Why on earth not sell the Skyhawks?

Why is the government keeping the Skyhawks? That is the puzzle in Monday’s skeletal defence “framework”.

Any reading of ministers’ comments since the election requires aerobatics of logic to concoct a case for air strike capability. Moreover, the framework’s list of priorities has no place for it.

The line on Monday was that there is no urgency in the decision because there is an air strike arm now and it can fly until “at least” 2007.

But that ignores another urgency: a terrible shortage of cash. Helen Clark accused past governments on Monday of “underfunding”. But the spending increase that implies would trample on sentiment in her own back bench, the Alliance and the Greens.

So why not sell the Skyhawks to speed re-equipment of the army, air and sea transport and Orion sea patrol aircraft, as now prioritised, and put to other uses (to lift pay, for one) the operating expenses of what Ms Clark has called the most expensive bit of the armed forces?

One logical cause for tiptoeing round the Skyhawks is Australia.

My best information from Australia is that the politicians are not so hot on our underfunding as the officials. This gives some credence to Ms Clark’s, Phil Goff’s and Mark Burton’s reassurances of acceptability. Ms Clark said Australian Defence Minister John Moore saw the framework last week and was not displeased.

But a fact: a squadron of Skyhawks is stationed in Nowra, where it simulates very-low-altitude attacks on warships which Australia’s fighters cannot do. (The Skyhawks also hold our end up in Five-power Defence Arrangement exercises with Singapore and Malaysia, which the framework recommits us to.)

Dumping the Skyhawks before proving willing on other fronts, notably the Orions, might spread Australian officials’ upset to the politicians. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Emfat) points out in an official paper issued on Monday with the framework:

“Australian decisions will often affect us. It is important that we have an input. That will partly depend on whether the Australians see us as a serious player. New Zealand statements on defence and wider security issues are read closely in Canberra. There are expectations that we will show some sensitivity to Australian interests.”

This is a truism which is brought home with force to anyone visiting Canberra, even lowly hacks like myself. But inside that truism is a web of nuances.

In February when ministers were asked about the previous presumption that Australia and New Zealand are a single strategic entity and an attack on Australia would be regarded by Wellington as an attack on New Zealand, they shuffled into phrases such as “we haven’t been approaching it from the point of view of attack”.

That sounded awfully like “no”. But the Emfat paper talks of “an alliance level relationship with Australia”: “There is a long-held expectation and understanding that each country would go to the defence of the other in time of need.” The framework commits us to “operate with the Australian Defence Force to protect territorial sovereignty.” That sounds rather like “yes”.

Or does it? The government is treading more gingerly than three months ago, plans expanded east Asian contacts and gives primacy to securing the country against external threats (though it can see none). But the evidence still points to a determination on the biggest shift in strategic policy in 60 years. In place of alliance-based, “balanced force” military commitment to regional security, it emphasises peace-making and peace-keeping.

In short, it wants militarism transformed into humanitarianism.

The public appears to agree, just as it agrees with the “correction” to market-led policies enshrined in the Budget.

But the public can be unsettled by yelping from influential interest groups, as business’s assault in May showed. Selling the Skyhawks now would provoke a battery from abroad and at home which the government does not need if it is have its way in due course.