Action Man: Andrew Little with Lt-Gen Tim Keating at Camp Taji, Iraq. Brought face-to-face with Kiwi men and women in uniform, no Leader of the Opposition is going to do anything but praise their courage and dedication. Such praise, however, is all-too-easily perceived by the ordinary New Zealand voter as a vindication of the Government’s decision to send them into harm’s way. That perception was not in any way dispelled by images of Little wearing a flak jacket and walking at the Chief of Defence Force's side.
READING JOHN KEY’s 3 May speech to the NZ Institute of International Affairs, I found myself longing for an effective Opposition. The Prime Minister’s bland recapitulation of the tired old neoliberal narrative: the twenty-first century equivalent of the God, King and Empire speeches of a century ago; offered nothing even remotely comparable to the uplifting oratory of Norman Kirk and David Lange.
Labour’s leaders were once renowned for their ability to convince the world that New Zealand is a lot bigger than it looks. Their unique blend of idealism and pragmatism; courage and caginess; attracted considerable international attention. Kiwis were not only admired – they were liked.
Mr Key’s vision of New Zealand sees us as a vast South Pacific shopping-mall, set in an even larger tourist resort, and serviced by a polyglot community of free-trade worshipping buyers and sellers, entrepreneurs and tour-guides, from all over the world. A sort of Singapore with ski-fields.
Does any of it matter?
There’s a school of political thought which answers “No – not at all!” It plays down the notion that voters are ever motivated primarily by foreign policy issues. Such thinkers are fond of quoting the famous aide memoire attributed to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign managers, Paul Bergala and James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
But political campaigns do not live by bread and butter alone. Those who insist that economic issues must always come first have clearly forgotten the extraordinary role played by the Vietnam War, Apartheid Sport and Nuclear Weapons in the political history of late-twentieth century New Zealand.
By challenging the voting public to make difficult and often unpopular moral choices, the mass movements spawned by these international issues ennobled public life. Politics became something more than the rather sordid “what’s in it for me?” electoral auctioneering so dear to the hearts of the bread-and-butter brigade.
Perhaps it’s his many years as a staunch bread-and-butter trade unionist that explains Andrew Little’s failure to grasp the important role foreign policy issues play in lifting Labour up and into power. It is certainly difficult to imagine Norman Kirk, David Lange or Helen Clark allowing themselves to be so easily outmanoeuvred and compromised on an important foreign policy issue as the current Labour Leader was recently in Iraq.
What on earth possessed Little to tag along with Defence Minister, Gerry Brownlee, on the latter’s visit the Kiwi troops at Camp Taji? Labour’s position on New Zealand’s Iraqi commitment was admirably clear. It saw no benefit, and considerable risk, in this country once again involving itself in the conflicts besetting the Middle East.
According to Labour, the Iraqi regime was riven with corruption and its armed forces, as a result of that corruption, lacked both the will and the means to mount an effective counter-offensive against the forces of the Islamic State. While Labour did not doubt the ability of New Zealand Defence Force personnel to ready Iraqi soldiers for battle, it had absolutely no confidence that, once removed from Camp Taji and their Kiwi instructors, they would stay ready.
These were all good, practical objections to New Zealand’s involvement in Iraq – and every one of them was undermined by Little’s presence. Brought face-to-face with Kiwi men and women in uniform, no Leader of the Opposition is going to do anything but praise their courage and dedication. Such praise, however, is all-too-easily perceived by the ordinary New Zealand voter as a vindication of the Government’s decision to send them into harm’s way. That perception was not in any way dispelled by images of Little wearing a flak jacket and walking at Brownlee’s side.
The journalists accompanying Brownlee and Little reported that it looked as though Labour was preparing to re-establish bi-partisanship of matters relating to foreign policy and defence – and they were right.
The only defensible position for Labour on the Middle East is the one that demands the disengagement and withdrawal of all Western forces – including our own – from the entire region. Its intractable conflicts are the malign legacy of British, French and American imperialism, and they will not be ended by the intervention of the very same entities that gave them birth.
No National Party Prime Minister could adopt such a policy. That a potential Labour Prime Minister allowed his party’s principled foreign policy stance to be so easily compromised is deeply depressing.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 May 2016.