Repercussions likely in Latin America where New Zealand is attempting to build new trading relationships

Tim Groser will be employing all his undoubted theatrical skills to maintain a poker face while allegations play out that the Government Communications Security Bureau spied on rival candidates for a top role in global trade.

The document featured in the Herald this week appears to disclose that the diplomats and GCSB personnel on the "WTO project" were still monitoring the outcome of the race for the top World Trade Organisation job even after the New Zealand Trade Minister had been ejected from the field of candidates along with Indonesia's Mari Paestum and South Korea's Taeho Bark.

The Herald document is dated as last modified on May 6, 2013.

But Groser was asked to withdraw when the field was narrowed to just two candidates on April 25, 2013, with the ultimate winner, Brazil's Roberto Azevedo, beating Mexico's Herminio Blanc for the top role.


It suggests an intensive week in New Zealand diplomacy. It's not clear if Kiwi diplomats were still trying to influence the final decision at that point.

Read more:
GCSB spies monitored diplomats in line for World Trade Organisation job
Read the WTO document here
Former diplomat, minister shocked by WTO spy claims

Neither John Key nor Groser has denied that the Government's intelligence gathering on the Trade Minister's behalf had been escalated to include electronic intelligence gathering.

It is likely the GCSB and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade believed this fell within the scope of the external intelligence agency's brief to gather information on issues of important national economic significance to New Zealand.

But in a world where these activities are usually cloaked with plausible deniability, the Edward Snowden revelations haven't gone down well elsewhere.

Typically - and with more than a little deadpan flourish - Groser all but confirmed other international agencies were spying on him when he commented from Seoul this week: "I assume that everything I say on the phone is capable of being intercepted. Whether it is, and who might be intercepting it, I have no idea."

This was a clever ploy designed to undercut the embarrassing allegations by insinuating that everyone spies on everyone else in the league he inhabits. That this is undoubtedly true won't cut any ice with New Zealand critics. Realism rarely does.

But the revelations - published first in the Herald on Monday - will have an impact on Groser's and New Zealand's external relationships. Not just with Azevedo, who did win the nine-strong race to be the WTO director-general, but also with the Latin American bloc as a whole where New Zealand is building new trading relationships.


The notion that New Zealand - a member of the "Anglo-Saxon" camp - had employed the US secret service (this is how it is being written up in San Paulo) to try and foil the Latin American emerging countries bloc from achieving its rightful elevation in geo-trade relationships will take a while to settle.

Bridge-building in Geneva by New Zealand foreign affairs officials will already be under way to restore any bruised feelings at the WTO's HQ.

The brute reality is that the race to become the director-general of the WTO in 2009 was always a long shot as far as Groser was concerned.

The old days when the "quad" ran the WTO - and other international institutions have long gone. It's not the US, the EU, Japan and Canada. These major global bureaucratic roles tend to be shared about.

It was held against Groser that he was a New Zealander. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Mike Moore had already held the role.

But fundamentally it was seen as Latin America's time.

The only way Groser could have parlayed his way into the final selection would be to play up his own credentials as a global trade diplomat who had been intimately involved in Geneva as chairman of the WTO's agriculture negotiations. A technocrat who had the smarts to forge a multilateral consensus outside the skill set of the other contenders.

Against Azevedo was the fact that he had not been a trade minister like the other contenders.

Groser has been an integral player in New Zealand's trade agenda for the best part of 30 years.

When he resigned his post as ambassador to Geneva during Helen Clark's Government to become a list candidate for National at the 2005 election, those close to him felt his decision was based on two drivers.

A desire to be the Trade Minister instead of just a mere official when the next National Government came to power.

And a desire to step into Pascal Lamy's shoes as the director-general of the WTO.

Step one was a necessary precursor to achieving step two.

Groser has been widely tipped to be the next ambassador to the US.

It's understood that the incumbent, Mike Moore, isn't quite yet ready to release the reins.

Azevedo is playing smart with his admission that he knows about the revelations - but has so far reserved comment.

WTO spokesman Keith Rockwell said merely that the global trade organisation has "nothing to comment for now".

But face-to-face there will be a good deal of work to overcome this latest hit to New Zealand's external image.