An eye, an ear and a voice: New Zealand's changing place in the world: Ian McGibbon reports on the MFAT 75th anniversary conference.

AuthorMcGibbon, Ian
PositionCONFERENCE REPORT - Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade - Conference notes

The Department of External Affairs turned 75 in 2018. Created in the midst of the Second World War, it has grown from just eight people and five overseas posts in 1945 to more than 1500 staff today and 58 overseas posts in 51 countries. To mark this milestone the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade joined with Victoria University of Wellingtons Centre for Strategic Studies and the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs to organise a day-long conference, An eye, an ear and a voice: New Zealand's changing place in the world', on 18 October 2018.

Registrations were so great that the venue had to be shifted from Parliament's Grand Hall to Pipitea Marae to accommodate everyone. The more than 340 who signed up included many former members of the foreign service, including five of the six still extant former secretaries, Graeme Ansell, Richard Nottage, Neil Walter, Simon Murdoch and John Allen. A phalanx of foreign diplomats was present. Former chair of the NZIIA's Wellington branch and NZIIA life member Brian Lynch not only took a leading role in organising the conference but also acted as master of ceremonies, ensuring that all ran smoothly and to time.

In his opening remarks Secretary of Foreign Affairs Brook Barrington spoke about 1943 and the fiftieth anniversary in 1993. He referred to the 'interwoven melodies of principal and pragmatism' that characterised the giants of the early foreign service, Alister McIntosh, the first, long-serving secretary, and Carl Berendsen, whose departure to Canberra as high commissioner precipitated the creation of the new department. Barrington noted McIntosh's approach to recruiting for his small department, seeking both high intellectual qualifications and 'New Zealandishness' that would represent the 'best type of New Zealander'. Comparing the situation of the now Ministry of Foreign Affairs after 50 years, he found 'continuity' in a much more diffuse world. The secretary of the time, Richard Nottage, described the essence of the ministry as the 'quality of its people'. By this time 40 out of the then 600 staff were Maori (a ratio that has shifted little since). Barrington concluded by questioning what McIntosh would have made of the challenge today to the rules-based international order.

After remarks by the NZIIA's Sir Anand Satyanand and the CSS's Associate Professor David Capie, the conference turned its attention to a 'Leader's Panel' chaired by leading journalist Colin James, who remarked that diplomats were a 'nourishing group' for journalists. Former prime minister Helen Clark reflected on her involvement in Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the 1980s, a time when MFAT provide most of the briefings. She recalled the 'tumultuous time', 1984-87, when she chaired the committee as the fourth Labour government overturned three decades of loyal ally status with its anti-nuclear policy, a development that, she observed, did not gready enthuse the foreign ministry. New Zealand was consigned 'into a very remote dogbox', but during her prime ministership (1999-2008) she worked hard to re-establish a relationship with Washington. In this effort, she acknowledged the work of very dedicated diplomats, whom she could never fault for lack of effort. In conclusion she made five points:

* her pleasure to see the expansion of New Zealand's profile off shore,

* her sense of the importance of New Zealand's multilateral presence,

* her concern that in recent years MFAT seemed to have been a bit hollowed out,

* her belief that MFAT's non-partisan nature must be cherished and

* her conviction that diplomacy must be more than just trade. New Zealand, she said, should be proud of its diplomatic service.

Another former prime minister, Jim Bolger, recalled both his lack of knowledge of foreign affairs when first elected to Parliament in 1972 and his first contact with MFAT in 1974 on a speaker's tour that embraced the Philippines, India, Thailand and Hong Kong, which opened his eyes to the scale of New Zealand's immediate neighbours. After noting that he had raised a stir in 1994 by suggesting that New Zealand become a republic, he too referred to efforts to rebuild a relationship with the United States, beginning with a meeting with President Bush in 1991. He referred to his involvement in developing New Zealand's fishing industry following the introduction of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone. He praised MFAT staff for their initiative and enterprise and concluded by noting that he had joined them after he had 'in effect posted myself to Washington'. As ambassador, he had emphasised teamwork. New Zealand, he warned, is 'too small to have a fragmented approach to the world'.


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