THE RELEASE of New Zealand’s first National Security Strategy document revealed the inevitable limitations of such exercises. The gravest threats to any nation state are always and everywhere political. From fanatical ideologues ready and willing to commit acts of political violence to advance their cause, to political parties eager to exercise the tyranny of the majority over insubordinate minorities, it is politics that constitutes the most profound threat to the safety of the state. In a democracy, however, any official attempt to designate a political party or movement as a threat to national security would be decried as an outrageous attempt to screw the political scrum. Strategy documents relating to national security must, therefore, be so general in scope as to be useless for alerting the population to the dangers posed by specific political actors.
Which is not to say that historically there have not been instances of the New Zealand state’s security apparatus singling out a political party as a threat to national security. In common with most capitalist countries, the New Zealand state identified its local Communist Party as a palpable threat to the nation’s safety.
Most New Zealanders associate anti-communist witch-hunts with “McCarthyism” and the Cold War, but the truth is the New Zealand state, in the guise of the Police Special Branch, had been watching and harassing New Zealand communists ever since the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. It is certainly the case, however, that the coincidence of the McCarthyite “Red Scare”, the Korean War, and the hugely disruptive New Zealand Waterfront Lockout, contrived to bring this country’s power elites perilously close to identifying the parliamentary Opposition – Labour – as a national security threat.
The Lockout itself spawned a State of Emergency, complete with a suite of “Emergency Regulations” which effectively suspended New Zealanders’ democratic liberties for the duration of the crisis. This led to the Leader of the Labour Opposition, Walter Nash, being physically prevented from addressing a public meeting on the deepening crisis by a burly Police sergeant. With the Waterside Workers Union defeated, and the State of Emergency lifted, the National Prime Minister, Sid Holland, shrewdly sought retrospective validation for his Government’s actions by calling a snap-election for September 1951.
According to Otago historian Tom Brooking: “The campaign was probably the dirtiest in New Zealand’s political history. National declared that the election was a contest between ‘The People versus the Wreckers’. Hackneyed old stories that Nash had once been a bankrupt were dredged up and his earlier visit to Russia was cited as proof of his communist leanings.”
In the febrile atmosphere of Cold War hysteria and post-Lockout retribution which overshadowed the election campaign (an atmosphere which New Zealand’s conservative newspapers were only too happy to degrade) Labour did not know which way to turn. Unsurprisingly, it was trounced by Holland’s National Party, which secured a 20-seat majority and an impressive 54 percent of the popular vote.
It was to shake-off the red-baiting slurs of the National Party and the conservative press that the Labour Party, in June of 1951, had abandoned its communist-adjacent commitment to “the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. While the party’s official colour remained a fiery revolutionary red, the complexion of its policies tended more and more towards a conciliatory pink.
To describe Labour’s policies for the 2023 General Election as “pink” would flatter them enormously. The truth is that, colour-wise, they’d fit in snugly between green and blue on the ideological spectrum. Certainly, it would be bizarre to cast Defence Minister Andrew Little’s summation of New Zealand’s national security position in revolutionary colours:
“Aotearoa New Zealand is facing more geostrategic challenges than we have had in decades – climate change, terrorism, cyberattacks, transnational crime, mis- and disinformation, and competition in our region which, up until recently, we thought was protected by its remoteness.”
For a start, New Zealand’s “geostrategic” position is exactly where it has always been – next to Australia and far away from everybody else. In relation to climate change, it enjoys a relatively benign position vis-à-vis those continental nations currently caught between devastating heatwaves and cataclysmic flooding. As the past few months have amply demonstrated, New Zealand is not immune from the effects of global warming, but it is better positioned than many of its allies – and most of its enemies – when it comes to surviving the threat of climate change.
As for the other threats listed by Little, one can only observe, grimly, that they are universal. Every nation state must take precautions against “terrorism, cyberattacks, transnational crime, mis- and disinformation”, even if each state’s degree of vulnerability to these evils is a product of their ideological and political deportment vis-à-vis the rest of the world. If Sweden moves against its citizens’ freedom of expression by banning the desecration of the Koran, then its chances of experiencing an Islamist terrorist attack will be diminished. If New Zealand’s Defence Minister allows himself to be bullied by New Zealand’s Five Eyes partners into signing-up to Pillar 2 of AUKUS, then our exports to China are certain to suffer. In both cases, the outcome will be determined by the respective governments’ political choices – and, because both nations are democracies – the will of their people.
Were Little not constrained by New Zealand’s political conventions, he would be free to identify what really is the single gravest threat to this country’s national security – the Act Party.
If Act finds itself in a position to drive forward its core economic, social and constitutional programme, then the political reaction produced will likely be beyond the capacity of the New Zealand state to manage – without resorting to deadly force. Of course, the presence of blood in the streets will only increase the threat of terrorism, cyberattacks, crime, mis- and disinformation dramatically – most probably to the extent of civil war. The New Zealand state would, doubtless, emerge as the victor of this fratricidal/racial struggle (states almost always win) but only at a truly appalling cost in blood and treasure. New Zealand’s national security would require decades to restore.
But, Little cannot brand Act a threat to national security – not without exposing Labour (and all the other parties) to an equivalent charge. As a democracy, the New Zealand state is obliged to wear the consequences of the people’s electoral choices. If those choices amount to unleashing an existential threat to the safety of the state, then it is only because the nation’s politics have decayed to the point where a dangerous percentage of the population no longer considers it safe to abide by the collective judgement of their fellow citizens.
If the franchise is used as a weapon, then fewer and fewer people will find themselves in a position to accept its judgements with equanimity. The moment the preservation of national harmony ceases to be the fundamental purpose of New Zealand’s electoral politics, then safeguarding its national security becomes an impossibility.