No Friend of Democracy: To Whom is the NZDF Answerable?


NZ-SoldierTHE NEW ZEALAND DEFENCE FORCE is no friend of democracy: never has been, and, as presently constituted, never will be. The Army, Navy and Air Force do not exist to serve the people of New Zealand, they exist to defend the Crown.

Most of us regard the Crown as being synonymous with the State – but this is a common misapprehension. The Crown is not an institution, it is the symbol of a single individual’s right, and the right of all those bound to her by oath, to rule over the realm of New Zealand.

In plain language, our armed forces are not answerable – as many people of good will, including Dame Anne Salmond, suppose – to our democratically elected representatives, but to their Commander-in-Chief, Queen Elizabeth II, or, in her absence, to their old boss, Sir Jerry Mateparae, New Zealand’s current Governor-General.

To become an officer in the NZDF, one must first be commissioned to that role by the Sovereign. Her Majesty’s officers are, of course, already bound to her service by solemn oath. In sharp contrast to their American comrades-in-arms, however, New Zealand service personnel are not sworn to “uphold, protect and defend” New Zealand’s democratic institutions. Their oath is a pledge of unquestioning loyalty to the Crown.

These are the words that every member of the NZDF must utter before putting on a uniform:

“I, [name], solemnly promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to our Sovereign Lady the Queen, Her heirs and successors, and that I will faithfully serve in the New Zealand Naval Forces/the New Zealand Army/the Royal New Zealand Air Force [Delete the Services that are not appropriate], and that I will loyally observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty, Her heirs and successors, and of the officers set over me, until I shall be lawfully discharged. So help me God.”

We, the citizens of New Zealand, don’t get a look in.

The widely accepted fiction that our armed forces are under the effective command of the civil power (that is, the Cabinet and the House of Representatives) is not one the NZDF is at all anxious to contradict. To do so would expose the thoroughly hierarchical infrastructure upon which our representative institutions have been hung, and which their colourful democratic bunting so conveniently obscures. Only very rarely does the armed forces’ deep loathing and contempt for democracy provoke a confrontation between the military and the civil powers; but when this happens it is almost always the civil power that steps back.

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Perhaps the most dramatic example of the studied contempt in which the military has traditionally held the civil power came during the First World War.

In 1918, Paddy Webb, the West Coast mining leader and socialist MP for Grey, was court-martialled for refusing military service and deprived of his parliamentary seat. When he appealed to the Military Service Board that, as an MP, he should have been exempted on the grounds that he provided an ‘essential service’, he was coldly informed: “The Board does not think that Parliament can be regarded as essential. It thinks that men at the head of affairs are capable of governing the country.”

The “men at the head of affairs” were again deemed more capable than a mere MP in May 1987 when Colonel Sitiveni Rambuka and elements of the Fijian armed forces overthrew the democratically elected left-wing government of Dr Timothy Bavadra.

The mere MP, in this case, was David Lange who, as the Prime Minister of New Zealand, had entertained (for the few salutary hours during which an Indian Fijian hijacker held an Air New Zealand airliner’s flight crew hostage at Nadi Airport) the clearly mistaken belief that he had a role to play in the deployment of New Zealand’s armed forces. His instruction that a C-130 Hercules, packed with New Zealand troops, be dispatched “to act as required to protect New Zealand’s interests in Fiji” was studiously ignored by the Chief of Defence Staff.

In frustrating Lange’s attempt to supply the democratic forces of Fiji with an armed force capable of ending Rambuka’s coup d’état, the most senior officers of the New Zealand armed forces were able to reassure the Fijian military high-command (and their undeclared backers in Washington and Canberra) that they would never have to look over their shoulders if it again became necessary to strangle social-democratic reform in its South Pacific cradle.

The NZDF’s propensity to define New Zealand’s foreign policy quite independently of its supposed civilian masters has only once been definitively thwarted in this country’s recent history. The passage of the fourth Labour Government’s anti-nuclear legislation, and the consequent collapse of the ANZUS relationship, occurred in circumstances of considerable confusion and (if Lange’s Departmental Head, Gerald Hensley, is to be believed) deception.

Once the deed was done, however, it is indisputable that the NZDF did everything within its power to draw New Zealand back into the United States’ imperial embrace. Lange himself, though he was happy to bask in the glory of the anti-nuclear movement’s victory over the MAD logic of nuclear deterrence, was, behind the scenes, increasingly anxious to placate his military officers’ rage at being dishonoured and humiliated in the eyes of their Anglo-Saxon brethren.

Much has been made recently of Lange’s foreword to Nicky Hager’s Secret Power, in which he claims that the author had been told things “that I, as Prime Minister in charge of the intelligence services, was never told.” Hensley disputes this claim with considerable acidity, writing in his memoir, Final Approaches, that: “Lange was regularly briefed by me and despite his later claims knew exactly what was involved and why the station was needed if we were to keep up with technological change.”

Hager’s latest book, Other People’s Wars, confirms this covert campaign to refasten the ties that bind New Zealand to the United States and its English-speaking allies. He sets out in the book’s opening chapters how, very early on, elements within the NZDF took the (unauthorised?) initiative in securing a place for New Zealand military personnel in the invasion of Afghanistan.

And now we learn, once again through Nicky Hager, that the NZDF availed itself of US surveillance technology in keeping tabs on Jon Stephenson, New Zealand’s award-winning war correspondent, whose reporting from Afghanistan has exposed just how completely the rift between New Zealand’s and America’s armed forces has been healed.

All of the New Zealand armed forces’ traditional contempt for the democratic niceties stands exposed in an NZDF security manual which characterises “certain investigative journalists” as a serious and “subversive” threat to both the operational and reputational status of the New Zealand armed forces.

Over the next few days we can expect to see the civil power make a fine show of reasserting its democratic oversight and control over a wayward military. It should not be taken seriously. Because, at the same time that the Defence Minister, Jonathan Coleman, is slapping down Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones for compromising our civil liberties, the head of New Zealand’s intelligence community, Prime Minister John Key, will be shepherding through Parliament a bill which enables Her Majesty’s armed forces to maintain a watching brief over every subversive – or merely conscientious – journalist in the entire country.

David Lange may, or may not, have known exactly what was going on at the Waihopai Spybase, which he and his Finance Minister established without so much as an authorising Cabinet Minute in 1987, but in the foreword to Hager’s Secret Power he quite rightly queries the true allegiances of the men and women who manage our covert defences. That he and his ministers knew so little, he said, “raises the question of to whom those concerned saw themselves ultimately answerable.”

One thing’s for certain: it isn’t you or me.


  1. If the Queen wants a private militia, let her fund it. I don’t see why we should, any more than I can see why on Earth we need a military beyond a coastguard and fisheries patrol. We can’t defend ourselves against anyone who could possibly attack us, and joining American adventures just involves us in war crimes. It’s well past the time when we should have become an independent constitutional republic. It can be done without throwing away the Treaty.

    • We can’t defend ourselves against anyone who could possibly attack us,

      We could do if we built the necessary infrastructure and stopped buying our military equipment from the US/UK. That’s one hell of a big moat surrounding us.

      It’s well past the time when we should have become an independent constitutional republic.


      And along with doing that we also declare ourselves neutral in all international diplomatic affairs.

      • The moat means that the countries who have the means to attack us are the USA, China, Russia, and maybe Australia. Due to geopolitical realities, the only one of these that realistically could would be the USA. I’d love to see how you plan to use the NZDF against even one CVN task force.

  2. Military forces are bound by tradition, training and logistics and multinational operations to other militaries around the world. That is the nature of that tribal culture and many servicemen and women have that long held impression that politicians are only there to cut budgets, or entangle the troops in unwieldy ‘rules of engagement’. The NZ forces have had low morale for the last few years- deaths in training, sex scandels, aircraft breaking down, and an indecisive conflict in afganistan. They are bound to tighten ranks when outsiders scrutinise them. It should be remembered that in the past the military have paid great concern to the wishes of government. Major general Freyberg could appeal to the nz govt if he got orders from british high command that recklessly endangered his nz division in WW2. He knew his duty was to NZ -achieve the mission and to bring the troops home. The nz military by virtue of its small size is constantly threatened with being scaled back to a paramilitary civilian aid peacekeeping force, yet the troops and officers are still hyped up in the same way as the great military powers. Our commanders must be clearminded of their task so they can achieve it and it is up for our parliment to give them explicit instructions and resources for them to carry that out.

    • David says:
      >> He [Major general Freyberg] knew his duty was to NZ -achieve the mission and to bring the troops home. <<

      If Freyberg's duty was to NZ he never would have sent troops to Europe in the first place. He would have kept them at home to defend our own islands, maybe even sparing us the indignity of being "protected" (ie occupied) by US troops as Japan advanced through the Pacific. It's crystal clear that Freyberg's duty was to the British Crown, and he knew it.

      • As britain was our greatest trading partner of the time and most nzers had family in britain,AND german agrression meant that the nz government of the day were correct in serving the long term interests of nz by deploying kiwis to the war in europe and laterly by protecting the suez canal. They remained in the european war after the japanese attacked because mostly of logistics both in europe and the pacific. America would have used nz as a base regardless of our own defences.

        • Britain was the only significant buyer of NZ “exports”, precisely because the NZ colonies had been set up, like all British colonies, to supply them with cheap stuff (in this case mainly food). To claim Britain was doing NZ a favour by consuming all our cheap stuff is to imagine the existence of a global market in which we could have sold it to someone else (such a market didn’t even begin to exist until after the Bretton Woods agreements after the end of WW2).

          If the goal of the NZ deployment was to defend families behind British border, it totally failed before it began, due to our men being deployed almost exclusively elsewhere. The best thing NZ could have done for their families in Britain would have been to evacuate them to NZ, not to send our men to be killed or emotionally broken in Europe. This was a decision which IMHO continues to haunt us in the form of an epidemic of violence – particularly physical and sexual abuse of children – which began with an entire generation of traumatised returned servicemen becoming fathers, while unable to function as emotionally healthy and loving adults. Hardly a decision which was “serving the long term interests of nz”.

          >> America would have used nz as a base regardless of our own defences. <<

          It's certainly true that they would have wanted to. I think it's also true that it was easier to sell the idea of a "protective" occupation to a country whose regular army were already on the other side of the world before the war in the Pacific began. Considering the strong objections by many kiwis to the presence of US soldiers ("overpaid, oversexed, and over here"), it's I think it’s arguable that the US would have been told to bugger off had we not entered the war in Europe, just as they were told to bugger off with their nuclear ships during the Cold War.

  3. There are factions in the army like elsewhere; I do wonder how the libertarian faction is going to take the kicking they are getting at the moment? I also wonder what the bulk of the nco’s really think? And I wonder if the majority of our army is Maori – which is not exactly Anglo-Saxon, how long the pull to the Anglo-Saxon alliance can carry on?

  4. The NZDF is a law unto itself. Individuals within threaten and abuse anyone they want without fear of any reaction – even illegal behaviour, openly threatening to maim and kill NZ citizens on home soil is ignored by the NZ Police. The take-home lesson is this – they have the guns, they are trained to kill, to threaten, to maim, that’s their sole purpose so do not piss them off. If you do, don’t call the cops. They’ll back the military over the citizen every time. And the NZ mainstream media is right there, backing them up.

  5. Your right when I joined the Navy I read out an oath of allegiance to the Queen not to protect New Zealand. Also why can’t we do an oath of allegiance to our founding national document the Treaty of Waitangi ?

  6. I did not hear anyone mention this on the vote on TV3 the other week!!!
    that would have shone a different light on things, so the queen does not cost only 20cents per person per visit but costs us heaps to pay for her bloody army.
    How grand!

  7. So this means it’s time to end our relationship and become independent from the Queen and work toward regaining our sovereignty – the sovereignty lost under Muldoon.

    But I fear the people are too addicted to technology and too apathetic to care.

  8. Suanqu said:
    “But I fear the people are too addicted to technology and too apathetic to care.”

    Why do you see a passion for technology as a barrier to enacting sovereignty? Rejecting the TPPA would be simultaneously a defence of sovereignty, *and* the freedom to use technology (specifically our computers and the internet). Although I think the ‘revolution-by-FaceBook’ story of the Arab Spring is an epic oversimplification, it’s undeniable that access to information from around the world, and the ability to organise and communicate almost instantaneously online, is one of the driving influences behind this and other uprisings around the world.

    As for apathy, thousands of people marched all around the country at the start of last year against the sale of our renewable energy resources. Just the other day, thousands marched against state surveillance. While it’s true that about a third of registered voters cast no vote in the last election, this was evidence of anything *but* apathy. Apathetic people would not even have bothered to register, so the non-vote was in fact a massive ‘vote of no confidence’ in the current system, and a sign that a significant minority of the population do not accept the “formal democracy” (to quote Professor Robert Wade) of the NZ state as being anywhere near close enough to “substantive democracy” (Wade again).

  9. I think the best comment on the relationship between democracy and the state comes from anthropologist David Graeber, in his essay “There Never Was a West”:
    “For the last two hundred years, democrats have been trying to graft ideals of popular self-governance onto the coercive apparatus of the state. In the end, the project is unworkable. States cannot, by their nature, ever truly be democratized. They are, after all, basically ways of organizing violence. The American Federalists were being quite realistic when they argued that democracy is inconsistent with a society based on inequalities of wealth; since, in order to protect wealth, one needs an apparatus of coercion to keep down the very “mob” that democracy would empower. Athens was a unique case in this respect because it was, in effect, transitional: there were certainly inequalities of wealth, even, arguably, a ruling class, but there was virtually no formal apparatus of coercion. Hence there’s no consensus among scholars whether it can really be considered a state at all.”

    • Bravo Alistair McBride, a Republic it is then and a great read Chris and commentators. Time to get out the knitting, learn the words to Le Marseilles, in French of course followed by the Maori version and hold a Bastille/Waitangi Day party ! Chop off their heads say I – *Just joking GCSB* – or declare war on the US, roar like a mouse, sharpen our bows, and sit back and let the aid roll in – says she plagiarising Peter Ustinov’s superb film presentation of “The Mouse That Roared”.
      If one didn’t laugh one would be compelled to cry at the insanity waging all around us from the PM and his minions, as they are obviously just following Washington’s orders?
      Of course they would not allow us to become the 51st State – those Nuke ships ban still rankles – but a Territory like Guam ? I can see Lincoln’s bleak look on his stone statuesque face breaking into a smile at the thought.
      Anzac Day now off the menu. Now I know why my mother never stood for God Save The Queen played in cinemas at the end or beginning of every movie many years ago.

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