WHEN THE LEFT-WING Fijian government of Timoci Bavadra was overthrown in May of 1987, I was outraged. At an executive meeting of the Labour Party’s Otago Regional Council, I asked my MP, Michael Cullen, what he and his government colleagues intended to do about this blatant attack on democracy in the South Pacific – New Zealand’s supposed “backyard”. Cullen was bemused. “What do you think we should do?”, he demanded. “Do our armed forces not have the capacity to intervene?”, I inquired. “What’s this? The ‘Trotter Doctrine’?”, Cullen chortled. The idea that New Zealand could intervene unilaterally in the South Pacific was dismissed as fanciful.
Interestingly, I was not the only member of the Labour Party who considered military intervention in Fiji an appropriate response to Sitiveni Rabuka’scoup d’etat. New Zealand’s prime minister, David Lange, had requested action from the NZ Armed Forces in response to the seizure of an Air New Zealand passenger plane, only to be informed by his departmental advisers that prime ministers lacked the requisite authority to order troops into action unilaterally. It was also made clear to Lange that the NZ Defence Force, as then constituted, would struggle to defeat the Fijian military in a full-on stoush.
That a democratically-elected, multi-ethnic, Labour-led coalition government could be overthrown in the name of reactionary indigeneity, while the Labour governments of New Zealand and Australia sat on their hands, struck a great many democratic socialists in the labour movements of both countries as outrageous. At a more personal level, the revelation that New Zealand’s armed forces could only respond to crises in the South Pacific by becoming an appendage to some much larger military operation struck me as appalling.
The genteel resistance encountered by Lange, coupled with the absurd configuration of New Zealand’s armed forces, confirmed what I had long suspected. This country operates on the assumption that it will not be permitted to act independently of its “friends” – Australia and the United States – and its armed forces have been organised and equipped in accordance with that assumption.
It gets worse. When the Labour-Alliance Government (1999-2002) determined to make New Zealand less dependent on its friends militarily, announced a radical re-configuration of the NZ Defence Force, there followed a series of disastrous equipment purchases which, to a cynical pair of eyes, looked suspiciously like sabotage. As if the “top-brass” were determined to de-rail and/or delay any and every reform which might render New Zealand capable of projecting its military power independently.
The election of the John Key-led National Government in 2008 locked-in the ill-effects of this military incapacity by starving the NZ Defence Force of the funding necessary to raise it above “appendage” status. When required, New Zealand can offer a very limited menu of services to the armed forces of Australia and the United States – but practically nothing else. In foreign affairs and defence terms, this leaves New Zealanders absolutely dependent upon the kindness of, if not strangers, then, at least, a couple of often quite disreputable “friends”.
Nowhere is that disreputability more in evidence than on the tiny island of Nauru. The Australians have deliberately subverted Nauruan democracy in order to facilitate their appalling “Pacific Solution” to the “problem” of seaborne refugees seeking asylum in the Lucky Country. New Zealand has had no option but to stand by helplessly while these friendless men, women and children have been subjected to treatment which is in clear breach of international law and Australia’s own undertakings. The New Zealand Government has repeatedly offered to take at least 150 of the refugees marooned on Nauru. The Australians have brushed aside all such offers with sneering contempt. After all, what can the Kiwis do about it?
What can the Kiwis do about it? Nothing. What could the Kiwis do about it with a radically re-configured and re-equipped NZDF? Plenty.
Imagine a highly-trained ready-reaction force combining elements of the army, navy and air-force and specifically trained and equipped to project New Zealand power both tactically and strategically. Such a force would be capable of securing airfields and harbours anywhere in the South Pacific. Deploying a combination of special forces and regular infantry units, the likes of Sitiveni Rabuka could be stopped in their tracks and ousted democratic governments restored to power in a matter of days.
In the case of Nauru, the ready-reaction force would be able to place the authoritarian regime under house arrest, disarm and detain its police force and Aussie jailers (just like Barbara Dreaver) and take the desperate refugees on board the air-force’s new C-130J Hercules transports. The detainees would be safe in New Zealand before the Aussies could even rub the sleep out of their eyes and demand to know “What the hell is going on!”
Wellington’s insouciant answer to Canberra would be that New Zealand was merely fulfilling its moral obligation to uphold international law. Over howls of Aussie rage, the government could then go on to quietly explain that this was the first – but hopefully not the last – demonstration of “The Kiwi Doctrine”.