Column – Gordon Campbell

It has been a fairly typical week for this government mental health services in Christchurch slashed , further massive cuts to DHB funding , and the abdication of its responsibility for social housing .

Gordon Campbell on the Defence Force’s spending bonanza

It has been a fairly typical week for this government… mental health services in Christchurch slashed, further massive cuts to DHB funding, and the abdication of its responsibility for social housing.

Incredibly, the editorial writers at the New Zealand Herald have suggested that the latest health system cutbacks are ‘brave’ politics.

Hmmm… ‘brave’ isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind. Callous, heartless, stupid, and shortsighted all seem more appropriate, given an ageing population and the levels of unmet need in the health system. Just a small definitional point: ‘brave’ used to be a term for those risking harm to themselves to prevent harm to vulnerable people. Now it’s a term for ‘daring’ to inflict harm on vulnerable people.

Simultaneously, a government that’s willing to slash the health system is planning to spend $11 billion dollars in the next ten years on new gear for our Defence Forces. That’s not a misprint. The scale of the Defence spend-up over the next decade is truly stupendous. As yet, it simply has not sunk in with the general public just how much they stand to lose in order to keep the military in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

Here’s the reality. More than one billion dollars a year is being set aside each year, every year, for the next decade for military procurement purposes, while funding for the health system has been systematically reduced in real terms since 2010. The $11 billion military spend-up is outlined in a 27 January 2016 article (paywalled) in Jane’s IHS Aerospace, Defence & Security publication.

The new [procurement] team [at NZDF] will deliver an acquisition programme of about NZD 11 billion over the coming decade.

The money will be spent on new frigates, new cargo planes to replace the C-130 Hercules and new surveillance aircraft to replace the Orions. That cost by 2025 will be three and a half times more than the most fanciful MFAT estimates of what the TPP will deliver us by 2030. How on earth can John Key be talking about tax cuts in 2017 when this country is facing a state spending programme of this magnitude?

And all done to save New Zealand from… what, exactly ? Even the 2014 Defence Force Assessment published last year admits the threats that New Zealand faces are (a) limited and (b) of a nature that would give us time to upgrade and to prepare, should that ever be needed:

Para 66. New Zealand does not presently face a direct threat of physical invasion and occupation of New Zealand territory. The likelihood of such a threat to the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and territory over which we have a sovereign claim, emerging before 2040 is judged to be very low, and would be preceded by significant change to the international security environment. New Zealand could therefore expect to have a reasonable amount of time to re-orientate its defence priorities should this be necessary.

Although there is no direct threat to our territorial integrity, New Zealand faces a range of other threats from state and non-state actors, including cyber threats and terrorism.

Ah-huh. Cyber threats and terrorism. Now… I may be a bit slow on the uptake here, but I’m having trouble figuring out how a brand new batch of frigates or cargo planes or spotter planes will help to defend us from the Defence Force prioritisation of (a) cyber threats or (b) terrorists at home, or abroad. Even if they could defend us from such horrors – and they can’t – is it very difficult to regard hackers and jihadists and fishing zone predators as posing so deadly a threat to our national security as to justify us spending $11 billion of allegedly scarce funds, on combatting them.

It looks more like the Defence Force is simply rolling over its current force structure, and plucking off the shelf the next generation of gear to fulfill roles that belong to the Cold War era, 30 years ago or more. Meanwhile, the current government is expecting that it can spin the public into going without the next generation of specialist care and new medicines, in order to help pay for this military bonanza.

There is absolutely no rational justification for Defence extravagance on this scale. So far, not s single people smuggling boat has managed to reach our shores. Even if they ever did, wouldn’t one of our old frigates be able to intercept a leaky old boat laden with refugees? None of these boats would have a missile of such sophistication as to justify the spend-up that’s… uh oh, already well under way.

Meaning : a few weeks ago, the Key government agreed to spend a massive $441 million on upgrading the weapons and sensor systems on those ageing frigates, Defence couldn’t say unequivocally that these upgrades will be transferable to the new frigates that the nation is being expected to buy, early in the next decade. So, by the time that $441 million system is installed in 2019 it could be money almost totally down the drain.

Look, I know it is important that we should be able to go on manoeuvres with our allies in the Gulf of Oman, in order to help combat Somali piracy on the high seas. Yet call me a peacenik, but I just can’t see that as being as important a goal as having a health system that (a) can afford the cutting edge new medicines and that (b) can afford a wage structure to attract and retain sufficient numbers of medical specialists. It would also be great if medical staff with contagious illnesses didn’t feel they had to come into work, because overworked colleagues would then have to pick up the slack.

(Apropos of which, DHBs say they will try to meet the looming cuts by a further round of not filling vacancies.) And that’s even before mentioning the backlog of unmet health needs built up over years of starving the system. But the military? Hey, gear in the billions seems to be theirs for the asking.

It is not as if the NZ Defence Force has been on the breadline in recent years. As the Jane’s article pointed out, the procurement budget for NZDF in American dollars since 2011 has been $US164 million (in 2011) $US107.5 million (in 2012) $US106.75 million (in 2013) $US285.99 million (in 2014) and $US208.71 million in 2015. From there, the procurement projections head into the stratosphere, especially after 2020.

The Defence Force is already gearing up its management structures for the decade ahead. Des Ashton, the current procurement chief of the NZDF fronted the $441 million frigate-arming lolly scramble a few weeks ago. Yet as of March 1st, Ashton will be replaced by Air Vice-Marshal Mike Yardley, the current chief of the RNZAF.

Yardley will head a new and re-organised procurement team. It will also include Huntley Wright, who will become assistant secretary (Acquisitions.) As the Jane’s article delicately points out, this new configuration will ‘ address procedural shortcomings’ in the previous system. Such ‘ procedural shortcomings’ ( essentially, a code word for waste and incompetence) have been a rolling theme of NZDF procurement controversies since the 1990s.

Oh, and just as with prior promises of reform in the procurement division, the next round of changes will also ‘ensure military procurement achieves value for money.’ Yeah, right. To that end, new management directors will be appointed in all of the divisions deemed to have a stake in NZDF’s self–defined goal of being ‘a tri-service amphibious task force over the next decade’ – at vast taxpayer expense, and with no discernible useful role of any magnitude to perform.

Presumably, the more tangible threats to our national security – from hackers or jihadists – will be combatted by other means, via the similarly expanded budgets for our security services. Think about it next time that you or members of your family are trying to get on a hospital waiting list, or are trying to get access to modern medical treatments. The reason that Pharmac isn’t buying those new medicines now – and won’t be buying them over the next decade – is because New Zealand will have chosen to put the money instead into new frigates and cargo planes and spotter planes.

Eleven billion dollars worth of them. A fraction of that money – starting with the $441 million being squandered right now on the frigates – would utterly transform our health system.

Onward, Chinese soldiers !

Clearly, the Key government needs to stoke a bit of military patriotism among the populace, beyond Anzac Day. Sigh. Yet it can’t even run a $ 26 million flag referendum. China has so much to teach us about this sort of thing. Only last week, the Rocket Corps of the Peoples Liberation Army got themselves a terrific new song and video to celebrate their all round wonderfulness. Below is the video for the new Rocket Corps song, and a translation of the lyrics. If only we could celebrate our churningly glorious frigates, our industriously uplifting cargo planes and our eagle-eyed surveillance aircraft in such stirring fashion !

The Eastern Wind is mighty,
As powerful as a thunderbolt,
We are the glorious Rocket Force !

The long sword of a great nation,
Our might shakes the firmament,
We are the Great Wall cast with iron and steel
Obeying the command of the Party
Writing our loyalty with our blood
Forging strategic, powerful strikes
Defending peace and tranquillity

A roaring blaze and strong wind shock heaven and earth,
We can win the war and perform great feats.
Onward march, onward march
Heroic Rocket Force!

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