Max Johns - Number and people cruncher, The Office

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Would you like to see me in the nuke?
May 20th, 2004

Is the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act 1987 so untouchable that the mere suggestion that maybe we could think about changing it a little is a threat to all that is New Zealand? So great that the Government can score political points just by claiming – via a very dodgy and stupid use of a private memo – that the opposition is willing to discuss removal of a section of it? So crucial to our nation that it comes before reasoned debate, international kudos, and possibly even common sense? If spouting “Yay for being nuke free!” every time a TV camera gets pointed at our nation is what it means to be patriotic, I’m the guy in background, jumping, waving, pulling faces and ruining for everyone.

This is because I think it’s a good idea to take the National Party discussion document and, at the risk of being predictable, discuss it. The basic thrust of it is this: being nuke free is good. Being nuke free is right. We should continue to not use nuclear energy to power our country, and to not let nuclear weapons anywhere near it. So far, so good: no bombs like they have in France, no power stations like they have in Springfield. On the downside that means no free trips to the Pacific for ‘research’ purposes and no hilarious evil dictatorial boss to hate, but we already gave those up when we banned whaling and voted Muldoon out. The change being proposed is to remove Section 11, which reads “Entry into the internal waters of New Zealand by any ship whose propulsion is wholly or partly dependent on nuclear power is prohibited”. The rest of the Act remains untouched.

The discussion paper goes on to suggest that this legislative ban on visits from nuclear-powered ships can be replaced with a corresponding policy of banning them instead. Ships only visit if invited, so we can make it legally, technically okay for them to park up here for a while, but then never actually ask them to. Denmark, which hasn’t seen a nuclear powered ship since 1964, has the sort of policy that is being proposed. If we were to take a similar position, the net effect on NZ territorial waters would be zero. Net effect in other regards: debatable. Some are convinced the policy won't last, and are concerned by the possibility of ecological degradation should anything go wrong when ships do turn up. More realistically, it's claimed that our reputation around the world will worsen, and that those of us that make our living trading on the good ol’ clean green image – think tourism, agriculture, and therefore our two major economic pillars – will find life in the international market tougher than before. Others claim that there will be much good to outweigh the bad, principally in the area of NZ-USA relations.

How crucial is the ban to New Zealand? Not our general nuclear free status, but the specific ban of nuclear powered ships from our turf? They’re not exactly knocking at the door, so what’s the good in the big, nasty “Keep Out” sign we’ve had up lately? Wouldn’t a demure silence on the matter be a bit nicer? As a part of that clean, green image we’re so keen maintain, this particular part of the law is tiny. In fact, the entire anti-nuclear aspect of the image is not anywhere near as great as the environmental aspect – the fact that New Zealand is, in most cases, relatively clean and actually green. In terms of branding the nation (insert shudder here), the continued exclusion of other forms of nuclear power are much more crucial, since power stations and weapons cause many more problems and raise much more opposition than vehicular propulsion. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to imagine fewer tourists coming here or less NZ produce being purchased overseas just because we replace an Act with a policy. Our place in the markets where we compete is fairly secure - if nothing else, there’s no similar nation in the same markets positioned to snap up customer share when the ten most environmentally concerned percent of consumers are suddenly turned off NZ.

A less critical argument is that of potential ecological disaster. This is obviously predicated on the chance of a government over-riding the "no visit" policy at some stage. It's therefore probably irrelevant, but, regardless, it ignores records of safety and is little more than scaremongering. In the ‘80s it made sense to ban nuke-powered ships because it was the only way to be sure of keeping out ships with nuclear weapons in a time of American refusal to confirm which boat was carrying what missile. But those days are over now – US ships no longer carry nuke weapons at all – and it could well be that all this law does now is harm US-NZ relations. So what reasons are there for this ban now?

Instating the ship ban made Kiwi-American relations measurably worse. We were, in fact, ditched by our ANZUS buddies and left as two useless, pointy consonants parenthesised by a chummy A and US continuing to get along quite nicely. And playing Greenie in the Middle gets a bit stale after twenty years. So it can be argued that things might get better again if we reverse the changes that ruined things in the first place. The alleged pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow is the much-discussed (in this corner of the world, anyway) but highly speculatory free trade deal with the world’s economic king. Of course, trade deals are a lot more complex than “free” or “not free”, but recent reporting hasn’t really respected that. Let’s just say that even if free trade is off the agenda for the time being, there are plenty of improvements we can still seek.

It can be useful to note that Australia’s new trade setup with America, signed on May 19th but yet to be approved either government, is not a particularly bad one, and comes quite obviously in the wake of strong political and military friendship. It’s not complete free trade, but it’s pretty damn close and lacks any serious barriers to any major industries in either country. Everyone’s happy because the two nations are dissimilar enough to produce very little direct competition between major industries. New Zealand, if we got a foot in the door, would be similarly able to prove to its own majors that the US wouldn’t be about to come in and crush them (as a kick-ass primary producer, we’re pretty safe in that regard), and also reassure the Americans – for what it’s worth – that we’re not about to take any of their big boys down with our “quality over quantity” approach to exports. And if an NZ-US agreement could be thrown in alongside our CER with Australia, you’ve got yourself a happy little trio. (If it can’t, CER might be pushed into the background by Aussie now that they have as much access to the massive US market as they do to our tiny one). This lack of potentially destructive competition and pre-existence of shared preferred trade partners would be a massive boost for any trade talks we have with Uncle Sam. But first we need trade talks to begin with.

There’s no reason to immediately assume that changing our nuke policy will magically double our exports. There’s also no reason to assume that it will halve tourism numbers. But this is one debate that needs to be held with calm heads. It’s an issue worth putting on the table after 20 years of respectful and dutiful silence on the matter. Would the Americans really be that stoked with us if we changed the way in which we don’t let them sail in our waters? Would they appreciate that we are finally willing to reassess the way this globe works in a military sense, and address possibly outdated laws? What about the average tourist? Do they know about our nuclear stance? Do they care, or are they just here to jump off a bridge and bounce back up again?

Australia has proven that being nice to the USA works in favour of trade, but they didn’t just let the USA come for a floating visit. The price they paid...sorry, that was meant to be this link…isn’t one that we should even consider. Those supporting the discussion paper - myself included - need to prove that the benefits, including but not limited to USA trade, will be real, valuable, and no more costly than the simple removal of Section 11. Those who don’t want to rock the boat...I was up all night working on that one...have to find a way to keep Australia interested in our markets now that they’ve got the USA open, and also have to replace 1980s’ anti-nuke justifications with up-to-date ones. We’ve got to get past the level of “but being nuclear-free defines our country”. The changes being proposed won’t remove our internationally public opposition to nukes or crucially re-define New Zealand. But they just might do some good.

Meanwhile: There is now a call from famous conservationalist James Lovelock to attack global warming by putting urgent work into expanding nuclear electricity generation schemes. He's pissed off Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and others by arguing that nuclear power is preferrable to burning fossil fuels. The Independent reported his pro-nuke views on the 24th of May. Then on the 26th The NZ Herald ran this piece on Lovelock's belief that NZ can go 100% renewable with our power generation. The same day, NZoom reported another winter power shortage on the way. Not because of weather this time, but because the lines aren't up to the job when we can make enough power for everyone.