Machiavellian McCully's legacy intact

A sight not seen for 30 years - an American warship, the USS Sampson, in New Zealand waters.

A sight not seen for 30 years - an American warship, the USS Sampson, in New Zealand waters.

OPINION: When Britain's famously laddish Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, hosted his New Zealand counterpart, Murray McCully, for their first official meeting he ordered in a crate of Three Choirs British wine.

Johnson must have done his homework. McCully's tipple of choice is usually chardonnay, and often at room temperature. Such is the way the wheels of foreign diplomacy are oiled.

The pair have something else in common.

Murray McCully found his niche on the international stage.

Murray McCully found his niche on the international stage.

Like Johnson, McCully's appointment as foreign minister back in 2008 initially raised some eyebrows.

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McCully built his political reputation as National's machiavellian backroom operator – someone who knew where the bodies were buried, a wheeler dealer and a plotter, so much so the nickname used by many of his colleagues was the dark prince, and not always in jest.

Cheers. Boris Johnson ordered up a crate of wine when Murray McCully turned up on his doorstep.

Cheers. Boris Johnson ordered up a crate of wine when Murray McCully turned up on his doorstep.

But he preferred to operate in the caucus backroom, shunning the spotlight of a front-bench seat. No one expected him to give it all up for a job that would take him out of the country for most of the time, too far way from the party room to wield his power.

What they probably hadn't banked on was McCully relishing the role as much as he does, or immersing himself in it so thoroughly.

When he steps down next month, he will have been in the job nearly nine years, his legacy on the international stage a powerful one, albeit more blemished on the domestic front.

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He helped guide relations with the world's super power, the United States, back to normality after they had been frozen in time for decades over the anti-nuclear bust-up. He worked himself to exhaustion on New Zealand's successful campaign for a seat on the Security Council and earned an international reputation as a fierce and outspoken critic of UN inaction and paralysis.

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He stared down his critics – and there were many of them – for his determination to redirect the aid budget to our own back yard, the Pacific, and refocus it on economic development rather than handouts.

And for most of that time he paid more than lip service to bipartisanship in foreign policy – believing, as he told a foreign policy audience this week, that New Zealand's foreign policy should be conducted in decades, and not in three year political cycles.  Whether that spirit of bipartisanship can survive America's unilateral strike on Syria on Friday remains to be seen.

But it was his standing on a resolution criticising Israel for building settlements on occupied Palestinian land that drew the grudging admiration of even some of his most trenchant critics.

McCully refused to back down even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoned him personally to warn that New Zealand's co-sponsorship of the resolution was a declaration of war. Some of McCully's own caucus were much more spooked than he was.

McCully joked this week that champagne corks will be popping when he goes. It was a reference to his relationship with some of the world's multilateral funding institutions, some of which have been on the receiving end of our foreign minister's hard-headedness about aid to organisations that he sees as bloated and self-serving bureaucracies.

But there will likely be some champagne corks popped closer to home as well. McCully can be abrasive and is a legendary micro manager, qualities that have not always endeared him to his officials, and which saw him butting heads often in his early days as foreign minister.

He has made enemies within the foreign affairs realm, not just for riding roughshod over its many egos and the usual hierarchy, but for not hesitating to dump on his officials when the heat is on.

His wheeler-dealer instincts let him down, meanwhile, over the so-called Saudi sheep deal and helped sharpen the knives of his critics inside caucus. His was the sacrificial head the restless back bench most wanted to see roll when Bill English looked to reshuffle his Cabinet after succeeding John Key.

But McCully's departure next month leaves a big gap in the foreign affairs portfolio when New Zealand probably needs him most. In a world consumed by turbulence, uncertainty and anxiety, relationships will count more than ever.

That was underscored on Friday when the US dramatically shifted its position on Syria and launched an air strike. Donald Trump's call on "civilised nations" to back him will test the boundaries of our newfound status as de facto ally of the US.

Keeping the back channels open will be more important than ever.

McCully – along with former prime minister John Key – has been a master at relationship building on the international stage. Key is gone and English has made a running start at filling his big shoes.

But English is still in the "pleased to meet you" stage (or still looking for the light switches, as one foreign policy observer noted). McCully's relationships go back long enough that he can pick up the phone without worrying about being overly polite.

English's dilemma will be finding someone who can pick up where McCully left off once he steps down on May 1.

Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee tops most wish-lists, and is an obvious fit.

Uprooting rising stars like Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is more difficult, and not just because he will be a rookie on the international stage. The resulting upheaval in health may not be worth it if National puts the foreign affairs portfolio on the table in negotiations with potential coalition partners NZ First after the election, should it be in a position to form a government.

There was even speculation that English himself might pick up the portfolio between now and the election, though it seems he has ruled it out.

But whoever it is, Donald Trump's latest moves on Syria are a reminder that the stakes are high.

 - Stuff

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