Exodus threat over proposed MFAT cuts

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 05:00 01/03/2012

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Proposals to slash pay packets for overseas-based staff at the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry could be scaled back amid threats of an exodus.

A survey by the Foreign Service Association of 312 staff – or about 25 per cent of employees – found 73 per cent of members working abroad for the ministry said they were either considering returning to New Zealand before the scheduled end of their posting or resigning because of plans to cut jobs and slash allowances.

Among Wellington-based staff, 66 per cent were less likely to consider a posting abroad and a quarter were thinking about resigning.

It has been revealed that lucrative allowances and subsidies for children and spouses can swell the size of a foreign-based diplomat's pay packet to as much as $500,000.

Proposals unveiled last week include slashing those allowances, forcing 600 staff to reapply for their jobs and cutting 300 positions.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully last night said proposals about remuneration had caused the most negative reaction.

He was concerned at the risk of losing talented staff "in which New Zealanders have made significant investment" if MFAT did not take staff concerns on board.

"I have conveyed to the MFAT management my own view that some of the changes proposed are at the very ambitious end of the scale and that they will need to listen carefully and evaluate constructively the feedback they receive.

"A sensible balance needs to be found that will ensure taxpayers can be assured that MFAT operations are modern and efficient but also that their investment in the ministry's talent base is protected."

Foreign Service Association president Warren Fraser said MFAT was facing a crisis.

"The bottom line is that hardly anyone will want to serve New Zealand abroad under the proposed changes. New Zealand's interests in the world need to be advanced by skilled and capable people.

"The ministry is proposing to offer peanuts to work long hours in often unglamorous locations where staff partners often can't, or aren't allowed to work. If it proceeds with these changes, what's clear is that staff will desert the ministry in droves."

The survey comes as Mr McCully and MFAT chief executive John Allen come under attack from retired diplomat Bruce Middleton.

Writing in today's Dominion Post, Mr Middleton warned that the proposals risked destabilising the ministry.

Labour MP Phil Goff, a former foreign minister, said staff were being forced into an untenable position.

Any who applied for overseas postings would be appointed on a fixed-term contract, and would have to apply for a new position once that ended.

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"Who in their right mind would uproot their family, get their partner to give up their job, put their kids in education overseas on the basis that at the end of that position there will be no job for them?"

He had spoken to staffers he worked with as foreign minister and people were "distraught".

"They are upset, they feel that the whole basis on which they began their career with the ministry has been totally undermined. They are disillusioned and they are thinking about their options to leave."

- The Dominion Post

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