Thursday, June 03, 2004

False hope

The Herald has done a poll showing that a majority of New Zealanders would favour relaxing our ban on nuclear propulsion and replacing it with a "Danish"-style policy. Russell Brown raises an interesting point though - National is misrepresenting the Danish situation entirely. Nuclear-powered vessels don't visit Danish waters because the Americans are politely bowing to Danish wishes; they don't visit because the Americans are unwilling to turn over design information which would allow the Danes to assess whether the visit was safe.

But more importantly, even a policy ban represents a false hope, because nuclear propulsion is not the real issue. The Americans have always been free to send a conventionally powered warship to visit New Zealand; the reason they haven't is because of the requirement under the law that the Prime Minister be satisfied that the vessel is not carrying nuclear weapons. In the 80's they had their "neither confirm or deny policy" - they couldn't tell us if we asked because that would compromise security. What National is sweeping under the carpet is that, despite Bush I's end-of-Cold-War announcement that tactical nuclear weapons would no longer be deployed on US vessels, the policy remains in place. Which is why we haven't had any visits since 1991 - all New Zealand Prime Ministers have taken the law as saying that they should at least ask, and to the US, asking is a problem.

Which suggests that the ban on propulsion won't be the only thing to change with National. If they want any US vessel to visit, they'll have to do one of either two things: accept "neither-confirm-nor-deny", rather than treating it with the contempt it deserves, or adopt a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Either would make a mockery both of the law and our status as a nation.