Representation comes at a pretty price

KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 13/05/2012

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Diplomats are spending more than most Kiwis earn in a year on travel, and wining and dining at our overseas posts.

New Zealand's 56 embassies or consular bases spent nearly $8 million on travel and entertainment in the last three years – an average of $50,000 each at a time when the average wage is $41,600.

London, Washington and Geneva clocked up about $130,000 each on travel – excluding trips to New Zealand – and nearly $70,000 on parties and catered meetings.

Extra money was also spent on credit cards held by mission heads, but Foreign Affairs refused to provide details.

Diplomats are continuing to reject moves to slash salaries and allowances, close posts and cut 350 jobs. Foreign Affairs chief executive John Allen planned to save $25m a year through the changes but a backlash could see that cut to $12m, with remuneration untouched.

Travel and entertainment spending was not specifically targeted, but "all staff were made aware of the need for responsible management", the ministry said.

Foreign Affairs and Trade Minister Murray McCully said he understood Allen had looked at travel costs. "But travelling and hosting functions plays a key part in earning this country's income, so expenditure needs to be seen in the context of our being a small trading nation that earns $61b from exporting goods and services to more than 170 countries."

The figures, released under the Official Information Act, catalogue travel costs at each diplomatic post, and head of mission "representational spending".

Travel costs cover airfares, taxis, accommodation, meals and laundry, and were usually incurred for visits to other countries in the post's area of responsibility, consular visits to New Zealanders requiring help, trade negotiation trips and attendance at commemorations and other occasions.

Representation spending was money for food and drink, venue and staff hire, flower arrangements and speaker systems for functions or meetings.

The numbers show huge discrepancies between posts – with Kabul ambassador-designate Justin Fepuleai spending $424 on entertainment, whereas Washington-based United States ambassador Mike Moore spent $50,284.

In 2011 newly-appointed High Commissioner to Tarawa Michael Walsh spent $61,641 on travel, while the Polish ambassador managed on $11,173.

Foreign Affairs would not elaborate on the variations, but former diplomat Terence O'Brien said the posts were different in terms of staff numbers and visitor volumes.

Some were also responsible for more than one country – such as Tarawa, the tiny Kiribati atoll, where the commissioner had to travel long distances to the Marshall Islands, Palau and Micronesia – often taking multiple flights.

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Entertaining also varied. Rarotonga, which spent $17,000 on hosting this year, was "sociable'' and parties were expected, O'Brien said. "Iran is Muslim, so no alcohol means the bills are cheaper."

He said it was unlikely staff were rorting the system, which had "reasonable" checks and balances.

"I wouldn't say these are outrageous figures but they are certainly high. But there's no reason to think they're not kosher."

The ministry's refusal to supply credit-card documentation for mission heads will be referred to the Ombudsman.

Previous Sunday Star-Times investigations into credit-card spending led to changes in State Services Commission policy, which now requires public service chiefs to provide credit-card receipts and declared gifts every six months.

- Fairfax Media

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