Fran O' Sullivan: $80,000 on Trump bash money well spent

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The $80,000 which Ambassador Tim Groser spent on a party in Washington DC to mark Donald Trump's inauguration is money well spent.

Why some people are up in arms over the $80,000 figure is that they conflate diplomacy with their own distaste for Trump.

Those options are not open in the real world where NZ's diplomats have to forge links with Governments to get things done and to protect our economic and security interests.

And in Washington those vital connections are frequently made over a drink.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade confirms the Inauguration Gala was hosted because of the Washington embassy's critical role in pursuing New Zealand's interests with the United States:

"The event was considered as a constituency building activity to position New Zealand's interests effectively with the new US Administration and Congress."

As indeed was blatantly obvious to anyone present at the NZ Embassy in Observatory Circle on the evening of January 17.

Groser in his opening remarks talked about Donald Trump's achievements and the "stunning victory" he secured against tough competition starting with the contest between 17 contestants for the Republican primaries.

But Groser stressed the event was a celebration of the "democratic process" itself.

He traversed the fact that New Zealand - like the United States - had "spilled blood and treasure" to protect and defend democratic freedoms.

The messaging was appropriate.

The Republicans are big on defence and security and NZ's role in standing shoulder to shoulder alongside the United States in the major conflicts of the past century do resonate in Washington.

The fact is the Trump insiders were - and still are - basically foreign to many in Washington DC.

They are not part of the Republican establishment where many share the NZ Government's stance on trade and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

But they are also running the show.

Particularly while the long process of Cabinet confirmations and the staffing of the Trump Administration continues.

Just being on their radar counts.

The Inauguration Gala was attended by Trump Cabinet nominees, members of Trump's Executive Office such as Chris Liddell and Stephen Bannon, senior Trump advisers Stuart Jolly, Mike Rubino and Alan Cobb, the majority Leader of the House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy, senators, members of Congress, generals, a sprinkling of very wealthy businesspeople and Republican insiders.​

I happened to be in Washington DC for the Trump Inauguration and was privileged to be among a handful of US columnists, television and radio hosts who were invited to attend the party.

Typically, the Taxpayers Union - in chase of yet another headline - yesterday called the January 17 party "another display of extravagance from MFAT using the taxpayers' wallet".

That's despite the fact that the event was approved and sat within the baseline budget.

The truth is the cost would have been higher if Groser and his team had not joined forces with the Sonoran Policy Group (SPG), a strategic advisory firm which flies under the radar, and the conservative Salem Media group, to co-host the reception.

They not only help pull together a top class guest list. But they also provided other items - like cigars - which were smoked in a special "smoking room" to comply with both Washington DC and New Zealand laws, and, no doubt would have sparked more faux outrage if provided by the NZ diplomats and "paid for by the NZ taxpayer".

Frankly, as someone who put on plenty of corporate parties, events and occasions back in the day when I worked in external relations, I believe the $80,000 that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade allocated for event of such a high calibre was a snip.

Here's the math.

One day out from the event the embassy had received 395 acceptances for the "Inauguration Gala" .

That works out at roughly $200 a head.

Although there would have been some drop off on the night because some of the major guests also came with their own retinues of minders and the like.

Not bad at all for a Gala which also showcased top New Zealand wines like Cloudy Bay Sauvignon and prime export quality NZ food and great entertainment.

And of course cocktails, which are the liquor of choice for many on Capitol Hill where a great deal of business gets done in the "cocktail" hour.

But the important factor was the contacts that were forged that evening.

It's become commonplace for NZ media to put the boot into Groser since a Washingtonian gossip column piece which misquoted him.

The ambassador can be flippant.

But the Washingtonian was wrong when it said he "professed his own thrill" about the end of "PC" culture.

What he did say was: "One thing I do love about the Trump people is I don't have to be so goddamn PC any longer ... but there are limits and I have to respect those limits."

In effect what Groser was doing was giving the guests an invitation to let their hair down and enjoy themselves.

He made a connection. They enjoyed themselves. The business comes later.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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