Giving peace a chance

The 30th anniversary of a defining moment in New Zealand’s recent history is being marked this week.

On June 8, 1987, "God’s Own Country" became a nuclear-free zone, after Parliament passed the New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament and Arms Control Act.

It was a national statement that put our small and isolated country on the modern map. It heralded a proud, independent and values-driven stance, and a willingness to stand up to the "big boys".

After a longstanding Greenpeace campaign against French nuclear testing in the Pacific, and years of grassroots lobbying at home, the movement gained momentum, and towns and boroughs throughout the country  declared themselves nuclear-free. It became a label that unified New Zealanders and has continued to do so through the years.

Several significant events undoubtedly helped hasten the change.

The first was the visit of the nuclear-powered frigate the  USS Texas in 1983, which sparked protest nationwide as New Zealanders increasingly questioned the United States’ policy to "neither confirm nor deny" whether its ships were also nuclear-armed, as well as our role in the Anzus agreement.

The second was the change in government after the 1984 general election. David Lange and Labour took the reins from  Robert Muldoon and National and Mr Lange quickly became something of a "poster boy" for the movement.

Few can forget his witty and urbane decimation of the opposition at the Oxford Union Debate of March 1985, where he argued  nuclear weapons were indefensible. Some of his comments have become the stuff of legend. They include his ironic sympathy for the opposition who he said were destabilised "at the imminent prospect of peace breaking out" and his brilliant, quick and pithy retort to a lengthy question from the floor about New Zealand’s stance to Anzus where he told the young male questioner he would give him an answer "if you hold your breath for just a moment — I can smell the uranium on it as you lean towards me".

He reasoned it was immoral for "friends" to compel each other to take a certain stance, and said rejecting nuclear weapons was "to assert what is human over the evil nature of the weapon". The audience — and our country — lapped it all up.

The shine was taken off when, in July 1985, French agents sank the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior,  in Auckland, killing a crew member. The boat was on its way to a protest against a planned French nuclear test in Muroroa.

The fight became personal and the rest is history. Legislation was enacted.

The US downgraded New Zealand’s status from ally to friend,  but National eventually got on board with the policy. France eventually halted its nuclear testing in 1996.

The US didn’t send another naval ship to our shores until last November, when it did so as part of the NZ navy’s 75th anniversary celebrations. It was widely seen as an official symbol of reconciliation.

Our Government’s stance had softened, though. Gone was Mr Lange’s staunchness:  "Near-uncertainty was not now enough for us . . . whatever the truth of its armaments, its arrival in New Zealand would be seen as a surrender by the government."

This time round no awkward confirm or deny was sought by John Key’s National-led Government; officials advised the ship was safe to enter NZ waters without breaching our policy.

Today, there seems much less of the activism that led to such significant political change, less too of the leadership on such issues, and less in the way of forthright challenges to our powerful friends.

Yet the challenges remain. The US Trump Administration is involved in a nuclear standoff with North Korea, as the United Nations attempts to negotiate a ban on nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. History is still in the making.


The eighties were a different time. It was when NZ 'grew a pair'. The challenge now is to be less ambivalent about China, arguably the leading 'superpower'.