Nats pull back from MFAT cost-cutting

Last updated 05:00 13/03/2012

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The Government is backing away from proposed cuts to diplomats' pay and allowances in the face of a threatened exodus of staff.

Prime Minister John Key said some of the proposals, which would see cost-cutting of more than $25 million at the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry (MFAT) and up to 305 jobs go, were "a bit aggressive".

He said the final decision belonged to MFAT chief executive John Allen, although the State Sector Act allowed the Government to indicate policy direction.

Leaked cables from senior diplomats in Argentina, Tokyo and Singapore have included strong criticism of planned changes and others are known to share their concerns.

The cuts to pay and allowances would force those posted overseas to carry more of their own costs, by slashing existing allowances for partners and children.

Yesterday, a group representing 180 partners of ministry staffers met Mr Allen to deliver a letter outlining their strong opposition.

They are encouraging their partners to quit en masse.

"We will be encouraging our partners, and supporting their efforts, to pursue a career beyond MFAT. We have travelled and served in inhospitable and insecure environments, accepted disruption to careers and schooling, absorbed loss of income and pension, and felt the impacts of long absences," they said.

Group spokeswoman Bronwen Golder said diplomats' partners and families felt insulted by the proposals.

The group last night released an open letter to Mr Allen, saying they were determined to be heard despite being "explicitly excluded" from the consultation process.

They said 72 per cent of posted officials had partners, and out of 83 who responded to a survey only one had not had to quit employment in New Zealand to join a partner. Only 14 had found equivalent employment on posting or on return to New Zealand.

They questioned why a single allowance model, regardless of family composition, was not indirect discrimination on the grounds of marital or family status.

They also attached stories from partners that included one who had acted as unofficial translator, another who looked after tourists during Cyclone Heta in Niue and others who had to deal with coups, violent elections and protests, and even tear gas during the revolution in Egypt.

One said their children also suffered, growing up away from family and New Zealand norms and becoming "third culture kids" having to adapt to new cultures, schools and environments. "While many strive, others struggle."

Mr Key indicated pay was one area Mr Allen should back away from.

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"I think some around compensation are likely to be a bit aggressive. I mean at the end of the day there are genuine issues there. Spouses do accompany their partner more often than not on a foreign posting and they don't always get the opportunity to take out employment in the locations they go to."

Mr Allen was legally obliged to take on the feedback, Mr Key said.

- The Dominion Post

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