Speech on 30th Anniversary of NZ Government sending protest frigates to Moruroa atoll.

  • George Hawkins

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you tonight.

I’d like to acknowledge our distinguished guests,

·the Right Honourable Fraser Colman,

· his wife Noelene,

·Commander Lance Cook, the current commander of the HMNZS Canterbury

·and the many veterans of protest against nuclear testing in the Pacific here tonight.

It gives me great pleasure to be here tonight.

I’d just like to add that I am standing in for the Prime Minister, who can’t be with us as she is right about now, in Korea marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Korean conflict.

I know that the Prime Minister sends her best wishes as we commemorate New Zealand’s long and proud history of protest against nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Specifically, we’re here to commemorate that it is now 30 years since one of the most significant and daring protest events in New Zealand’s history took place.

Thirty years ago, a Labour Cabinet Minister got on a ship and went up to a Pacific atoll to register with anyone who’d listen, this country’s opposition to nuclear testing in the Pacific.

Ofcourse, there may be some people who would support the idea of putting politicians on a ship and sending them into the wild, blue yonder.

I can think of few Opposition MPs I’d like to see sail away as well.

But what prompted then Prime Minister Norman Kirk’s government in 1973 to direct not just one of this country’s frigates, but two, to protest in this way?

After all, for Pacific island nations, there wasn’t anything new in foreign powers using their backyard as a nuclear test site.

The Pacific had been used for atmospheric nuclear testing for decades prior to 1973.

Britain had only ended their Pacific nuclear tests in 1958.

The last United States tests, on Christmas and Johnson Islands, had occurred in 1962.

Things must have seemed to be improving when in 1963 Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States signed an agreement banning nuclear testing in the atmosphere, under water, and in space.

But if the Pacific people had breathed a sigh of relief, it was short lived.

French nuclear testing was about to begin.

The test ban agreement between the British, the Soviets and the Americans failed to move French President Charles de Gaulle.

In July 1966 a plutonium fission device was detonated from a barge anchored in tiny Moruroa atoll’s lagoon

Protests from around the Pacific that atomic bombs detonated in the middle of islands then inhabited by 140,000 people could create serious health problems, fell on deaf ears.

Eight years later in 1973, an estimated 44 French bombs, including five hydrogen bombs, had been detonated above both Moruroa and above Fangataufa atoll 40 km south.

New Zealand’s monitoring stations in the Pacific were regularly recording heavy fallout from the tests.

But while the French government may have brushed aside local protest, opposition was growing not just in New Zealand and Australia, but in other parts of the world also.

That opposition took a range of forms, including in 1973 the widespread boycotts in New Zealand, of French goods, airlines and shipping lines.

That year Australia and New Zealand also instituted proceedings against France in the international Court of Justice at the Hague.

But perhaps what most caught the imagination here as well as internationally, was the David and Goliath response from the New Zealand Government.

The decision was made to show our opposition to French atmospheric nuclear testing by sending two navy Frigates, the HMNZS Otago and the HMNZS Canterbury, into the testing zone.

Norm Kirk put all the Cabinet Minister’s names into a hat and Fraser Colman, who was then Minister of Immigration and Mines – an odd combination – was on his way.

A look back over copies of Hansard and newspaper clippings of the time makes for an entertaining read.

There were sharp exchanges between Norm Kirk and Sir Keith Holyoake on the subject.

There was debate on how close the frigate would get to the test zone,

Norm also offered the Opposition the chance to send one of their MPs on the frigate but this was declined.

The Otago, with a crew of 242, and Fraser, sailed from Auckland on 25 June 1973.

It can’t have been all dire on board.

A newspaper clipping records that a French Neptune reconnaissance aircraft that had been shadowing the Otago for a week suddenly swooped in low one night, searchlights blazing for a close look at the ship.
The Otago was very lit up and the pilot obviously saw a great deal of activity on the decks and decided to zoom in for a better look.

From only 100 or so feet what he saw was 150 men having a BBQ and betting on sailors dressed as jockeys pushing wooden horses along a makeshift track.

A month later the ship was at Moruroa and witnessed the first atmospheric test.

Fraser transferred to the HMNZS Canterbury when it arrived to relieve the Otago on 25 July, and the Canterbury saw the second French atmospheric test on Moruroa.

It is a sad reflection that despite sustained protest from Pacific nations, including New Zealand and Australia, and international condemnation, the action failed to stop the French nuclear testing programme at that time.

What it did do, and I am convinced of this, was play its part in forcing the French to at least halt atmospheric testing.

In 1974 the new French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, ordered the tests to move underground.

French technicians had pointed out that no previous country had attempted the technically difficult, costly, and dangerous task of conducting underground tests in the narrow base of a porous coral island.

But the programme went ahead anyway.

And another era of protest began.

I am proud to say the tests may have gone on, but so did the presence of more protesting New Zealand members of Parliament.

In all five New Zealand MPs made the trek to north to protest French nuclear testing in the Pacific after 1973.

These include not only Fraser Colman, but current Science Minister Pete Hodgson and Conservation Minister Chris Carter, both of whom went up to Moruroa in 1995 on the Tui.

Two other MPs, National’s Brian Neeson and John Carter, went on the same ship in the same year.

In all, between 1966 and when the end of testing in 1996, it is believed 200 atmospheric and underground nuclear tests were conducted in and around Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls

You may ask, was it worth protesting?
I believe the protest action was worth it.

I believe we had to do it.

It marked a change in how this country saw itself,
·how we felt about our land,
·about where we belonged,
·what we would put up with,
·and the kind of future we wanted for our children.

As a small country prepared to take on a large country far away, we sent a message to other small nations that such action was possible.

The result has been a nuclear free New Zealand.

That’s the legacy of those actions 30 years ago for future generations of New Zealanders.

The concept of a nuclear free New Zealand is now so deeply engrained in our psyche that no-one in their right mind should seriously consider tinkering with it.

I am delighted to recall that in 2002 full War pension coverage was granted to veterans of the Moruroa deployment.

This Government’s appreciation was expressed the same year with the granting of the New Zealand Special Service Medal to all Moruroa veterans.

It is with great pleasure that I speak at this reunion of so many old warriors at the commemoration of such an important event. Thank you.