Politicians grabbing diplomatic posts
Traditionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has recruited the best and the brightest of university graduates to its ranks.
Fair enough, too. Successful diplomacy calls for a combination of charm, discretion, guile and tactical savvy.
All the more reason for concern then that successive Labour and National governments have regularly filled the top two rungs on our diplomatic ladder – the high commissioner’s job in London, and the New Zealand ambassador’s post in Washington – with former politicians who have little or no formal background in diplomacy whatsoever.
Last week, for instance, the Government announced that Tim Groser would be our new man in Washington, replacing another former politician, Mike Moore.
In a similar vein, former Cabinet Ministers Sir Lockwood Smith and Jonathan Hunt have recently filled the high commissioner’s role in London.
In our diplomacy with our major allies, years of political service seem to outweigh years of experience on the diplomatic circuit.
Groser is a controversial choice. A reputation for arrogance precedes him.
During the recent Trans Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, the already frosty relations between Groser and his Japanese counterpart, Akira Amari, were not helped by a gratuitous snub on New Zealand’s part.
As the Japanese press reported with wonderment in early October, Groser suddenly signalled that New Zealand would embrace the American position on pharmaceutical data – apparently in return for American pressure on Japan’s farm markets, and on North American dairy producers.
A lawmaker from the ruling [Japanese] Liberal Democratic Party, on the spot to monitor the Trans Pacific Partnership ministerial negotiations, reportedly frowned in confusion at New Zealand’s sudden switch, saying: ‘‘I’m afraid New Zealand will make a bargain on dairy trade with the US, and thrust imports on Japan.’’
Things got worse. As the prestigious Nikkei Asian Review reported: ‘‘Groser watched a Rugby World Cup game on television in a bar in Atlanta on October 3 with Malcolm Bailey, chairman of the New Zealand Dairy Companies Association… This was the second consecutive day that Groser watched the rugby tournament.’’
Was this airy detachment supposed to signal that New Zealand would not yield on dairy trade? No one knew.
‘‘In short,’’ the Nikkei report concluded, ‘‘New Zealand tried to do the US a favour in advance, in order to pursue a return on dairy trade – while encouraging the US and Australia to settle the question of drugs.’’
All of which would have been a brilliant gambit if it had succeeded.
Unfortunately, it didn’t. All Groser achieved by his rugbywatching snub was that he seriously offended the Japanese – while winning almost nothing substantive from the Americans on enhanced dairy access, in return for his unilateral concession to them on medicines.
At a wider level, major diplomatic posts should not be awarded as baubles handed out to politicians looking for a retirement niche.
The Washington embassy is the channel for presenting New Zealand’s case to its powerful ally, and it needs someone willing and able to recognise and respond to the signals being sent by others.