Prime Ministers have a huge sway in just which New Zealanders receive top honours or get to represent New Zealand in the world's most powerful capitals.

The New Years Honours are well settled.

The next lot of Dames and Sirs know that journalists will be seeking them out soon before New Year to flesh out stories where most of them will go through the ritual of saying their honour is in recognition of their team, company or sector (not simply their own lives of blameless excellence).

Despite the tendency to put on the cloak of Kiwi humility at such times, most of the appointments will be richly and personally deserved. In the past, the occasional high honours have been more about political payback than personal excellence. Or through the recipient truly making a significant contribution to New Zealand.


Where the game gets interesting is with political appointments to top diplomatic posts.

John Key and Murray McCully used a diplomatic posting to entice Shane Jones away from Parliament. Jones was obviously well qualified for the Pacific economic role with his background as the former chairman of the former Waitangi Fisheries Commission.

But Key and McCully were clearly attracted by the strategic utility that Jones presented. The appointment enabled them to wipe a potential future Labour leader off the political chess board - a factor that has been commented on by more than one recent Labour leader on the Christmas party circuit as they contemplated Andrew Little's rise.

Little would not have got there but for Labour's rule changes, which gave party members and union delegates a bigger say in the leadership vote than caucus members.

It's instructive that he has pushed his predecessors into second-ranked positions. But it's also instructive that those former leaders remain some of the strongest players in Labour's ranks.

Phil Goff - now a Sunday Star-Times columnist rotating fortnightly with former Cabinet minister Judith Collins - is not expected to get the cudgels out that often when he comments on the "Crusher's" musings. He's been talked about as a possible contender for the Auckland mayoralty next time round, with some misguided souls seeing him a "leftie" replacement for Len Brown.

Goff is far more sophisticated than Brown and if he did decide to compete would be a hard-nosed mayor on the fiscal front.

But Goff has plenty still to contribute on the international stage. He's still the guy who got the big-ticket China free trade deal to the finishing line and put a stake in the ground for the Trans Pacific Partnership.


Arguably, if Goff had not got himself so horribly offside with John Key, he might be among those considered to replace Mike Moore in Washington next year.

Such a gambit could appeal to Key in the same way that Helen Clark went along with Jim Bolger staying on as ambassador to Washington when she became Labour PM. He'd been appointed by Jenny Shipley after she rolled him as National Party PM.

But Key does not warm to Goff.

The Government has options for Moore's replacement.

One option is to put a career diplomat in place for a while until a political appointment is made. There are many senior diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade who could perform that role.

Both McCully and Trade Minister Tim Groser have been mentioned as potential political appointees, with their current term in Parliament expected to be their last.

McCully is keen to see New Zealand make the most of its two-year term on the UN Security Council. But expectations are he would rather do that as Foreign Minister than as an ambassador reporting to his replacement.

Groser as a former diplomat would be less troubled by rank.

He would play well for New Zealand in Washington but he will also have options internationally.

Hekia Parata's name has also been in the mix.

Then there are the former politicians such as Shipley and Sir Don McKinnon. Both could carry the role out with aplomb.

With the rumour mill working overtime, it's time that Key got around to signalling who will next represent New Zealand in Washington. It's a high-profile posting and one that Moore has filled well.

Goff's case is still there - but as a potential political appointee to the US ambassadorship by a future Labour prime minister.