Mccully’s mixed messages
On its website, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade describes its role as being ‘‘ to make New Zealand’s voice heard overseas, and contribute directly to the security and wellbeing of all New Zealanders’’.
Yet if Foreign Affairs Minister Murray Mccully has his way, that voice will be heard less loudly in European capitals, and our diplomats will have fewer resources to assist the ‘‘security and wellbeing’’ of Kiwi travellers in Europe and the Middle East.
Currently, Mccully’s programme is in deep trouble. Only a month ago, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief executive John Allen unveiled a restructuring plan to save $25 million by slashing 169 jobs at home, and 136 locally-hired staff in our diplomatic posts abroad.
Behind the niceties of consultancy-speak, the staff who lead our trade and diplomatic efforts aboard were essentially being told their skills and experience were disposable and that they’d been overpaid and expensively cosseted for years.
Amid the subsequent uproar, the change managers steering the process reportedly told stressedout staff to ‘‘take a hot bath, pray, do yoga or get a pet – because ‘ a pet’s love is unconditional’ ’’.
Last week Mccully made a sudden U- turn and launched an extraordinary public attack on the officials executing the plan he had initiated, despite the fact that Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade bosses had been ‘‘in discussion with Government throughout the process’’, according to a ministry spokesperson.
The gist of Mccully’s criticism was that the reforms had turned into a cost-cutting exercise across the board, whereas, Mccully claimed, he’d always wanted the ministry to be switching its resources from Europe to Asia.
Only about 150 jobs now seem likely to be scrapped, mainly within New Zealand.
However, more diplomatic posts in Europe – including Rome, Madrid, The Hague and Paris – could still be closed or scaled back to shift resources to India, China and other Asean ( South- East Asian) countries.
To many observers, it still appeared highly shortsighted to send such a clear signal to Europe that our trade and diplomacy links with the region no longer matter much to us.
Other aspects of the Allen/ Mccully plan will, apparently, proceed. The current system of rotation between diplomatic posts (which is meant to create a stable career path for diplomats and retain their experience) would be scrapped, allegedly to open up career opportunities for younger blood. This policy, too, appears short-sighted.
It may save money to turn diplomacy into a fixed-term contract job, and younger diplomats will certainly be cheaper. Diplomacy, however, is a club where experi- ence counts and where the contacts earned through that experience are all-important.
Will our young bright fellows fresh from university be able to function effectively in a context where other countries still value seniority? Probably not.
Moreover, once the new blood realises they’re likely to be thrown to the wolves once their overseas posting ends, our best and brightest graduates will probably think twice about a Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade career.
Rather than pursuing the contacts and initiatives likely to further New Zealand’s interests abroad, our new breed of diplomats could well decide to focus on currying favour with the people back home likely to determine their job prospects. All the upheaval may result in merely a different kind of old boys’ club.