Peace Action Protest and the NZDIA Annual Forum: Is it irreconcilable?

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2018-19

Embraer KC-390
Peace action
Protest action on the streets outside the 2018 NZDIA Annual Forum.

Dr William Hoverd of Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies writes that violent protest needn’t be a perennial feature of the NZDIA Annual Forum. Dialogue is an important first step.

This year I was asked to speak at the Defence Industry Association conference in Palmerston North. And somewhat naïvely, I accepted the invitation and duly prepared a talk on the NZDF and National Security. 

When I say naïvely, it was because I didn’t really have an awareness of how polarising the conference is for some groups within the New Zealand public. And on the Wednesday morning, I sat stunned and somewhat fearfully on a bus of conference attendees that was being chased by a thirty or so enraged and swearing protestors trying to break into the bus and a fortified compound defended by over a 100 New Zealand Police officers.

It felt terrifying and threatening to be the object of such unexplained violent anger. But it was a discrete localised anger that was responding to the supply chain that underpins the directed violence that a military trains to deliver for its elected executive. 

What I experienced was a polarized irreconcilable standoff between opposed sides i.e., the Wellington Peace Action protestors and the Defence Industry Association suppliers and potential New Zealand purchasers of these products and services. 

Today, I remain conflicted and challenged by this experience, and in conversation with Nick Dynon, I was pleasantly surprised when he suggested that I write an opinion piece for Line of Defence about the tensions I saw at the protest.

When writing, the academic attempts to provide a critical balanced assessment of the object of study. They begin by exploring their own biases, developing a question, assessing the literature and primary evidence underpinning the case study and then providing analysis and some broader ‘so what’ conclusions that arise from this analysis in order contribute to a broader understanding human knowledge. They then leave it to their readers to assess the validity, limits, and value of these claims.

So here goes…. 

Who am I? I am a Senior Lecturer in Defence and Security at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies. I taught at the NZDF Command and Staff College between 2015 and 2017, and today I regularly speak and write about New Zealand National Security.

I am also an expert in religious diversity , who has worked with amazing scholars influenced by liberation theology who pay close attention to philosophical and practical approaches to issues of social justice, peace and ethics. I am also legislated to act as a critic and conscious of society. Consequently, I find myself both conflicted, as well as, being uniquely situated to consider the debate with sympathy to both sides. 

So what is the question? At their broadest and most normative, my research questions are driven by asking “What sort of New Zealand do I want to live in?” And how can I add value to thinking about the object of study? 

In this case, I don’t want to live in a New Zealand where questions of military action and provision are protested in a way that appears to be irreconcilable and intractable. Perhaps then the role of the academic here is to consider how a healthy debate and awareness of the multiplicity of challenges that emerge in this contested space.

The protest at the NZDIA Annual Forum is not a new phenomenon. Indeed, protest over military and security action is common throughout New Zealand’s history. New Zealand has a discrete but strong, proud history of conscientious objection and peace action that is as old and as proud as the widely understood ANZAC tradition associated with the NZDF. We can – and should always – assume that the New Zealand electorate is strongly divided when it comes to questions of defence. 

In New Zealand peace protest has a strong tradition, it is normal, and it should be expected.

Another important New Zealand tradition we must also consider is that representatives of the New Zealand’s parliamentary executive have for a long time emphasised that Defence policy is bipartisan. Therefore, the Defence Force and its suppliers ultimately reflect the combined interests of the Parliament that represents the ecclesia. 

The NZDF is a tool that exists and is deployed at the behest of the executive, led by the Prime Minister and ultimately the Governor General. Therefore, protests about questions of defence are effectively protests about the state’s capability and perhaps willingness to deliver military effect. 

So what was being protested at the Manawatu sportsgrounds and why? 

To some extent, the peace protest was aimed at the manifestation of their problem (defence supply) rather than at the root cause – New Zealand’s capability and willingness to deploy military power, however limited, in the global environment either in support of a rules based order or at the behest of an ally.

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I very much suspect that if I would be able to interview the protestors, alongside important concerns about the ethics of weapons supply, and the reallocation of defence dollars to social issues, that quite quickly the issue of the New Zealand military and foreign policy being potentially influenced and driven by the United States would be a serious concern. 

If New Zealand Defence policy and procurement is not truly independent, and, if it is suspected that Trump’s tail wags the Kiwi dog, then this will naturally heighten and polarise protest.

Certainly, for those in the bus it was impossible to grasp the substance of the protest. 

My personal experience of the protestors was one of threatening incoherence bordering on hatred and violence. Conversely, some attendees were also not helping matters. I overheard an atrocious joke on the bus made by one delegate that he “had no idea why they were protesting because his guns only kill bad people.” That joke alone vindicated the need for protest. 

Once inside the venue, there were a variety of trade stands of various suppliers and a hall for speakers where talks took place. The event was quiet, professionally organised and collegial. Indeed, if the protestors had gotten inside, I suspect they would have been pretty underwhelmed by what they would have found certainly I didn’t see anything that would inflame their hyperbole. From the protestors’ point of view, at best, one might argue that the event could be representative of what Hannah Arendt describes the very banal face of evil.  

Ultimately, I found that the standoff was incoherent, occurring between two sides who really had no idea what the other was doing or represented. Indeed, what worries me is that both sides didn’t actually seem to care about the substance of the other, rather they were concerned about what the other represented for their own purposes. 

For the forum delegates, the protestors came across as terrifying, incoherent and beyond reason. For the protestors the forum represented the evil associated with the profiteering that occurs from war.  Both parties dehumanised the other, thereby rendering their target population a legitimate target for punishment and action that got as close to physical violence as was allowed by the New Zealand Police.  

This is an appalling state of affairs and both parties should be ashamed of their dehumanisation of the other. There is no moral high ground here when distrust prevails.

While peace action and protest is not new in New Zealand. What I think is new and dangerous is the polarised, siloed nature of the divide between the two parties. Polarised politics is growing globally and tends to be characterised by vituperative exclusion of the other. 

This is exacerbated when it comes to discussing security issues because states have employed silence, spin and public relations for so long to justify power politics that, today, distrust of the state is at an all-time high. This distrust is extenuated by governments who lack new and effective policy tools to ease distrust, especially in the defence and security space where openness and transparency is difficult. 

Consequently, inclusive, healthy debate is difficult to initiate and develop. In the Manawatu protest, there was no healthy debate. A spirit of generosity was missing on both sides. 

Nevertheless, I do not believe this situation is irreconcilable. Distrust and fear are broken down by inclusive dialogue, concession, and by the generosity of spirit. The notion of sitting down and chatting over a pot of tea to find ways to mitigate dispute is ancient and effective if both parties are willing. 

What could dialogue, concession and generosity look like in 2019? 

I would like to see the NZDIA invite a couple of representatives from Wellington Peace Action to speak and listen at the next conference. This would allow both parties to enter into debate, humanise each other and potentially create an understanding of what drives the other. Dialogue allows for a more nuanced understanding of the issues at hand. 

There could be practical benefits to dialogue. If Wellington Peace Action was able to speak at the conference then the nature of the protest, which should still occur, may shift away from the heightened tension evident this year, it might also refocus the protestors away from preventing delegates attending because they will hear from the peace action conference speakers.

This would also mean then that the substance of the protest could be directed at the underlying issues and perhaps even developing a dialogue to address them. 

If this dialogue could occur it would be invaluable. All sides would learn from willingly interacting through a spirit of inclusive debate, concession and generosity. That is the sort of New Zealand in which I want to live.