Labour’s Foreign Affairs Minister Russell Marshall says the Government’s ‘draconian proposals’ for the Foreign Affairs Ministry could jeopardise our highly regarded and successful trade and diplomatic relations.
In his latest column, Mr Marshall says in the past New Zealand could be accused of extravagance in its conduct of diplomacy, but not now.
When I first visited London four decades ago the then 10-year old, 16-storey, New Zealand House in Haymarket was full of New Zealander agencies, some of them very small, and the Foreign Affairs staff numbers at the High Commission were high.
NZ House unsustainable in the 1970’s
Such a large investment of people and finance in a country so far away was unsustainable and moves were being made to reduce the size of that investment. Britain was joining the European Economic Community and we were beginning to have our trade and political priorities determined by geography rather than by history.
A decade and a half later, I was Foreign Minister when Treasury took its eye off the ball in its budget calculations.
In an urgently called evening Cabinet meeting, it was decided that all government ministries and departments would have their budgets cut by 2%. I knew that there was little fat in the MFAT system.
Over the next decade or so, there was no increase in our budget so that funding kept declining in real terms.
By the time I became High Commissioner to the UK in 2002 human and financial resources were at an all time low after the decade and half of attrition.
Overseas posts built up again
A subsequent capability review of MFAT funding went some way to bring capacity both in overseas posts and in Wellington back to a more reasonable level.
After a more comprehensive review in 2008 Winston Peters as Foreign Minister was able to announce the first large increase in funding for diplomacy in over a quarter century. It was a valued and valuable boost while it lasted.\
As with most other government agencies, MFAT is now facing substantial reduction in funding and personnel.
In my experience and from my observations New Zealand diplomats over the years have consistently done New Zealand proud and served their country’s interests well.
NZ plays major role internationally
In recent times, New Zealand has played leading roles in international trade and climate change negotiations, and our occasional membership of the United Nations Security Council has always been very well regarded.
The draconian proposals under current discussion for the future of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs put our highly regarded and hitherto largely successful trade and diplomatic relations in jeopardy.
Sometimes seen as ‘punching above our weight’, we now run the risk of punching below it. I hope that Prime Minister Key’s reservations this week are the beginning of some serious reconsideration.(Russell Marshall was president of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs 2007-2011)