Toby Manhire 's Opinion

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: 'Any price' too much to pay for our top-table seat

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Queenstown.
Queenstown.

Such is the international allure of New Zealand's southern paradise that Queenstown airport might sometimes be described as resembling the United Nations. Lately, however, it really has been the United Nations. This week, 11 ambassadors to the UN were spotted by TV3 in the resort, one of a reported six such delegations being hosted as part of New Zealand's campaign for a stint at the high table of international relations, the Security Council.

What were the trips all about? Erm ... the "visit is focused on sustainable agriculture", said briefing notes to the Prime Minister that were accidentally emailed to reporters. Officially, it was "a fact-finding mission".

Let's hope they found some top facts during their stay such as the quality of Queenstown's five-star hotels and the raw thrill of the Shotover Jet. With a bit of luck they were thoroughly briefed by Bilbo Baggins and Xena: Warrior Princess.

It is not known if any of the visitors chose to bungee jump, but I like to imagine the UN representative for Sierra Leone free-falling towards the Nevis River while pondering New Zealand's long-standing contribution to peace-keeping and commitment to sustainable development.

It's all part of "a proper campaign", explained the Prime Minister. "We are trying to make sure they understand New Zealand's position."

And, Steven Joyce chipped in, we're just "taking the opportunity while they're here to show them a good time".

But let's call them what they are: junkets, jollies. They might be effective, they might bring in crucial votes, but the whole approach leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

It's like some diplomatic tribute act to the dubious modus operandi of bidding for Olympics Games and football World Cups. You might say it's just not cricket, had that phrase not been made redundant by events.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully chose another sporting analogy to justify staying schtum on the affair, comparing himself to the All Black coach.

"I am no more interested in providing detail around the visits than Steve Hansen is of providing his detailed plans for next Saturday's All Blacks test," he said, overlooking the fact that there has been nothing secret about who, where and when the All Blacks are playing. We know all the names in the squad. And players and coaches have been giving press conferences all week.

Nor is the approach par for the course at least not as for New Zealand. Terence O'Brien, the hugely respected former diplomat who represented New Zealand in its last term on the Security Council, two decades ago, called this "a new trick pulled out of the hat".

Speaking to Newstalk ZB, he said: "The fact is this amounts to a sort of 'treating'. In domestic political elections, treating is not allowed."

In a speech on the campaign for the Security Council seat delivered two years ago this week, Foreign Minister McCully said the decision to press ahead with the bid for a seat, which began under Labour in 2004, came with "very clear conditions: we would not attempt to buy a seat on the Security Council, either by spending New Zealand taxpayers' dollars or by changing New Zealand policy positions". He added: "What I am saying, in essence, is that the Key government has made it very clear that we will not campaign on our chequebook."

Another former NZ ambassador on the Security Council, Colin Keating, last year applauded that sentiment.

"New Zealand is not going to try, as some countries do, to buy votes. For New Zealand that would be silly. Once you start down that track small countries can easily be outbid."

Claims of vote buying usually centre on the tradition for other would-be council members to splurge aid money in an attempt to gain support. The dark art is particularly pronounced in New Zealand's pool for non-permanent selection: "Western Europe and other". (Other groups, generally speaking, tend to agree on a rotation system, thus minimising expense and potential for ethical creep). Australian aid to Africa, home to more than 50 UN votes, trebled after it announced its candidacy in the last round. New Zealand is clearly not in that league, but the images of Shotover diplomacy in Queenstown test the suggestion that New Zealand does not sully itself with enticements.

As for the bill, Coach McCully is not about to let on. Australia's expenditure on its campaign reportedly ballooned to about $55 million. It's unlikely we'll match that, but it all comes from Mfat coffers, which, as Keating noted, means "the ministry has had to limit some of its other activities accordingly". Little wonder there have been murmurings of disquiet from within the ministry about the drain of resources, both in time and money.

The advantages of sitting on the Security Council are nebulous, but real. It's a good thing we're having another go. (It's been 20 years; Turkey was last there two years ago.) But part of assessing that value includes understanding how much we're spending, what we're spending it on, and any opportunity costs. I really hope we win. But not at any price.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for listener.co.nz, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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