Foreign Affairs ministry jobs face chop

TRACY WATKINS AND KATE CHAPMAN
Last updated 11:26 21/02/2012

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The Government was conducting its foreign policy based on a business model which was "nonsense",  former diplomat Terence O'Brien says.

Fairfax New Zealand today reported that most of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's 600 core staff would have to reapply for their jobs in a restructure that could see 300 roles lost.

O'Brien said foreign policy did not have a bottom line and was not a business.

"To construct a bureaucracy around a model that implies that there are bottom lines and there are levels of acceptable risk, is nonsense and it needs to be genuinely re-examined.

"Diplomacy is not like business and, what is more, it is a profession."

The Government was de-professionalising it by advertising jobs and allowing anyone to become an ambassador.

Staff will be told on Thursday of the plans which include closing embassies in Stockholm and Warsaw and downsizing others. Up to 50 diplomatic positions could be lost.

As many as 140 overseas-based administration jobs and around 100 corporate positions - some based in Wellington and the rest on secondment overseas - are also in line to be axed and some of those functions contracted out.

Under the most radical proposal, up to 600 positions engaged in work outside MFAT's overseas development aid arm - most of the ministry's core staff - will be advertised and staff told to reapply.

Sources say the proposals are an attempt to shake up a ministry which awards promotions based on pecking order and seniority. But there is also concern that they could spark an exodus of the most talented staff if they are not handled sensitively, which is why there is expected to be a lengthy period of consultation.

O'Brien said the changes were not surprising as the Government had been signalling its plans for a radical restructuring for some time.

However it was concerning because consultants and change managers had been brought in to oversee the restructuring.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully had strong ideas about what changes needed to be made in the ministry and he had them well before the financial crisis, O'Brien said.

Other countries were looking at how to conduct their foreign policies too and New Zealand was alone in the direction it was going.

"We appear to be very set upon implementing our own ideas, or should I say the ideas of Mr McCully and the people who think like him, and there is, I think, a real flaw."

He was not aware of specific plans to close embassies, but based on media reports about the closing of embassies in Stockholm and Warsaw, said they were listening posts into an area where New Zealand had few other bases. Warsaw offered a window into the European Union and the Scandinavian countries had a lot of influence in the world and could be helpful for New Zealand's bid for a seat on the United Nation's Security Council.

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Labour's foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff said there were other ways money could be saved from the foreign affairs budget without cutting frontline staff.

Luxury spending should be targeted and services could be centralised.

But cutting diplomatic staff would mean New Zealanders in trouble overseas would no longer have access to the same level of help, Goff said.

"That's a core service that you as a Kiwi, if you go overseas, you want to know that you can rely on it in the off chance that you need it."

It would also damage New Zealand when it did not have the frontline staff to get its point across.

One in five MFAT staff could lose their job and conditions at the Ministry had already resulted in a disengaged workforce, he said.

"They've got about 30 key policy positions that are vacant at the moment, that means the works not being done, the Government's not being well informed before it makes decisions and that affects negatively on our interest overseas."

O'Brien also said there was a mis-conception that diplomats were over paid.

Compared to their international counterparts they were paid less, but it was necessary to ensure people sent to live overseas could conduct their job.

"You certainly can't go on a bus, ride on a bus, to a negotiation about the future of world trade."

- The Dominion Post

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