUS in the 1980s over our anti-nuclear policy, the reaction of most New Zealanders, to the extent that they cared at all, was to shrug and say: “Really? I didn’t know that thing was still operative.”

More to the point was what emerged from the Cabinet papers, if you could read between the lines: the relationship with ANZUS had not in fact gone away but had continued behind closed doors. In many ways our defence forces continued to be integrated into the forces deployed by both the US and Australia. To ensure this, the military maintained a network of very senior military attachés in centres of strategic importance to our erstwhile American and Australian allies. So whatever the New Zealand governments of the day might say publicly about our international stances on defence issues, there was a covert parallel network in place to ensure business as usual.

The so-called “war on terror” came as a godsend to these officials because it provided an alibi for them to be much more open about what they were doing than they had previously, without giving the game away.

Hager picks up this story and spells out its consequences in detail. These details are shocking because of the cynical disregard of parliamentary democracy it reveals on the part of many of our senior public servants, both civilian and military. It explains, for example, how an altruistically motivated reconstruction effort on the part of our military engineers in Afghanistan, under the auspices of the United Nations, turned into a frontline military commitment of the SAS in pursuit of military objectives of the US and its allies.

But what should shock people most is the abject failure on the part of our media to pick up on Hager’s work and follow through with a bit of decent investigative journalism into a scandal which is sitting on their doorstep and which Hager has done the hard work of pointing out to them.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington historian and reviewer. 


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