Jumping ship - Issue 161 - Magazine | Monocle

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defence –––  new zealand

What do you call a navy without sailors? This might sound like the set-up to a bad joke but it could soon be a genuine question the Royal New Zealand Navy – Te Taua Moana in Maori – will have to grapple with. Since December three of its patrol vessels, a third of the fleet, have been docked and idle at the Devonport Naval Base off the coast of Auckland. The reason? There’s no one to sail them.


New Zealand’s military recruitment problems have been a long time coming. But the pandemic turbo-charged a mass exodus from the country’s armed forces, the New Zealand Defence Force (nzdf). Thousands of service people were roped in to run the country’s quarantine facilities as part of “Operation Protect”. The army’s First World War recruitment slogan “Join the army, see the world” more accurately became “Join the army, see the inside of someone’s mouth”. Operation Protect sent morale nose-diving to the depths. Add in the beckons of a hot labour market and rampant inflation of civilian salaries and the navy has been hit by a perfect storm.

Last month the attrition rate was a whopping 16.5 per cent, while the army faced a 17.4 per cent drop last August. In an effort to replenish its ranks, the nzdf launched a recruitment campaign. Devised by marketing company Clemenger bbdo, the campaign, dubbed “Run Deep”, leans on the allure of the “mateship” that the military offers, featuring portraits of army, navy and air force duos with codewords such as “Koala” and “Shellscrape” emblazoned over them. It’s cute but mateship won’t keep you warm at night. Well, perhaps it would, though the military top brass did finally acknowledge, in October, that cash might help too.

Since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent decline in Western military budgets, the average starting salary for new recruits has remained low. This wasn’t such an issue when the geopolitical threat was also low. But in a fractious world, governments are looking to bolster their ranks with more manpower and weaponry. During her six years in office, former prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s government invested heavily in new naval hardware to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, committing nz$4.5bn (€2.7bn) to 12 purchases, including five c130j-30 Hercules transport aircraft. This package also included nz$90m (€53.5m) to improve the salaries of the lowest-paid service-people. In hindsight, perhaps allocating a bit more towards human resources might have helped.

Despite its reputation as a pacifistic, remote nation, most Kiwis recognise the important role that the military plays. Even left-wing voters can get onboard with the disaster-relief work that the nzdf carries out across the Pacific region. In order to keep the country safe against both manmade and natural disasters, New Zealand needs a functioning military. That means having at least enough people to sail the ships, fly the planes and drive the armoured vehicles. With Ardern having handed power to her Labour Party comrade Chris Hipkins, it’s unlikely that the country will shift from a centrist defence policy. But come election time in October, a new government will determine the amount of money it is willing to commit to the future of its armed forces. We’ll find out then whether those docked ships will sail the high seas or remain high and dry.

Images:  Clemenger BBDO Wellington

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