A Simplistic Reduction of MFAT Will Solve Nothing

By Gerald McGhie
Gerald McGhie (r) with Rev Akuila Yabaki

Gerald McGhie is a former career diplomat who served as ambassador to Moscow and Seoul, High Commissioner to Port Moresby and Commissioner in Hong Kong. Now retired, he is a past director of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs and was chairman of the New Zealand chapter of Transparency International.

Background. NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully has signalled the closure of several overseas posts and other measures as a means of saving money. In this letter to the NZ Herald Gerald McGhie questions the proposal.

The focus on Foreign Affairs' allowances at a time of economic stress is understandable. Many New Zealanders battle each week to pay the supermarket bill and other necessities. It is a constant problem. But to keep those necessities on the shelves and otherwise available we must be able to trade and trade in today's globalised world means access to markets. That access depends in large measure on negotiating trade agreements between trade partners.
But diplomacy - even for small countries like New Zealand - needs more than agreements on basic trade access. Other states also expect us to play a full part on the highly competitive global stage. This involves international security plans, human rights protection, humanitarian aid and environmental questions and the implementation of safe communication networks. All these issues require our presence around the table.
There is also the bilateral dimension to Foreign Affairs representation. That is, the country-to-country relationship.
In most states a solid working knowledge of local conditions, legislation and personalities is necessary for the conduct of business.
Exporters do not go to the embassies to discuss economics or to be told how to run their businesses but to hear about the factors and conditions peculiar to that particular market.
Most businessmen my colleagues and I have dealt with over the past 30 to 40 years are glad to admit they find that knowledge, and the assistance they look for, in the personnel of overseas posts.
Underpinning all this is our identity as a nation. Diplomats represent those values and interests that we want to project internationally. In his inaugural address, Sir Anand Satyanand described New Zealand characteristics as a dislike of absolute power, inquisitiveness associated with small societies, a preference for liberal democracy and a strong wish to give others a fair go.
I would add a dislike of inequality, an expectation of high standards of governance and respect for the rule of law.
It is a complex mix and we are constantly aware that other states compete for our international space. Tourism New Zealand spends millions defining New Zealand's image. Fonterra and Zespri guard their brands as closely as Coca-Cola and Microsoft.
But there is only one organisation that represents New Zealand as a whole, not just as a seller of quality agricultural produce or a nation of sporting titans or a desirable tourist destination. That institution is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Diplomats are the official face of New Zealand. They represent all of us: our attitudes, our governance, our sporting prowess, our scientific achievements. In short - what we stand for as a nation.
A simplistic reduction of staff at Foreign Affairs will solve nothing. Indeed in the past short-term "savings" have led to long-term losses. Currently a strong consensus of analytical media comment suggests little in the way of excess in allowances while payments pretty much track with international standards. Certainly there is nothing of the colossal sums paid out recently to the financial sector.
But no organisation is perfect. Institutions all require ongoing reform. Foreign Affairs is no exception and has not been immune from restructuring in the past. But the key to change is the achievement of a dynamic relationship between ministers, the CEO and staff in a climate of trust and informed consent on agreed goals. The question then is, can those goals really be achieved without at the same time destroying that institutional knowledge and wisdom built up over 60 years?
It takes years to train a diplomat. If that training, skill and experience is abused or cast off casually it can be lost very quickly. Good diplomats are known: job offers are made.
Diplomats look for balance, perspective and accuracy. These qualities could well be exercised right now.


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