Diplomats on cocktail circuit an easy target

20:36, Apr 02 2012

The first permanent head of our Foreign Affairs Ministry, the legendary Sir Alister McIntosh, had a never-to-be-broken rule: "no names in the paper".

No matter what successes were notched up to New Zealand's benefit in foreign lands, the architects of these achievements were never to be mentioned. In prime minister Keith Holyoake's time this was carried a stage further. The only news from the department was to come via his lips: he was the proconsul.

This changed when Norman Kirk's third Labour government swept to power and allowed the talented departmental head Frank Corner much more freedom. Reporters were able to contact diplomats directly and report newsworthy developments.

But while information flowed more freely, and names were even quoted from time to time, there were rarely such things as leaks. Which makes the shemozzle over ministry leaks quite remarkable. Senior diplomats abroad, concerned about the future integrity of the ministry, penned a private note of concern. Aspects were leaked. Then there were counter leaks about diplomatic pay and allowances, including school fees, as if this was somehow indulgent when uprooting families from New Zealand to some of the most expensive (and sometimes dangerous) world capitals.

My favourite was the attempt to create outrage over the $150,000 salary to a "handyman" in Moscow. Actually, he is a highly qualified technician, in a costly capital where it is best to avoid getting the KGB to do the wiring, and, like other appointees, pays New Zealand taxes.

The level of leaking has left many ministry staffers uncomfortable, to say the least. But it has led to the minister, Murray McCully, directing a rethink in areas where the changes could have been damaging if we are to maintain a professional career structure of able diplomats. Many of these could pull much higher pay packets in the private sector.


One of the big achievements of ministry diplomats in recent years was the free trade agreement with China, leading to an explosion in trade. New Zealand is still the only developed country to score this.

Another was the success of a relatively junior legal team, led by Clare Fearnley, which beat the Australian legal team, led by their solicitor-general, in the WTO case over access for our apples.

In earlier years there was the huge economic bonanza involved in the Law of the Sea negotiations where Malcolm Templeton, Chris Beeby and Bill Mansfield got international acceptance for provisions which vastly extended our maritime resources.

Remarkable, too, was the success of Mansfield, Michael Powles and Don MacKay in negotiations for a fisheries regime for the Pacific. Few would have put money on an unlikely agreement between Pacific Island nations on the one hand and the United States, Japan, China, Korea and the EU.

Again in the Pacific, diplomat John Hayes, now parliamentary private secretary for Foreign Affairs, managed to halt a civil war by talking the Bougainville Revolutionary Army into peace talks  but not before they had shot down his helicopter.

Following the successes in earlier European trade access negotiations, ministry lawyer Dell Higgie beat off an EU case over sales practices around our butter exports into Europe, saving farmers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Like other state agencies, the ministry needs modernising, but some question why the scythe is not being applied with the same enthusiasm elsewhere, such as justice. It is much easier politically to spin cutbacks to "overpaid" diplomats on the international cocktail circuit. Court closures would create a storm for local electorate MPs.

Richard Prebble had the answer when the fourth Labour government had to address the same problem with excess post offices in marginal electorates. When a bureaucrat handed him the list of 75 marked excess to requirements, and opined that it needed to be a gradual process, Prebble famously remarked, "leave the politics to me" and promptly closed the lot.

Related story: Diplomats take gloves off

The Dominion Post