Hooton on MFAT

March 8th, 2012 at 4:00 pm by David Farrar

A good column in the NBR by Matthew Hooton:

Murray McCully may be positioning himself as a fiscal enforcer but he’s really a bit of a wuss.

Proposed $25 million cuts to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade ( ), making 305 mostly Wellington-based bureaucrats redundant, simply bring it back to where it was in 2007/8 before Winston Peters announced his massive $600-million five-year spend-up.

Which was in fact more money than MFAT even wanted. He told them to triple the size of their budget bid around 24 hours before the deadline.

After all, Mfat, under its existing budgets, had successfully negotiated CER, the Uruguay Round agreement, the free-trade agreement with China and phase one of the Trans Pacific Partnership. It had won election to the UN Security Council, hosted Apec and CHOGM, installed Mike Moore and Don McKinnon to head the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Commonwealth, and broadly restored relations with the US.

It wasn’t obvious it needed vastly more money than previous foreign minister Phil Goff had provided for six years.

Goff now seems more passionate about defending every last MFAT job, that anything he did as Opposition Leader.

Mr McCully’s more important changes involve not the number of personnel but their deployment.

Mfat has long been the most conservative of departments.

The only way in was its graduate programme. Time served drove promotion. No one was ever fired. Its employment agreements insist that older people have first entitlement to new positions over younger staff. Consequently, it struggles to retain talented 30-somethings.

To the fury of ageing baby boomers, Mr McCully has aggressively promoted top Gen X talent.

Vangelis Vitalis, 43, has been appointed ambassador to the EU and Nato; Taha Macpherson, 40, to Turkey, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority; Reuben Levermore, 36, to the Philippines; and Justin Fepuleai, 38, to Afghanistan. Ben King, 39, is John Key’s new chief foreign policy advisor in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

While a late baby boomer, Patrick Rata has been appointed ambassador to South Korea after Mr McCully discovered him in a back-office role having committed the ultimate Mfat sin – taking a couple of years off mid-career, to be Mr Moore’s right-hand man at the World Trade Organisation.

Surprisingly, given Mr McCully’s ultra-partisan reputation, there has been no hint of political favouritism.

As a student leader, Mr Vitalis led protests against the National government in the early 1990s. Mr Macpherson spent three years as Mr Goff’s top aide. Mr King worked for trade minister Lockwood Smith, whom Mr McCully has fought in bitter intra-party warfare, and Mr Rata for Mr Moore. Dr Fepuleai’s PhD is in political science, surely something deserving Mr McCully’s scorn. Arguably only Mr Levermore fits the McCully stereotype, having played professional rugby in France.

With these and future appointments, Mr McCully has decided that talented Gen Xers shouldn’t have to wait until their late 40s or early 50s to reach the top tier. Nor should older talent be punished for working temporarily outside Mfat’s hallowed halls.

Not everyone at MFAT is unhappy with the changes. They are providing opportunities also.

As many as 166 kiwi diplomats are still stationed in the UK, continental Europe and the US, even excluding the delegations to the UN, WTO and Russia.

In comparison, just 23 diplomats are stationed in Australia, 41 in India and 44 in mainland China.

Mfat still has 11 diplomatic posts in Europe (excluding Geneva and Russia) but just two in Australia, two in China and one in India.

There is a full-scale embassy in Stockholm, which Helen Clark opened in 2008 and Mr McCully plans to close, and in Vienna, despite New Zealand’s exports to Sweden being just $72 million in 2010/11 and to Austria just $18 million.

In contrast, New Zealand has no presence in Chongqing, with its 30 million people and surging economy, nor is New Zealand represented in India’s boomtown of Bangalore.

Mr McCully is on the right track but he still has a long way to go to build a foreign service that properly reflects New Zealand’s place in the 21st century.

Matthew defends the changes so well, he could apply to be a ministerial press secretary :-)

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27 Responses to “Hooton on MFAT”

  1. joana (1,983 comments) says:

    How would someone like McCully recognize talent? He can’t even write a polite letter.

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  2. Daigotsu (452 comments) says:

    McCully fought Lockwood Smith? Says who? Got a source, Hooton?

    Sounds like a lefty beat-up.

    [DPF: Umm Matthew worked for Lockwood]

    {DPF: And his now wife worked for Murray]

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  3. Daigotsu (452 comments) says:

    Also, why the fuck do we have an ambassador to the Palestinian Autority?

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  4. joana (1,983 comments) says:

    Dai..I thought the Uk was the Palestinian authority?? Why so much duplication? Next someone will be telling me have an embassy in Benghazi..

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  5. mikenmild (11,246 comments) says:

    Do ministers really make senior appointments within MFAT?. Thought that would be ruled out by the State Sector Act.

    [DPF: As I understand it they don't appoint Wellington based staff, but Ambassadors are approved by the Minister]

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  6. kowtow (8,135 comments) says:

    Why have an office in Afghanistan?

    Security must cast a fortune and for what?

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  7. WineOh (624 comments) says:

    I have known a number of staff in MFAT personally, including younger GenX and baby boomers. Of those in the diplomatic positions each one of them has presented as knowledgeable, astute and professional and looking to represent NZ’s interests. A shame that the axe had to fall, but it did need to. Also, we do not have embassies and unique ambassadors to each country, many have a shared territory that they cover from a centralised location. EG for many of the smaller European countries we have one person as the representative for a number combined.

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  8. Kurmudgeon (3 comments) says:

    Hooton is well wide of the mark with his comments about the conservatism of MFAT. For many years now, “lateral entry” has been available; while promotion has definitely not been driven by time served, but by ability and performance. No employment agreement has ever remotely mentioned – or even hinted – anything about older people having first entitlement to positions over younger staff – that’s clearly a civil service myth. And there are more than a few MFAT officers who have worked outside the Ministry in the course of their careers.
    But Hooton’s figures for Kiwi diplomats stationed overseas are crazy. Give or take the odd officer in transit, there is currently a grand total of 220 seconded NZ MFAT staff serving in 53 overseas posts. Of these, just 54 officers are in Europe, including the UK, Russia, and Geneva. In the whole of the Americas, including the UN Mission in NY, there are 34 seconded staff members. There are 17 in the Middle East and Africa, and just 9 in Australia. There is a total of 62 NZ diplomats currently in Asian posts, with another 44 spread around the Pacific Islands.
    (These figures are only for MFAT, and do not include Trade or Defence staff, or staff from other Government departments, but do include development staff who are now back in the MFAT fold.)
    I suspect Hooton has totalled up locally employed staff, seconded staff, and even domestic staff in his figures for Australia, India and China. He also seems not to understand that, unlike Australia, India and China, Europe is not yet a single political entity. Sheesh!

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  9. joana (1,983 comments) says:

    Good post Kurmudgeon.

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  10. Biggreenbugeyedmonster (4 comments) says:

    I really hope that steps are taken to ensure that good experienced diplomats are retained, but the bottom line is that there are far too many senior staff there who are just not competent to be managers. Experienced diplomats are not necessarily going to be good managers.
    The real scandal are the NZDF foreign postings – no idea why the lid hasn’t been lifted on that trough.

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  11. Random Punter (68 comments) says:

    Hooton is wrong about so much it’s hard to know where to begin.

    The post in Stockholm is not “a full scale embassy” except in status: it’s staffed by a man and a dog (OK, a woman actually).

    Trade is not the only criterion for the establishment of a post: the embassy in Vienna is responsible for relations not just with Austria, but with the UN agencies located there.

    Diplomacy is a profession which requires judgement and discretion which can be developed only with wide experience in a broad range of environments: that’s why ambassadors have traditionally been senior officers who have served in a variety of posts, not because “time served drove promotion”.

    [DPF: As I understand it they don't appoint Wellington based staff, but Ambassadors are approved by the Minister]. Correct, but one of the concerns of MFAT officers is that the present minister has sought to influence Wellington-based appointments in a way which they consider to be quite improper.

    That’s enough to be going on with.

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  12. mikenmild (11,246 comments) says:

    So McCully has been getting that hands on, has he? Something that has been long foreseen and much resisted (political appointment of public servants).

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  13. joana (1,983 comments) says:

    McCully and improper in the same sentence?? ..No … strike me down with a feather.

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  14. lastmanstanding (1,265 comments) says:

    Dear oh Dear What you must understand is that perception is all. We just cant have the axing of posts in places of significant diplomatic importance. Good grief One shudders to think of what ones diplomatic colleagues might make of McCullys treading where angels fear to tread.
    McCully lacks the finesse and understanding of the finer points of diplomacy.In fact he has been described as a graduate of the KGB School of Charm and Deportment with oak leaf cluster.

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  15. Random Punter (68 comments) says:

    lms: “…perception is all…”

    Well, perhaps not all, but quite a bit, I grant you. Much of diplomacy is about sending signals. That’s why a decision to close a post should not be taken hastily or lightly, because it will not be well received by the host government. Most governments also expect ambassadors accredited to them to be seasoned diplomats, not inexperienced juniors. Try sending a boy or girl ambassador to Beijing, Tokyo, or Washington and see where it gets you. It may be old-fashioned, but most governments believe you don’t send a boy to do a man’s job.

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  16. mikenmild (11,246 comments) says:

    Oh yes, heaven forbid that we don’t send a suitably senior nabob to Timbuktu or Budapest to impress the locals with that certain je ne sais quois acquired from a couple of decades attending cocktail parties round the world. No one is actually suggesting one inexperienced envoy to China, Japan or the US. I had to laugh this morning when I read someone complaining that reducing the staff in Buenos Aires to 3 or 4 would leave them no time to do anything other than ‘self administration’!

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  17. joana (1,983 comments) says:

    When I lived in malaysia , the crowd in Kl were pretty useless..all about themselves and about furthering the govt agenda of the day..[labour] They were paying a totally usless Malay to be consul in our part of east malaysia..He spent almost all his time in NZ on a golf course..He and his equally useless wealthy NZ wife were building an enormous house there..I never saw him the whole time I saw her briefly twice..once she gave me a form , the next time she raved on and on about how depressed she was..she who was so wealthy she hardly needed to spend time there..In the early days, my fellow kiwis , there were very few of us, got invited to a few things..then later aggressive Chinese locals set up a NZ Malaysian business centre,,they would all have been crooks..They had a big opening..All the highly paid staff from KL came over and none of us local kiwis got an invite..Snobby and generally useless would be my report..If I had got into real trouble there which I could easily have done I would have sought help from the local Catholic church or the Aussie embassy in KL..
    I was so ticked off with these wallies that I did not tell them I was leaving so then rec’d emails from them for years after I had left Malaysia.. They did not give a tinkers toss about the welfare of NZers living in Borneo..Head hunting caught another wave whist we were living there..One young kiwi who had to go out to kalimantan to renew his visa. Once he got on a bus to come back..There was a severed head on the back seat..No embassy staff gave a toss about him..If he had got into trouble , he would have been on his own..Whilst I was living there The UK closedi its consular office.

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  18. Mark (1,471 comments) says:

    You have to applaud the governments endeavours to reduce the size of government and bring the civil service kicking and screaming into the 21st century in terms of process and efficiency. It will be a painful process for those involved and for these people you have to have a great deal of sympathy. If we believe the rhetoric the civil service grew significantly during the Clark administration and you only need to see the expansion of govt department accommodation during that period to accept it at face value then much of the current change is simply getting the size of government back to the levels prior to Clarke.

    It seems to make a lot of sense to bring some of the functions of Government that cover the same work together although unlike DPF I am not a great fan of super ministries.

    Still whilst the savings from these initiatives are nothing to sneeze at there needs to be some vision and leadership from the Key Government in areas where they can make some substantial financial savings. The first is the retirement age. It is simply ostrich behaviour not to address this now and the options are fairly straight forward. Move the entitlement age to 67 or even better have it means tested from 65 and universal from 70.

    Another area where they can make some inroads is in the Kiwisaver subsidies. It would be logical to have the subsidies and make Kiwisaver compulsory. The immediate saving to government would be in the hundreds of millions.

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  19. Matthew Hooton (128 comments) says:

    Thank you Random Punter for demonstrating my point so well (March 8th, 2012 at 10:59 pm). Your comments suggest you are exactly the sort of angry MFAT baby boomer I was writing about, or at least an advocate of them.

    You wrote: “Most governments also expect ambassadors accredited to them to be seasoned diplomats, not inexperienced juniors. Try sending a boy or girl ambassador to Beijing, Tokyo, or Washington and see where it gets you. It may be old-fashioned, but most governments believe you don’t send a boy to do a man’s job.”

    I am taking it you are referring to my mentioning the recent appointments of Mr Vitalis, 43; Mr Macpherson, 40; Mr Levermore, 36; Dr Fepuleai, 38; Mr King, 39; and Mr Rata, 49. (If not, what is the point of your comment?)

    That you describe these men as boys is exactly the attitude within MFAT that Mr McCully is trying to address.

    It should be noted that the President of the United States was 47 when he was elected, as was John Key when he became Prime Minister of New Zealand. Bill Clinton was 45 when he was elected President. The current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was 43 when he was elected, as was his deputy. Even in the conservative Philippines, Benigno Aquino III was only 50 when he was elected. Rajiv Gandhi was 40 when he became Prime Minister of India in 1984, and David Lange was 42 when he became Prime Minister of New Zealand the same year.

    It would be remarkable if any international leaders, even those in Beijing, objected to people in their late 30 or 40s representing New Zealand in their countries. To the contrary, sending some soon-to-retire, 60-something career diplomat to represent us doesn’t exactly demonstrate New Zealand commitment to the international relationship.

    And, Mark, at March 9th, 2012 at 10:02 am, you are dead right. I have written about the matters you raise in today’s print edition of the NBR (it should be online tomorrow). Raising the age of eligibility for superannuation to 66 would save about $750 million a year. Raising it to 67 would presumably raise a bit less than twice that. Abolishing KiwiSaver subsidies would save $614 million a year.

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  20. KevinH (1,192 comments) says:

    [DPF: As I understand it they don't appoint Wellington based staff, but Ambassadors are approved by the Minister]. Correct, but one of the concerns of MFAT officers is that the present minister has sought to influence Wellington-based appointments in a way which they consider to be quite improper.

    No doubt there are complaints from within MFAT concerning political appointments ie the skill and experience of Ambassadors, however those appointments are a part of the political wallpaper in Wellington and senior politicians as Matthew knows covet the London and New York positions.

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  21. Random Punter (68 comments) says:

    Not angry at all, MH, just genuinely concerned for the future of a professional foreign service in New Zealand. My comments were deliberately general, and should not be interpreted as referring to specific individuals. It is a pity you cannot conduct a debate on a serious issue without imputing to others views which they haven’t expressed and do not hold.

    The sentences you quote from my earlier post do not express a personal view, but describe an attitude held by “most governments”. If you disagree with that attitude, take it up with them, not me.

    With the possible exception of Mr Key, I’m not sure I would regard any of the leaders you cite as a good advertisement for youth in positions of political leadership.

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  22. Matthew Hooton (128 comments) says:

    Perhaps, Random Punter, you are entirely random. Perhaps I write a column about the decision by the Foreign Minister to promote younger MFAT talent, and you just randomly respond with terms like “inexperienced juniors” and “boys and girls” without referring to any of the appointees I mentioned.

    It seems more likely that, give your concerns about “the future of a professional foreign service in New Zealand” and the warnings about what you think “most governments” might think, that in fact you are concerned about the at least some of the appointments I cite.

    That is not “imputing to others views which they haven’t expressed.” Your comment “try sending a boy or girl ambassador to Beijing, Tokyo, or Washington and see where it gets you” absolutely implies you think at least some recent appointments have involved “boys and girls.” Unless, as I say, these were some sort of random Tourette’s comments you made, unconnected to the original column and post.

    And I think in my response to you I absolutely make the point that it is not plausible that “most governments” would object to people in the age range of recent appointments given that serious national leaders are also in a similar age range.

    Your criticism of all the leaders I mentioned “with the possible exception of Mr Key” suggests considerable arrogance on your part. And your description of them as “youth” – when their ages at election range from 40 to 50! – raises the questions: (1) just how old do you think someone has to be to stop being “inexperienced juniors”, “boys and girls” and “youth”? and (2) how old are you?

    I don’t mean to be unkind, but you do sound like a disgruntled 60-something, over-looked for promotion. And that would not be surprising given the very poor quality of your argumentation.

    – its just reaching the only rational conclusion about what was meant.

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  23. Random Punter (68 comments) says:

    Sorry, MH, I thought it was you who cited Obama, Clinton et al as youthful leaders. Did I misunderstand you?

    I hope you will take my word for it that I’m genuinely concerned for the future of a professional foreign service in New Zealand, as I believe you are. We disagree about how that is to be achieved. I think that diplomatic skills (tact, discretion, judgement) are not acquired just by completing a degree/training course, and a few years at a desk in Wellington, but are developed over time, through experience of working on a wide range of issues, in a wide range of political/economic contexts, and through observing at first hand how relations are conducted with governments and international organisations of widely differing types. Such experience takes time to acquire: someone who has acquired it, through a variety of postings, will, inevitably, no longer be in the first flush of youth. And yes, I do think that, as a matter of principle and best practice, the appointment as heads of mission of people with no or very limited prior diplomatic experience is ill-advised.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I suspect you would disagree with all those statements? If so, would it be asking too much for you to express your disagreement without calling me names such as “angry MFAT baby boomer” (wrong incidentally), and “disgruntled 60-something, over-looked for promotion” (wrong again), or descending to vulgar abuse (“entirely random”, “Tourette’s comments”, “considerable arrogance”). Such tactics don’t actually strengthen your argument, you know.

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  24. Kurmudgeon (3 comments) says:

    I note that MH has twice responded – abusively – to Random Punter, but has not attempted to take issue with my previous fact-heavy posting. Perhaps I should encourage him to either disagree with it or justify his own factual claims?

    The figures given earlier for NZ diplomatic staff currently posted overseas can indeed be quibbled at the margins, given that one Ministry estimate totals just over 240 – however the higher figure include officers undergoing language training as well as some officers from other departments temporarily seconded into MFAT. The totals in my comment are for those full-time MFAT seconded staff whose positions are recorded in current office structures for individual overseas posts – i.e. those people whose jobs are up for grabs and/or under threat in the “new Ministry” and the proposed future state of overseas missions.

    Possibly MH could tell us how many countries have diplomatic representation in Chongqing or Bangalore? MFAT diplomats are necessarily stationed where they can interact with governments and government agencies – NZ Trade and Enterprise is the agency which facilitates NZ commercial interaction with business centres. And the post in Sweden was originally established to cover NZ’s relations with the Nordic countries with which we work closely in many international forums – reducing it to a one-person “spoke” post took away the rationale for its existence – as was intended by those who directed the downgrading of the embassy. Similarly with Warsaw, originally intended to cover relations with a number of Eastern European states, but left high and dry when reduced to the thin bilateral relationship with Poland. The third European “spoke” post in Madrid is likely to survive only because of NZ’s current campaign for a UNSC seat (don’t ask why) and the large number of Kiwis who require consular assistance in Spain.

    I have absolutely no personal axe to grind in this business, but it is saddening to see a foreign service – much-respected by its peer agencies around the world – treated so savagely and so poorly, by so many ill-informed and ill-disposed commentators. It is especially regrettable that MH has gone along with the spin put around by proponents of the proposed changes – not least some in the Beehive, as well as some of the various “change agents” brought into the Ministry by the current CEO – himself originally appointed as Chief Change Agent.

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  25. mikenmild (11,246 comments) says:

    The previous two comments represent fairly exactly the culture change required in MFAT.

    Following the heresy of appointing a capable outsider as chief executive, that appointee is now, horror of horrors, looking to implement the kind of foreign service New Zealand actually needs unencumbered by the decades of indoctrination implied in ‘observing at first hand how relations are conducted with governments and international organisations of widely differing types.’

    The proof of this pudding will be in the eating. Because there is no way to measure the effectiveness of MFAT, it is also vulnerable to claims that what it does can be delivered better, and at a lower price. The protestors have no recourse but to defend the status quo on the flimsy basis of ‘this is how it’s always been done’.

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  26. Kurmudgeon (3 comments) says:

    The comment above by milkenmild illustrates all too accurately what is meant by “ill-informed and ill-disposed commentators”.

    And could milkenmild point to where and how Random Punter and I are defending the status quo in MFAT?

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  27. margaret40 (1 comment) says:

    There is a lot of noise here about the wonderful generation x appointments – anyone notice they are all male? only one female has been appointed as a Head of Mission by seagull McCully (read Fran Sullivan). Despite that he has surprisingly picked some talent …. but unless you are blond and young and work in his office women really don’t feature in his talent pool. So will the Ministry become another boys bastion of the public service?

    I agree that it is time for a change in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The department has avoided for way too long the idea of change – plenty of reviews done and not implemented. Will it just be the corporate group that take the hit and the “diplomats” continue on their merry way? But does McCully really have the guts to do the job? – he hates the media noise…and you have to take your hats off to those old diploomats – all their skills have been pooled to stonewall changes proposed – and the media have bought into it (maybe it is slow news month?) and the Minister is running scared. If these senior diplomats applied half the effort they are using to block change and retain their preferential status to achieving outcomes for New Zealand what amazing results could be delivered!

    Instead they have mustered a war campaign to stall the process and take the heads off the “change agents” as someone above called them. They have brought in their partners to fight the battle too – and the media have run it. Where are the investigative journalists of New Zealand in all this space? How is it that in the current economic climate we think it is OK to preserve the benefits of diplomats and families (private schools, full medical cover, free accommodation to name some) while there is no discussion on the cuts in New Zealand, the effect on the families of the port authority strike, the effect on the meatworkers. Is it that we only have interest in the educated articulate elite … and it is fine to ignore others who are losing their jobs entirely?

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