Kim Campbell: Diplomats deserve better treatment

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Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully (left) and his ministry's chief executive, John Allen, have been muted on the overhaul.  Photo / Steven McNicholl, Mark Mitchell
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully (left) and his ministry's chief executive, John Allen, have been muted on the overhaul. Photo / Steven McNicholl, Mark Mitchell

Uncertainty unfair when business relies on those overseas, writes Kim Campbell, chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association.

For the past 40 years New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been the employer of choice for many of our best and brightest.

Now they have endured nearly a year not knowing if they still had a job. They must be wondering what they did to deserve it. After all, their reputation is the subject of envy among diplomatic corps worldwide.

A report from Australia's independent Lowy Institute noted New Zealand has a reputation for exceptional foreign affairs performance. Other eminent Australians have hailed the New Zealand diplomatic corps as "the highest quality and most cost-effective foreign service in the world".

Alex Oliver, writing for the Lowy Institute, said: "Even more so than Australia, New Zealand's geographical isolation and far-flung interests mean that its diplomacy is a critical element in maintaining its international influence, trading and investment ties and ultimately, the nation's prosperity." We concur wholeheartedly.

Our diplomatic corps has served New Zealand extremely well, with a string of laudable trade negotiations to its credit, and to the huge benefit of our agricultural, manufacturing and other businesses.

The free trade agreements we have with Australia, China, Asean, Thailand, Malaysia and others have improved our prospects immeasurably, and are its work.

But business was slow to grasp the scale or implications of what Minister Murray McCully had in mind when he launched his plan for the ministry on April 5 last year. Then the detail of the planned cost cutting began to emerge.

In all, 169 staff of a total 860 positions were to be cut. About 600 staff would have to reapply for their own positions.

Embassies in Warsaw and Stockholm would close. Salary levels and so-called perks would likely be cut. Some services, including consular services, would be outsourced.

However, largely in response to internal dissension, the Budget this year showed the cuts would be less brutal by half than those initially foreshadowed, with the cost savings sought brought down to about $12 million.

Even at this level New Zealand business asks why. Since our excellent team of diplomats has such a great track record enlarging our markets offshore, where our trading future and standards of living at home reside, why would we not boost their resources? Even in straitened times like these, that's what any business would do.

Over the past year, we note Mr McCully's media presence on issues unrelated to his ministry's overhaul has been on the increase, whereas the public presence of the ministry's chief executive John Allen has all but disappeared. The latter must be feeling chastened by the experience, even as Mr McCully glad-hands his way around the Pacific and beyond. Meanwhile, the ministry is left bruised and demoralised.

Business is left asking what was this all about. We understand very well the need for the Government to reduce its costs and applaud the efforts to do so - but not in areas where the dividends are plainly so large and strategically important.

Were the initial budget cuts part of a doctrinaire political philosophy demanding our top external political force be subject to the same cost reductions as other public servants, or bloody mindedness or just plain clumsy? No matter, from a business point of view the result is a negative.

What can we learn from this debacle?

New Zealand business holds the ministry and its work in the highest regard, but the views of business were not invited prior to, nor since, the budget hacking began.

Business is constantly reviewing whether or not change is needed, but change for change' sake is simply wasteful.

If change is necessary, the business principle is always to do it after a lot of thought, analysis and care to ensure its objectives are carried through without unnecessary harm.

Let's hope the current episode won't set up our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for failure.

New Zealand can't afford for our diplomats to lessen their work on winning better trade access for our goods and services. We applaud heartily their every effort to do so.

- NZ Herald

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