Opinion: Protesters beat hollow victory drum

Line of Defence Magazine - Spring 2019

NZDF Fire Fighters
NZDF Fire Fighters held to combat the Richmond fire near nelson. Image supplied.

 As news that there would be no NZDIA Annual Forum in 2019 became public, protest groups were quick to record it as a win. The tempo of Defence procurement and rate of NZDIA membership growth, writes Nicholas Dynon, suggest otherwise.

On 01 October, Radio New Zealand October reported that “protest groups have said they are “thrilled” to learn the forum is not going ahead”. 

A Facebook post just a day earlier by Auckland Peace Action commented that “undoubtedly, the event is not being held because protests and public opposition has been so strong and so effective, that they no longer think a large scale gathering like this is tenable.”

The NZDIA, however, was quick to rebuke the protest group’s claims. Responding to media enquiries, NZDIA Chair Andrew Ford pointed out that the NZDIA had clearly indicated it was considering options to change its event schedule and format for this year during media interviews at the 2018 Forum. 

“Our executive and board regularly review event schedules and format to create better value for our members and the sector they support,” stated NZDIA Chair Andrew Ford. “In this review, we consider a wide range of risk, issues and benefits”.

These include delegate and community safety in the face of protest action; scheduling a single major event; growing costs of hosting large corporate events; competing export opportunities and events offered regionally; and the need to remain focussed on creating relationship-based engagement opportunities for NZ national security agencies.

Furthermore, stated Ford, 2019 has coincided with both the Avalon air show in Melbourne and the Pacific 2019 expo in Sydney. “As an association with limited funding, it was felt that our focus was better spent creating a presence at these events for our members, which NZDF, NZ MoD and international clients and partners would also be attending,” he stated.

“We are successfully engaged in a series of smaller more targeted forums that address specific areas of need and requirements for clients and members.”  These, Ford pointed out, are more accessible to the Association’s SME members, creating superior “relationship building opportunities.”

The show goes on

“Our members, NZDF and the Ministry of Defence are doing no less business this year than previous,” said Ford.  “We believe that includes returning economic benefit from public procurement through NZ companies, to their employees and communities.”

Indeed, the association’s membership has continued to grow throughout 2019, with more private sector suppliers to New Zealand’s defence and national security-focused government agencies seeing benefit in the engagement and networking opportunities offered by NZDIA membership.

That the business of equipping our Defence Force, national security and law enforcement agencies remains unabated is a reality not lost on protest groups.

“Now I will be the first to admit that this is not the end of the military industrial complex,” Auckland Peace Action Spokesperson Valerie Morse told RNZ. “We have not defeated the war machine and the New Zealand government is spending more money than ever before, on the military and on buying new weapons.”

No winner

In his Line of Defence anaylsis of protest action at the 2018 forum, Massey University Centre for Defence and Security Studies lecturer Dr Wil Hoverd had bemoaned what he described as “an appalling state of affairs.”

“Ultimately, I found that the standoff was incoherent, occurring between two sides who really had no idea what the other was doing or represented,” he wrote in Line of Defence’s Spring 2018 issue. “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. 

The recent media around the 2019 event calendar suggests that incoherence between the two sides of the debate remains unchanged, with both sides claiming a moral victory.

What is clear, however, is that the protest group actions – and their outcomes – do not appear to have ridden high on a wave of community support. What media they attracted was limited and short-lived. The news reports of 01 October elicited little reaction, and Auckland Peace Action’s Facebook post attracted just 17 comments from among its followers.

Ultimately, it appears that the media outlets covering the issue were likely more interested in its news value as a theatrical scrap between protesters, police and the so-called weapons industry rather than an issue deserving sober national debate around the value to New Zealand of an adequately provisioned defence force.

The NZDIA annual forum was always an easy target for protest groups. Easy to label as a ‘weapons expo’ and easy to disrupt by physically denying entry to delegates. The clearly more difficult challenge for these groups is the broader narrative one around denying the value to New Zealand of retaining a capable defence force.

An independent public opinion poll conducted on the NZDF and published in 2014 showed that “New Zealanders continue to be favourable towards the NZDF,” and there has been nothing to suggest this has changed.

Debates around the defence budget will always – and should always – occur, and debates around what exactly defence money should be spent on will always – and should always – be a natural consequence of our parliamentary democracy. How government allocates public funds should always be a topic of careful scrutiny – in terms of both its fiscal and moral dimensions.

Ultimately, the relationship between the state and the public in New Zealand is one characterised by strong public support for an adequately provisioned defence force. What’s deemed ‘adequate’, however, is a frequent matter of contention. 

While many might question the need for New Zealand soldiers to be involved operationally in conflict zones such as the Middle East and Afghanistan, for example, few would question the necessity of a force capable of defending New Zealand against the broad range of strategic and natural threats it faces.

The alternative is a Defence Force without the equipment it needs to carry out the broad range of activities it does, from fighting fires and providing specialist services such as bomb disposal and search and rescue at home to providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, combatting piracy and illegal fishing, and conducting peace keeping and operational deployments abroad.

It’s just as well we have a defence industry capable of enabling the men and women in uniform who serve to protect New Zealand.