Coming out of the shadows

National's fix-it man has donned the foreign affairs mantle

Last updated 08:11 29/11/2008

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Some habits are hard to break. When John Key named Murray McCully as his next foreign minister, he also confirmed his caucus Machiavelli's place at No 11 in National's lineup.

The No 11 slot puts Mr McCully just one seat shy of a place on the coveted front bench, but if his caucus influence had ever been measured by where he sat, the front bench would have been his home for the past decade. Mr McCully has long preferred to operate from the cover of one row back – right behind the leader's throne.

Now National's long-time strategist and fix-it man is moving out from the shadows; his skills as the quintessential backroom operator to be put to far more public use as New Zealand's wheeler and dealer on the international stage.

Mr McCully admits his new job was probably cause for a few quiet toasts within National's ranks. "The prospect of me travelling overseas a great deal is very reassuring for many of my colleagues."

That Mr McCully is also media- savvy – he is a former public relations practitioner whose long- term relationship with influential Listener columnist Jane Clifton probably gave him better insight into the media than most – probably only stoked the resentment among some of his colleagues.

Mr McCully declines to talk about himself and Clifton, however: "I'm going to make a practice of not having any personal discussions of that sort."

It is no secret Mr McCully's influence has caused friction. But it spilled over in a very public fashion in Nicky Hager's 2005 book, The Hollow Men, in an e-mail exchange between Don Brash and the man he rolled for National's leadership, Bill English.

"You need to know now that the experienced people you have will NOT work in a government run by McCully," Mr English wrote. "I and others will not tolerate him exercising the same influence he does now."

So, is the foreign affairs posting Mr Key's answer to caucus pleas to dilute his influence?

Or a reward to an MP whose loyalty to National has never been in doubt – and whose skills as an influencer and negotiator are probably unrivalled within the National caucus?

That Mr McCully's initial appointment as foreign affairs spokesman in Opposition was effectively a holding position till it became clear whether it would need to be used as a bargaining chip with NZ First leader Winston Peters probably answers that. Mr Key would have known Mr McCully could be relied on to quietly walk the plank if necessary without suffering a bruised ego.

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And his star has far from waned. He was in the thick of Mr Key's negotiations to form a government in time for him to attend Apec; when noisy grandstanding by ACT threatened to hold Mr Key back, it was Mr McCully who kept the talks on track at a quiet meeting with ACT's Rodney Hide and Heather Roy at the Remuera Racket Club.

But the foreign affairs portfolio also represents a deliberate decision to step away. "I make no secret about the fact that I'm keen to play a role in a major portfolio and to provide less room for media speculation of a negative character about my involvement in political management issues.

"I've attracted a rather ordinary press on that front from time to time and the opportunity to do something substantial and stand on my own feet is something I'm really looking forward to . . . I think if you're fortunate to have some time in Parliament, the final phases of your role should see you usefully employed and using your experience."

Is that a hint that this could be Mr McCully's last hurrah – and a desire to leave on a high note?

If so, the segue from "Dark Prince" – one of his caucus nicknames – may have been more by design than accident.

W HEN National's loss in 2005 sparked a bout of internal soul searching, it was Mr McCully who pushed the party to free itself from the last shackles of its 1980s time-warp over New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance.

The party's contradictory positions were costly both at the ballot box and internationally.

National's ambivalence about the nuclear-free legislation – and the unspoken, but gung-ho, enthusiasm of a few die-hards within the National caucus and membership for diluting the nuclear-free stand – kept the door open in Washington's mind. Since 2006, however, the relationship has leapt forward.

Recently, United States ambassador Bill McCormick publicly praised the effort put in by Helen Clark and Winston Peters on New Zealand's side, and the likes of US deputy secretary of state Chris Hill and his boss, Condoleezza Rice, to find a way for both countries to move on.

But Mr McCully admits that National's new clarity in its discussions with key decision-makers in Washington was also pivotal. The message has been clear: nuclear- free stays. Hand-in-hand with that is National's commitment to an independent foreign policy.

"I'd say the fact that we have taken that issue off the agenda effectively has helped [everyone] focus on the way forward. Once it is clear there is no silver bullet on that issue, the attention naturally focuses on how we move forward."

The reward is a possible and long-awaited free-trade deal with the US. National inherits a firm date for the start of negotiations toward a new trans-Pacific free trade area, linking the United States, New Zealand, Singapore, Brunei, Chile, Australia, Peru and possibly others – though the change of administration in the US could still undermine the process.

Failure would be a huge setback, Mr McCully acknowledges. Concluding the negotiations "is right up there" on his Government's list of priorities.

There are testing times ahead for the new minister back home as well. He has flagged National's intention to redirect much of the foreign aid budget to the Pacific, as part of a promise of a renewed focus in the region and concerns that the aid budget has been spread too thinly.

He is also flagging an intention to run a stricter eye over how the aid budget is spent.

Meanwhile, one of his early tasks will be to review some $600 million of funding dished out to Foreign Affairs as the price of Mr Peters' support for Labour. At a time when the Government's books are plunging into the red, it looks increasingly unaffordable.

It all points to some early head- butting between Mr McCully and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade bosses. History suggests they are likely to come off second best.

Mr McCully earned a reputation during the last National government as a minister with whom it did not pay to get offside. He clashed often with officials he regarded as under-performers; as tourism minister he was forced to step aside after an Auditor Office report criticised his handling of golden handshakes to tourism board bosses who left abruptly during his term.

But he says National's intentions for foreign affairs funding were well flagged and he is confident of a "constructive" solution. "Being very professional public servants, I expect they'll do it without intruding into the relationship in a negative way."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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