Of ships and planes and land attacks

National is trying to eliminate some differences with Labour so it can better compete. It is also trying to sharpen some differences with Labour so it can better compete.

Divergence, it seems, is the better part of valour.

Nowhere is divergence more evident than in National’s muddle over Maori. Jenny Shipley, political child of placid mid-century provincialism, intoned slogans to her party’s conference on Saturday of the sort likely to whip white unease into a froth of ethnic resentment. Bill English, not long out of short pants when the Treaty of Waitangi renaissance began and seeking centrist reconciliation, says National must have Maori support to win long term and is heading out to marae and Maori “nation-building” hui.

I will have more to say in due course about that, and about the backdoor constitutional change the government seems to be engaged in by incorporating treaty principles into legislation. Today’s hot point of difference between Labour and National is defence.

National now believes it sinned on defence in the 1990s. Like other countries’ governments, it took a peace dividend after the cold war ended, slashing spending from 1.8 per cent of GDP to 1.1 per cent. This, former Defence Minister Max Bradford now confesses, was a bigger dividend than others’ – and even they, he says, now say they took too much.

Even Mr Bradford’s late-1990s attempt to stop the rot now turns out to have been underfunded. The present shadow defence minister, Wayne Mapp, acknowledged as much to the “National defence” ginger group (500 members and growing fast) at the party conference. A “draft” defence policy he presented there would commit National to lift defence spending back to 1.5 per cent of GDP.

This implicitly justifies Helen Clark’s assertion that at 1.1 per cent of GDP (which she says she will maintain) we cannot afford a “balanced” force. So goodbye to fighter planes when the Skyhawks are grounded mid-decade – goodbye even to military surveillance capability for the airforce’s Orions (at least as proposed by the force). And goodbye to more big warships for the navy. Hello army.

A boutique army, that is – so small that it does not have enough regular troops to keep up the East Timor operation. But a boutique army about to get designer gear, if today’s announcement reflects advance intelligence.

Today’s big items are armoured personnel vehicles and radio gear. The first has been causing controversy behind the scenes. The army’s choice, Canadian vehicles costing nearly $6 million apiece (more than half the cost of an F-16 fighter), is at the “Rolls-Royce” end of the range, the “Mercedes” option (a German alternative at $3.5 million) having been deemed inadequate.

Some military analysts also question the army’s bid for 105 vehicles as beyond likely use and question its decision to go for wheeled vehicles only (found inadequate by the Australians in East Timor) instead of a mix of wheeled and tracked vehicles.

If the cabinet has gone along with the army’s demands, as informed sources up to very recently expected, it may lay itself open to charges of extravagance.

This may sound ironic in a government that has made a virtue of anti-militarism. But it serves two purposes.

First, Ms Clark can wave the invoice at our “ally” Australia and “friend” United States as proof she intends to play a full part in world peacemaking and peacekeeping. (But sceptics say those countries see the Orions’ military capability as the litmus test of military commitment – especially since Australia needs our Orions to make up for relatively small numbers of its own.)

Second, it empties the kitty and reinforces Ms Clark’s line that the country cannot afford fighters and a third frigates and should do one thing well rather than three things half-pie.

National’s retort is encapsulated in a photograph in Mr Mapp’s draft policy: the two new frigates sent to the Solomon Islands to ensure New Zealand nationals’ escape route amid anarchy there. Labour’s present policy, if applied since 1989, would have denied that option.

But National has a conundrum of its own. How would it finance tax cuts and the social spending wanted by English-type centrists if it also spent more on the military?

The easy answer is that National is in opposition and in opposition divergences are cheap.