Labour fears for Kiwis in ministry shake-up

16:00, Feb 21 2012

Radical plans to shed 300 jobs and make up to 600 MFAT staff reapply for their jobs could threaten the safety of Kiwis who get in trouble overseas, Labour says.

Former foreign affairs minister Phil Goff said he had seen documents showing families of New Zealanders admitted to hospital in a developing country or jailed may get an 0800 number instead of consular help.

There are plans to contract out some consular services, with about 140 overseas-based jobs poised to disappear and about 100 corporate jobs, some of them also based overseas, also facing the axe. A further 50 diplomat jobs will disappear as well.

Mr Goff said the ministry should be required to find efficiencies and cut unnecessary spending like every other government department. "But there is a real danger in a slash and burn approach which will see core frontline staff out of work. And there is real cause for concern about New Zealanders who might find themselves in trouble overseas and require consular assistance."

Draft proposals for the radical overhaul will be presented to MFAT staff tomorrow for consultation, along with proposals to whittle back overseas allowances so that pay packets for Wellington-based staff can be boosted.

In other big changes, most of the ministry's 600 staff engaged in work outside overseas development aid will have to reapply for their positions. Chief executive John Allen has refused to comment.

But the move is driven, in part, by a plan to step away from the ministry's current system of rotating staff through specialist desks.

Sources say the overhaul has been driven by Mr Allen but under pressure from the Government to give the ministry a stronger trade and economic focus. But the ministry is also under pressure to make deep cuts in its current spending. Mr Goff said MFAT had been ordered to make cuts of $40 million a year and more than 30 policy positions had already been left vacant.

A former top diplomat, Terence O'Brien, yesterday slated the new direction as "nonsense" and said foreign policy did not have a bottom line and "is not a business".


Fairfax Media