The role of Foreign Minister is not a prominent one in New Zealand politics, which is surprising considering the role represents the country to others. Murray McCully, who relinquished the job yesterday to retire from Parliament at the September election, has been no more prominent than most, which is surprising because he has been an influential figure in politics throughout a 30-year career.
His tactical instincts have been highly regarded in two National governments. He was in the inner circle of advisers to Prime Ministers Jim Bolger, Jenny Shipley and John Key, one of the senior ministers in Key's "kitchen cabinet" despite the frequent absence the job of Foreign Minister demands.
Yet for all his status behind the scenes, the public knows him by reputation rather than observation. When he appeared on television he invariably looked and sounded worried, distrustful and defensive - the complete reverse of the demeanour a political consultant would advise. He clearly did not relish dealing with the media despite (or perhaps because of) being a public relations practitioner before entering Parliament. He seemed more relaxed in those days as a long-haired, bearded leader of the Young Nationals than he has been since.
But by reputation he has been formidable, not only as a political tactician but as minister who gets things done. Officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade quickly learned he had no patience with vague and verbose papers or discussion that did not get straight to the point. He tended to be abrupt and aggressive rather than diplomatic in disagreements and when he wanted something done he would go outside the ministry if necessary to engage people who had his confidence.
In his first term as Foreign Minister he made it easier for business and professional people to lend their leadership and expertise to New Zealand's aid and development projects. He once upset his officials by advertising the job of High Commissioner to Kiribati in a newspaper. He appointed former political leaders Mike Moore and Jim McLay ambassadors respectively to Washington and the United Nations. He recruited a young, highly-regarded chief executive of NZ Post, John Allen, to head the ministry.
He encouraged Allen to plan a drastic shake-up of the ministry's culture and procedures, enabling it to rapidly promote younger, talented people from its middle ranks rather than reward length of service. But when the plan, involving a reduction of hundreds of staff, was opposed by almost all heads of New Zealand missions overseas in a letter to Allen that was leaked to the Labour Party, McCully took cover and Allen took the blame.
It was not McCully's finest hour, nor was the sheep farm financed by New Zealand taxpayers for a business in Saudi Arabia to facilitate a free trade agreement (yet to be done) with the Gulf States. McCully's proudest achievements are the UN vote for a seat on the Security Council, the first US warship visit since the nuclear stand-off and the efforts he has made for the Pacific. He has been a decisive operator who will not be forgotten.