McCully - the private but international face of the John Key Government video

ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Foreign minister Murray McCully will give up his post next week, to spend some time with his head in the clouds, and feet on the greens

For the past eight and a half years Murray McCully has been the international face of the New Zealand Government.

From the micro-states of the Pacific to the United Nations Security Council - including a very public falling out with Israel over a New Zealand-sponsored resolution - he was Prime Minister John key's right hand man as foreign minister.

But despite that high-profile he has been remarkably private and fiercely protective of his family.

John Key says farewell to Parliament. McCully says he was without compare.
MAARTEN HOLL

John Key says farewell to Parliament. McCully says he was without compare.

It has been a public life lived out of the public eye.

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The Key Government's international face: New Zealand's foreign minister Murray McCully is standing down and will quit ...

The Key Government's international face: New Zealand's foreign minister Murray McCully is standing down and will quit politics after 30 years.

But the low profile and privacy is just the way he likes it.

During an "exit interview" before he heads for the back benches next week, and out of politics for good at the election, he is not about to change the habits of a political lifetime.

Yet over the 30 years since he was first elected MP for East Coast Bays - and in stints as minister under first Jim Bolger in the 1990s and then John Key - he has at times been at the centre of a maelstrom of controversy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Murray McCully, to warn him a New Zealand backed resolution was a ...
RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned Murray McCully, to warn him a New Zealand backed resolution was a "declaration of war".

Most notable was the extraordinary revolt of the mandarins at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, when normally sober-sided and loyal diplomats took to the trenches to oppose a restructuring and fight their own boss. McCully did distance himself from the plan, pushed through by chief executive John Allen, and publicly expressed his "misgivings" but it was an unprecedented revolution in the public service.

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Then there was the Saudi sheep deal that saw New Zealand fork out $12 million to set up an experimental sheep farm in the desert to keep an influential businessman onside - and help clear a road block to a future free trade deal. The auditor-general cleared the deal of any suggestion of corruption or "facilitation payments" but found "significant shortcomings" in the Cabinet paper McCully presented to his colleagues.

McCully concedes the "process" could have been better but says it was one of many issues he was handling - including campaigning for a seat on the Security Council and travelling; "more than half my time on the road and the rest jet-lagged". But he insists he did the best he could to fix a "poisoned" relationship with the Gulf region.

The latest was the way he slammed MFAT boss Brook Barrington and the ministry for "dropping the ball' by failing to brief him adequately about the impact of Donald Trump's proposed ban on Muslims. There was no attempt to shield officials, as some ministers might, but a public dressing down. In response the ministry set up a "24/7"  unit to monitor and advise on the mercurial new president. "Spilt milk," McCully says about it now.

The ministry is even putting on a "shindig" for him on Thursday evening to say goodbye. But he jokes about needing a food taster. 

For a politician with the reputation as a hard man, a back-room machiavelli and an "operator" he is remarkably warm and funny - though not so much if you are one of the officials who has reported to him over the years. 

But McCully says he was never in politics "for the ride" and while "pretty assertive" had been "professional and constructive" too. 

And he concedes he has been prominent in some of the political coups and infighting in the National Party over the years, including John Key's rise to the top.

But he switches to his trademark understatement to describe it.

"I've had a role in one or two of the changes that have taken place."

He was "fairly involved in the discussions" that led to Key being elected National leader. He calls that sort of backroom role "the more challenging end of domestic political management, shall we say".

As for a reputation as a Machiavellian Dark Prince? "Look, people have got to sell newspapers and fill six o'clock bulletins ... that means they have to find ways of characterising people who are unable to talk about their roles in things. I have personally been treated extremely harshly and have been deeply hurt by the experience but I'll try and get over it." 

But Key was the right horse to back, and McCully rates him the best.

"There is simply no comparison with John Key. He was a guy that got out of bed every morning to be positive about things. He was a very disciplined guy, despite the smile and the relaxed demeanour ... and ruthless about getting to where he wanted to get to." 

On the international stage he lists Hillary Clinton and John Kerry including for what they were prepared to do to mend the relationship with this country that was damaged by the nuclear issue and the ANZUS split. 

"The objective was always to try and get into a new type of partnership arrangement that was not a formal alliance including a security relationship ... Say it quickly it doesn't sound too difficult, but actually it's been a pretty difficult path."

The friendship with the US was now in great shape.

But he becomes most animated talking about the Pacific, in particular his promotion of renewable energy ("$2 billion of our money and other people's money") to reduce the economic and environmental cost of importing diesel in small islands like Tokelau. More recently that has involved protecting and managing their most valuable resource - fishing.

"In an environment where lots of feelgood things happen, we've done practical things." 

But again he denies the "personal" in the success.

"In that sense I think it's a big win for New Zealand." 

Look at the public databases and even there is scarce detail of his personal life, beyond where he went to school, his qualification as a lawyer and his long relationship with Listener columnist Jane Clifton - who is now married to his rival across the chamber Trevor Mallard.

Of his former marriage there is nothing, nor any mention of his two adult sons. 

He said he had made up my mind quite early in his political career to engage with the media "but not to try and get myself on magazine covers and that sort of thing. I've never been interested in that style of politics - that's not to criticise those who do," he says.

"If you court that sort of publicity you have to take everything that happens and I decided that I wanted to get on and do my job."

He said he had "a couple of children that I keep in close contact with" though they had never been in the public eye.

And he has never talked in detail about a major health scare in 2015 that saw him stand aside after major surgery to remove a benign tumour. 

So what about now he is leaving? Will he give away anything about his personal plans?

"I've had my first golf lesson - it's clear that I have considerable natural talent, but it might need a bit of shaping."

He also planned to fly, having got to the stage of going solo before he became foreign minister and had to ditch the hobby.

He had been involved in rugby and "one way or another I will be involved in that space".

But he was not looking for job once he leaves Parliament after the election. He once said he would rather "cut off his arm with a rusty saw" than become a diplomat. Too many years of being diplomats' boss to be at a foreign minister's beck and call.

Yet he says there are some things he could do to make use of his experience and networks and he had been approached.

Though he would not reveal anything yet, it is odds somewhere in the Pacific will be on his boarding pass.

Just don't expect a book - let alone a tell-all magazine article - about the life of Murray Stuart McCully, MP from 1987 to 2017.

 - Stuff

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