MAPP: A place in history is in New Zealand Defence Minister Judith Collins’ future

Line of Defence Magazine - Summer 2023-24

An historical opportunity for strategic realignment? Image: White House.

Judith Collins stands to be among our most important Defence Ministers ever with an opportunity to build up our naval defence capability and to realign our defence relationships, writes Wayne Mapp.

The new Minister of Defence, Judith Collins, will be among the most senior politicians to have ever held the role. While her immediate predecessor, Andrew Little, had also been the Leader of his party, the short time he was in the role meant he was unable to make a lasting impact. In contrast, the new minister is highly likely to hold the role for at least three years. She has the real opportunity to be the most significant minister of the last two decades.

The macro issues she will have to deal with are the recommendations of the Defence Review, due in May 2024, and the continuing evolution of New Zealand’s independent foreign policy.

The new minister will have the advantage of receiving the report of the Defence Review chaired by Sir Brian Roche early in her term of office. It is likely to be specific enough to enable the replacement of major capabilities to get underway.

The Review won’t influence Budget 2024. The upcoming Budget, due in less than 6 months, is most likely to be a holding exercise. However, the minister will have much more substantial influence over Budgets 2025 and 2026. She will also be able to make recommendations to Cabinet about how best to implement the recommendations of the Review.

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Given the nature of the people on the Review, the recommendations are likely to be an artful compromise of making serious upgrades to New Zealand’s defence aspirations and capability within a reasonably constrained budget. They will be unlikely to recommend that spending increase to 2% of GDP. Sir Brian Roche has had enough experience of government to know that would be reaching too far.

Similarly, Judith Collins, having been a senior minister, will know full well the necessary compromises that have to be made around the Cabinet table.

Nevertheless, it would be surprising if the Review did not recommend some uplift in defence spending. Both the international environment and the need to replace some of the most expensive capabilities of the Defence Force will demand it.

“If New Zealand is taking initiatives in common with Australia and Canada, then New Zealand’s diplomatic voice will be strengthened.”

The replacement of the ANZAC frigates and the Project Protector is likely to be the centerpiece of the Review. This is the most pressing defence capability decision of the next decade. The ANZAC ships are already over 25 years old. Their intended out of service date is in the early 2030s when the ships will be well over 30 years old. There is only just enough time to replace them by then.

Even an accelerated procurement process will not see contracts for the construction of replacement ships before late 2025. There will be seven years to actually build and commission the ships. It is certain that New Zealand will buy ships that are already proven, the Type 31 frigate being among the credible choices.

The foreign policy challenges of the next decade will test New Zealand’s diplomatic finesse. The Minister is well known for her desire to improve relations with the United States and has already given an early signal that she anticipates that New Zealand will be part of AUKUS Pillar Two. However, there is a nuance to this, and that is how the three smaller parties to the Five Eyes agreements are strengthening their trilateral relationship.

In early December the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, including new Prime Minister Luxon, issued a joint statement on the Israel-Hamas War. The statement was notable for two reasons. It showed that the three nations had a distinctively different view of the world to that of the US. There are also clear indications that all three countries, being Pacific Rim nations, want a somewhat less antagonistic approach toward China. It might be expected that this will lead to closer defence co-operation between the three than has traditionally been the case.

Canada is slowly orienting toward the Pacific as the region becomes more economically powerful. Along with New Zealand, Canada will also wish to be part of AUKUS Pillar Two as part of this trend. There is also the prospect that India may also join Pillar Two.

Although Australia and Canada, for somewhat different reasons, have much closer relations with the US than does New Zealand, they both have their own imperatives for a more distinctive foreign policy. Neither of them see it as in their interest to be considered as no more than little brothers to the US.

This reorientation could benefit New Zealand to do two things that superficially might seem contradictory. First, it could make it easier for New Zealand to build a closer relationship with the US. If New Zealand is doing more things in tandem with Australia and Canada, then New Zealand is less likely to be seen as the odd one out.

Second, it strengthens New Zealand’s independent foreign policy. If New Zealand is taking initiatives in common with Australia and Canada, then New Zealand’s diplomatic voice will be strengthened. Within the Asia Pacific, if Australia, Canada and New Zealand are acting in concert, then their overall voice and role within the region could increase.

Minister Collins has a particularly strong opportunity to be among the most important Ministers of Defence for many decades. There is the obvious opportunity in building up defence capability in the naval area, which has particular importance in Asia Pacific strategic positioning. Perhaps of more significance is the realignment of defence relationships.

Most obviously, this opportunity will centre on Australia and Canada. However, linking to India may be give this this grouping even more significance. Opportunities for strategic reorientation only occasionally come along. It will be in New Zealand’s interest to be able to take them as they arise.