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New Zealand's lessons for Canada's military

New Zealand must be the safest country in the world. Located far, far south, it is almost four hours flying time from Australia, the national bugbear that, in the public mind, plays a role equivalent to that played by the United States to us. Australia is much bigger than New Zealand, condescending and pushy. But, fortunately, New Zealand's pride and joy, the All Blacks rugby team, usually does more than hold its own against the Aussies. So much media coverage goes to the All Blacks that it rivals that accorded the Canadian all Blacks - Conrad, Barbara and Alana.

New Zealand has no natural enemies. That didn't stop it from sending its men overseas in the Boer War, the two world wars, the Korean War, Malaya and Vietnam. The costs in lives were terribly high, and Canucks and Kiwis shared the horrors of Passchendaele and the fighting at Orsogna and Ortona in Italy. Today, the only possible spectre to its north and west is Indonesia, but Jakarta would face the almost insuperable difficulties of distance if it ever tried to launch an invasion. There are persistent political troubles in the closer Solomon Islands and in Timor-Leste, but neither of these pose threats to New Zealand, except possibly by unleashing a flood of refugees.

And yet, New Zealand does its part in trying to keep the peace, an effort that the government and Defence Force trumpet as loudly as Canadian governments did to praise our peacekeepers. It has troops serving on peace missions in the Pacific region, including 182 in Timor-Leste and a platoon in the Solomon Islands. New Zealand also has a handful of men and women serving elsewhere for the United Nations, and it directs a Provincial Reconstruction Team in the province of Bamiyan, one of the safest and most anti-Taliban areas in northern Afghanistan. New Zealand's Special Forces also operate in Afghanistan, and the award of a Victoria Cross this month to a Special Forces soldier suggests this is a fighting role.

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New Zealand does all this with a Lilliputian military. There are only 9,000 regulars and a few thousand reservists in the three services, a tiny, inadequate force that must struggle to provide promotion opportunities for its officers. But with only four million people on two relatively small islands, the Defence Force is actually proportionately larger than the Canadian Forces. Canada's population of 32 million is eight times bigger, its territory immeasurably greater, and its combat commitment in Afghanistan far larger (and more violent). The Canadian Forces' strength, however, at 62,000, is only seven times New Zealand's. I know of no single fact that can illustrate better how under strength the Canadian military is.

Not that everything is perfect in Wellington, the national capital. With a defence budget under 1 per cent of GDP, the military struggles to make ends meet. The Labour government of Helen Clark, nine years in office, just gutted the country's air force, grounding all fighter jets. The navy has a new support vessel but not much else in its fleet of 10 ships. And while the army has some light armoured vehicles, it needs more if it is to be able to function effectively.

What the New Zealand Defence Force does have is a sense of professionalism, something it shares with Canada. I was constantly surprised on a recent visit to discover how many past and present officers had links to the Canadian Forces. Officers had served with Canadians in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Canada and at sea, and talked warmly of their experiences.

One area where New Zealand has done better than Canada is in integrating its indigenous Maori minority into its military. Almost half of the army is Maori, and every soldier undergoes a Maori initiation rite that takes him into the warrior tribe. The proportion of Maoris in the country's Special Forces is higher still, as much as two-thirds. And the current Chief of the Defence Force, General J. Mateparae, is a Maori.

None of this is tokenism, but it may be that the military is one of the few routes that Maoris can take to get good jobs. The comparison with the Canadian Forces and its uneasy acceptance of first nations soldiers is striking nonetheless.

New Zealanders lead a prosperous life in their Eden. They could turn their backs on the world, but they don't, an indication that they accept their wider responsibilities. They seem so much like Canadians - and Wellington is almost as boring as Ottawa.

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