Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Kiwi bumpkins on the US naughty stool


Anyone who's been exiled to a remote branch office will sympathise with the outbursts of frustration that leach out of the Welli-leaks surfacing on the internet.

They'll recognise the irascibility that bubbles to the surface in some of the leaked diplomatic cables between the United States Embassy in Wellington about the ingratitude of the country bumpkins who refuse to be saved with the aid of nuclear warships. They'll spot tabloidish excesses in the despatches as desperate attempts to attract the attention of the head-office bosses away from the messages of more important posts.

The Wellington embassy leaks that have surfaced so far are hardly smoking-gun material. The biggest scandal seems to be that new Prime Minister John Key greased up to the Chinese premier and promised not to see the Dalai Lama, contradicting a commitment he made on the election trail. Well, so what?

The Dalai Lama is ancient history, an exiled theocrat from the Middle Ages. The only reason for a New Zealand leader to meet him officially would be to deliberately wind up the Chinese. Which doesn't seem smart politics in this day and age. You only have to review the repercussions of our nuclear ship ban to appreciate the possible outcomes of tweaking a super power's tail.

As for the revelations that disgraced former Immigration Department head, Mary Anne Thompson was acknowledged as "an invaluable behind-the-scenes" embassy contact who, in the words of then charge d'affaires David R. Burnett, has "in the past provided us with valuable insights about how best to sell US policies with Government NZ" - my initial reaction was at the wording.

It reminded me of the platitudes I was trained to use when filling out expense accounts while working as a journalist in London to justify a good lunch with a contact.

Ms Thompson was hardly the only "valuable" contact. Assorted politicians and bureaucrats seem to have been whispering non-stop into the ears of the US diplomats.

It was a New Zealand diplomat, Graeme Morton, after all, who is named as the source of the discussion about the Dalai Lama between Mr Key and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Now Foreign Minister Murray McCully keeps popping out of the despatches, as does trade minister Tim Groser. As a former diplomat himself, Mr Groser can't resist buddying up to his fellow tradesmen. In September last year, US Charge d'Affaires Robert Clarke dropped in on Mr Groser for an introductory chat. After a lengthy discussion about free trade and climate change, Mr Clarke reported back that the minister then kicked his advisers out and "opened what he termed a frank political discussion".

He warned that pro-American Opposition leader Phil Goff was under "extreme pressure" and if the fringe of the left wing of the Labour Party managed to displace him, you could suddenly see "a real anti-American element spring up".

Groser did predict Mr Goff would lead Labour into the 2011 election campaign. An earlier despatch had Mr Groser blabbing to the Americans that his leader, John Key, had been "nervous as hell" before a major foreign policy speech.

Simmering away is the anti-nuclear policy, an irritating itch that the diplomats just can't resist scratching. Aided, from time to time, by local politicians such as Mr McCully. Indeed, most of the reportage in the American despatches backgrounding events in New Zealand seems fair and well researched.

But there's a built in "Fox News" spell-checker that seems to add "anti-American" every time to the anti-nuke policy comes up.

There's a particularly exasperated despatch from former ambassador Charles Swindells on February 22, 2005, complaining that some US policymakers have been nice to New Zealand while "soliciting New Zealand's co-operation in the war on terrorism, Iraq, World Trade Organisation talks and other issues", without reminding the Kiwis they're also still on the naughty stool.

"Our failure to at the same time honestly tell New Zealand that the nuclear ban remains important to us has enabled New Zealand officials to claim that the issue is irrelevant" while they lobby heavily in Congress for a free-trade agreement.

He complains that "we should not reward our Kiwi friends" while other countries in the region such as Japan and Australia, also with strong anti-nuclear lobbies, toe the American line. "They and others in the region - even tiny Fiji - also contribute far more to support our military capabilities around the world than does New Zealand ...

"While New Zealand officials point proudly to the large number of peacekeeping and other operations in which their military participate, in most cases these deployments consist of one or two liaison officers."

Still, five years on and a change of administration in both countries - though not in anti-nuclear policy - and everything is almost sweetness and light.

The "scene setter" despatch to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, preparing her for her January visit this year - subsequently postponed - declared the relationship on an "upward trajectory" and that the embassy staff "share" with "your Kiwi hosts ... their excitement about your trip".

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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