New Zealand is a nation that generally likes to think of itself as classless, with any whiff of special treatment for our politicians or other elites treated with immediate disdain. Scandals erupt over the amount that a politician spends on chauffeured rides around the country, or the speed at which the prime minister is driven.
So it comes as no surprise that the jets used by the prime minister to travel abroad is a 30-year-old RNZAF Boeing 757 so ancient our prime minister had to bring a spare for most of his trip to China this week, prompting condemnation and ridicule over the extra cost and carbon emissions.
To be clear, the risk of breakdown is far from hypothetical: In 2016 on the way to India John Key was trapped in a remote corner of Australia for so long he had to cancel a segment of a trip, and managed to make the front page of the local paper. More recently Jacinda Ardern had to hitch a ride with Justin Trudeau to get between London and New York.
I’ve flown on the plane several times, and while it is extremely nifty to have a row of seats to yourself and time with the prime minister for long chats, it does definitely feel like jet travel from another era (the seats are spacious but dated, there are huge wooden desks down the front, and the food is surprisingly good). In an age where newer planes can somehow get from Auckland to New York in one go, I once was on a trip where the prime minister had to stop off in Australia just to make it to Singapore. For a country on the bottom of the world, this does seem less than ideal.
This latest kerfuffle has seen National leader Christopher Luxon pledging to fly commercial or charter planes for any overseas trips he takes should he become prime minister at this year’s election. His move forces an uncomfortable question on the whole country – are we really a big enough deal that our prime minister needs their own plane, at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars in purchasing costs and many more millions in operating funds?
It’s telling that the idea of flying commercial is hardly new: It’s already what prime ministers do inside the country and when flying as far as Europe or the US. For those very small or very long trips, the Boeing is simply more hassle that it is worth. So why not ditch it all and go commercial – or charter a plane when needed?
There are several good arguments for keeping the prime minister’s plane – and even upgrading it.
The first is that technically it is not the prime minister’s plane: It’s a set of two air force Boeings that can also be used for other purposes, with the seats and office slid out to fit cargo.
Another is the fact that we are a small extremely trade-oriented nation with inconvenient time zones at the bottom of the world. The prime minister does need a way to get around the world and press the flesh. And we have very important Pacific relationships to maintain: while commercial flights might work for say, a flight to Singapore, the kind of island hopping around our Pacific neighbourhood that is possible with your own plane would be impossible. It’s hard to see the prime minister making it to the tiny Pacific island of Niue very often without an air force plane, given commercial flights only make it there once a week – but neglecting such a place would be abominable, given it is within our “realm” and New Zealand remains arguably responsible for some of its external affairs.
Then there’s the importance of being able to take some Kiwis along with you. The Boeing might be slow but it is large – making it easy for the prime minister to take large delegations of staff, businesspeople, experts, and journalists.
That leaves the most sensible option being some kind of upgrade, sooner than the late-2020s one that is planned. But to do so would guarantee weeks of headlines about how the prime minister – left or right – was more focused on their own jetsetting than the problems of the country. From a politics standpoint, it seems inevitable that New Zealand will just stick with the old plane. Better to let sleeping dogs lie than buy a whole new pet, no matter how much the old one needs to be put to sleep.