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Prime Minister John Key's political mentor has been handed the key international role of New Zealand's representative to the United Nations.

Jim McLay, former National Party leader and deputy prime minister, was yesterday appointed New Zealand's next Permanent Representative to the United Nations based at its New York headquarters.

Mr McLay will replace career diplomat Rosemary Banks when her four-year term finishes in June.

Last night, Labour labelled it a political appointment but Mr Key said Mr McLay had a "remarkable skill set" that had been put to use for previous Governments no matter what party was in office.

Mr McLay left Parliament in 1987 but has since remained influential with the National Party behind the scenes.

Mr Key has credited Mr McLay as a mentor, seeking him out for advice before entering Parliament in 2002 and continuing to tap into his political knowledge since.

The Prime Minister said he had played no role in the appointment, which was decided by Foreign Minister Murray McCully, but had "enormous faith" that Mr McLay would do a good job.

Mr McLay is executive chairman of Macquarie Group New Zealand and was New Zealand's representative on the International Whaling Commission from 1994 to 2002.

He said he had not sought the UN role or even considered it until Mr McCully approached him. "I have never sought a job from either this or any previous Government, National or Labour."

A spokesman for Labour leader Phil Goff said that although political appointments were suitable in posts like Ottawa and Washington, the United Nations role was one generally filled by a skilled diplomat.

Mr Goff's spokesman said Mr McLay's appointment also came at a time when National had sacked the chairmen of a health board and ACC on political grounds.

A major Herald profile on Mr Key last year described how he first approached Mr McLay outside the gates of King's School in Remuera, which their sons both attended.

Mr Key stayed in regular contact during his successful contest for the Helensville seat. Their relationship developed from there, with Mr Key calling Mr McLay a mentor when introducing him as a speaker at the 2007 National Party annual conference.

Mr McLay will resign his commercial positions to take up the UN role.

He said part of his job would be "early positioning" before a campaign to get New Zealand a seat on the Security Council in 2015.

He said the global economic crisis, ocean management, peace-building, human rights and the reform of the United Nations were all areas he could contribute to.

Rosemary Banks is said to be working overtime on the bid by former prime minister Helen Clark to be appointed head of the United Nations Development Programme.

Mr McLay said he hoped Helen Clark would get the job.

PM'S CONFIDANT

John Key on Jim McLay:
Jim McLay is the sort of person I'll ring up and say, "Tell me what happened" and "What do you think?".
- Mr Key in Herald profile last year.