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The 2023 Election in New Zealand and its Foreign Policy Implications

11 Oct 2023
By Professor Robert G. Patman
Leader of the National Party Chris Luxon meets Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin. Source: Finnish Government /

Foreign policy has yet to feature significantly in New Zealand’s elections despite its obvious implications for national security and development. Internationally, observers are looking for what the elections will mean for policy towards AUKUS, the Ukraine War, and, crucially, climate change.

The world is at an inflection point in history.

Putin’s Russia is attempting to annex Ukraine, the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict has exploded again, China’s security pact with the Solomon Islands highlights a growing Pacific presence, and the tempo of climate change seems to be overwhelming efforts to counter the single biggest threat to life on earth.

However, these issues have yet to feature prominently in the New Zealand general election scheduled for 14 October.

The political campaigns of the two major parties, Labour and National, and those of the minor parties, the Greens, ACT and New Zealand First have largely focused on what they see as domestic concerns – inflation and the cost of living, crime, tax cuts, public services, and co-governance.

To some degree, this reflects the fact the Labour and National leaderships have adopted a largely bipartisan approach to foreign policy

Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon say they support an independent, principled New Zealand foreign policy that is committed to advancing an international rules-based order that is enshrined in institutions such as the United Nations and norms such as multilateralism.

Both leaders view Australia as New Zealand’s closest and most important ally, and declare their backing for international human rights, the expansion of free trade, the maintenance of a non-nuclear security policy, and a strong focus on the Indo-Pacific, especially the Pacific Island states region.

In the area of defence, there is slightly more daylight between the major parties. Both Hipkins and Luxon recognise that a declining international security environment requires greater New Zealand defence spending.

But Labour claims its defence spending commitment is more credible than that of National. For one thing, Labour’s NZD$4.7 billion capital investment in the defence sector during its six years in government is double what National did in nine years at the helm.

At the same time, Labour has pledged to improve retention in the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) by tasking the Remuneration Authority to independently set pay rates and allowances for uniformed defence personnel.

Furthermore, many New Zealand politicians and media commentators readily assume “bread and butter” domestic issues are simply more important to New Zealand voters than questions of foreign policy.

It is almost as if domestic issues in New Zealand are somehow divorced from developments in the international arena, but that is a shaky assumption in an increasingly interconnected world.

Whoever forms the next government of New Zealand will have to deal with at least three major “intermestic” issues that blur the boundaries between domestic and international policy, and to date have not received the attention they deserve in the 2023 election.

First, the Putin regime’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has had significant economic and diplomatic consequences for the Indo-Pacific region and also for New Zealand.

In the Indo-Pacific, Russia’s assault on Ukraine led to soaring prices for food and energy and a regional awareness that heavyweights like China and India remain important partners of Moscow.

In New Zealand, the continuing volatility in international commodity markets has led to increased prices for imported goods and growing pressure on domestic inflation and business margins.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Ukraine invasion – which flagrantly violates UN principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity – confronts New Zealand with the greatest threat to the international rules-based order on which it critically depends.

To date, New Zealand has contributed more than $70 million in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, but that amount pales in comparison with the scale of the aid provided by Australia and Canada to Kiev.

This raises a key question for Kiwi voters. Is New Zealand providing sufficient military aid to Ukraine to safeguard a core national interest in helping to ensure Vladimir Putin’s land grab fails?

Second, New Zealand faces a potentially momentous decision in relation to whether it should join the second pillar of AUKUS – the tripartite security partnership established by the US, UK, and Australia in September 2021 – to share information in state-of-the-art defence technologies to deter or counter China’s assertiveness.

In March 2023, the Biden administration had indicated that the door was open for New Zealand to join the second pillar of this Anglosphere security partnership.

New Zealand’s non-nuclear stance meant the country was not invited to participate in the first pillar of AUKUS, an initiative whereby the US and UK are committed to supporting Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines over the next three decades at a cost of somewhere between AUD$268 billion and AUD$368 billion.

The case for New Zealand’s membership of the second pillar rests on the conviction that Wellington needs to more closely align itself with like-minded democratic partners at a time of intensifying US-China rivalry and growing assertiveness by an authoritarian regime in Beijing in Indo-Pacific and beyond.

However, partial membership of AUKUS does not sit comfortably with an evolving New Zealand identity based on non-nuclear security, closer ties with the Pacific, and a worldview seeking to strengthen, not merely uphold, an international rules-based order (through measures like UN Security Council reform) to enhance global security.

To date, neither the Labour or the National leadership seem willing to adopt a clear position towards AUKUS before the October election.

Third, New Zealand’s response to climate change has struggled to get much traction as an election issue. Like many countries, New Zealand has experienced cyclones, floods, wildfires, and other extreme climate-related events with increasing frequency in recent years.

As a signatory to the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, New Zealand has pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions by 50 percent in 2030 but remains, according to the IMF, significantly off track to meet this target.

This slippage, in turn, places a big question mark over whether New Zealand can reach a target – supported by all political parties except the ACT party – to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050.

As a major exporter of agricultural products, New Zealand clearly has a big economic stake in reversing the national and global impact of climate change.

However, with the exceptions of the Green Party and Te Pāti Māori, New Zealand’s political parties, including Labour and National, generally seem to be putting short-term economic concerns above future climate needs.

On balance, while political leaders and the media may have shown little interest in foreign policy during the 2023 election, the rise of “intermestic” issues that straddle aspects of both domestic and international affairs is likely to have a significant impact on the lives of New Zealanders regardless of how they vote.

Robert G. Patman is an Inaugural Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and specialist in international relations at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.