Alister McIntosh: a mandarin for all seasons: Ken Ross examines the long-serving secretary of external affairs' relationship with contrasting prime ministers in the 1950s.

Author:Ross, Ken

Sid Holland and Walter Nash were the winter and spring 'seasons' for Alister McIntosh's 23-year tutelage of his quartet of prime ministers, Peter Fraser, Sid Holland, Walter Nash and Keith Holyoake. Nash enabled McIntosh to flourish at his finest and that, in turn, enhanced Nash's 'tea and conversation' encounters with global leaders, particularly his British counterpart, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Whereas Holland required McIntosh to play defence as he sought to construct a foreign service populated with New Zealand's best. Nowhere was this more apparent than in his efforts to shield controversial diplomat Paddy Costello from Holland's efforts to remove him.


'the man who makes New Zealand tick' (Sir Michael Adeane, 1962) (1)

A seasonal cycle defines Alister McIntoshs relationship with the four prime ministers he worked to while head of the departments of Prime Minister (1945-66) and External Affairs (1943-66). New Zealand's outstanding diplomatic mandarin's 23-year tutelage of this quartet can be portrayed by Peter Fraser's high summer; Sid Holland's Cold War winter; Walter Nash's new spring; and, lastly, the autumnal glow, for McIntosh, of the Keith Holyoake years.

McIntosh has himself told us of his working with Fraser (prime minister, 1943-49). (2) The autumnal nature of his six years with Holyoake (1960-66) surfaced in my previous article. (3) His relationships with Holland (1949-57) and Nash (1957-60) are a compare and contrast exercise: the winter and spring of McIntosh's external affairs career.

With Nash's encouragement, McIntosh garnered the prime minister as good a legacy as could possibly be accomplished. Their major lasting achievement has to be the 1959 Antarctica Treaty. There was much more, too, notably the Laos effort--when Nash, in 1960, stilled the prospect of another Asian war--and his deciding Samoa would have early and full independence (in the face of strong opposition from Australia, Britain and others).

Because of the way McIntosh moved within the Five Eyes 'club' he enabled Nash to do the 'tea and conversation' act with global leaders, particularly Harold Macmillan (the British prime minister, 1956-63) and Dwight Eisenhower (the United States president, 1957-61) while by-passing Robert Menzies (the Australian prime minister, 1949-66), who sought to stymie Nash's diplomatic endeavours. Nash's good access to Dag Hammarskjold (the United Nations secretary-general, 1952-62) pivoted on Bruce Turner, a New Zealander well-known to Nash and Mc-Intosh, who had, by the mid-1950s, become, in Hammarskjold's words, 'the Minister of Finance for the UN'. (4)

McIntosh was averse to fronting up in public as a speaker or author. When declining an invitation by the Palmerston North Rotary Club in April 1961, he explained:

it has been the practice in this Department under successive governments to decline permission for any officer to speak in public on matters affecting external affairs. It is felt that any public statements are more appropriately made by members of the Government, preferably Ministers. (5) He went public just twice in his 23 years: at a 1961 conference of the New Zealand Institute of Public Administration and when accepting an honorary doctorate from the University of Canterbury in 1965. (6)

An 'off-the-record' talk to New Zealand's newspaper editors in early May 1962 provides a sublime sketch of McIntosh's diplomatic skills, as he explained to them how New Zealand could best manage our ANZUS undertakings to the end of gaining influence at the highest levels in Washington. (7) It is a classic--mirroring Gerald Hensley's account of McIntosh showing the newbie Hensley, in 1958, how to craft a Walter Nash speech. (8)

Muddling leader

While, not contradicting Keith Sinclairs Walter Nash (1976), or refuting McIntoshs grumblings about the wretchedness of Nashs character--highlighted in Ian McGibbon's Unofficial Channels (1999)--the McIntosh Papers show another perspective: an adept snapshot of a muddling Nash (by then 75) from his first day as prime minister. By being in the prime ministerial suite Nash reinvigorated McIntosh, who then performed at the highest levels with counterparts, particularly in Washington and London.

An important victory for McIntosh was persuading Nash to take the external affairs portfolio. McIntosh made clear to Nash that none of his prospective ministers was up to that task and, furthermore, that Nash could make his mark in global diplomacy. In 1973 McIntosh explained to that...

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