MFAT staff costs hardly excessive, considering

16:00, Mar 28 2012

Inflicting cost-cutting on the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry was always going to be an interesting proposition.

The diplomatic corps is expected to be the elite, well educated, masters of the art of the loaded and the clandestine exchange.

They would resist.

They wouldn't use explicit means. Too uncivilised.

They'd use protocols and words, their skills trained at endless cocktail parties among others of their ilk from many nations, degrees from our little universities expected to foot it with the best from Harvard and Oxford.

Try dealing with people like that.

I know about these things because I've read Duff Cooper's marvellous biography of the wily French statesman Charles-Maurice, Prince de Talleyrand. The book may be 70-plus years old and Talleyrand dead a lot longer, but I doubt that it's dated.

My vote is with the MFAT staff so far. I'd say they won the first round of the game by pointing out that their salaries and allowances compensate for spouses being unable to work when they're on foreign postings, and their children needing to attend suitable schools in countries where there may be very few of them.

On top of that, they probably have to store the contents of their homes and rent them out when they're overseas, which is costly, as any dejected landlord viewing the inevitable damage will tell you.

Is there envy in the way we're supposed to look at these people, because they can get to live overseas and be paid for it as well? Or is it just that they suffer from not being able to achieve measurable outcomes that a book-keeper can applaud?

A seeming counter-leak to media last week revealed that $218,857 is the top salary among these international players, the largest allowance paid is $200,000, the largest education bill for offspring is $213,780, and the highest residential bill (presumably for rent) is $439,518.

Halve those sums to be realistic in the world outside this country and they're hardly phenomenal amounts.

Perhaps Foreign Affairs staff leaked that data themselves.

If the sums are accurate, you see, we pay top-level ambassadors and negotiators, who represent us abroad, a fraction of what we pay city council chief executives back in New Zealand. The Kapiti Coast District chief executive gets $285,000 a year, for goodness' sake.

Now we're told that a repair man working in an overseas New Zealand posting has been paid $154,000, and that it's not uncommon for Foreign Affairs and Trade staff to collect $100,000-plus a year in allowances.

We're not told what they're expected to do with that, or how the true cost of their employment is broken down, but costs can be very high in some postings, so I can't get worked up about it.

A quick look on the net tells me that the going rate for a well-qualified maintenance carpenter in Westminster, London, is around $2000 a week, or $104,000 a year if he does only basic eight-hour days, five days a week.

A one-bedroom flat in that posh area costs about $700 a week, and I found a nice three-bedroom house in Islington, suitable for a family, at $8000 a week. Or would we want our staff there to live in run-down areas with huge commute times?

What irks me isn't the cost of keeping up high-level contact overseas, which is necessary for our long-term interests and has to attract top people.

It's what we pay chief executives for running our energy companies, formerly owned by us and run by men in grey cardigans who caught the bus to work carrying their lunch in brown paper bags, and lived in state houses. Doug Heffernan, head of Mighty River Power, gets $1,769,342 a year; he's had a 34 per cent pay increase since 2010. Don Elder of Solid Energy gets $1,410,000, Mark Binns of Meridian Energy $1,220,620, and Albert Brantley of Genesis Power $1,180,000.

We created these princelings back here in New Zealand, not in London. Why we needed to beats me.