MFAT at 75: tales to be told: Ken Ross comments on the foreign ministry's origins and highlights the need for a history of it.

AuthorRoss, Ken
PositionMinistry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

'[Walter Nash] is in the slight difficulty of not being able to make up his mind how he can be Prime Minister, Ambassador [in Washington] and High Commissioner in London at the same time.' (Alister McIntosh, 1958) (1)

New Zealand's foreign service is currendy more a stray and a waif than a grand dame of Wellington's established order--at 75, it has neither a scholarly history nor its own dedicated home. It is the only major New Zealand government ministry without either.

Thirty-year-old records at Archives New Zealand let us appreciate that our diplomatic mandarins have been long nudged by the state's historians to give us their scholarly history: as yet, one has not been even heralded. (2) For its first 33 years External Affairs perched atop Parliament. Then Robert Muldoon arrived as prime minister in December 1975. For their Christmas cheer he evicted them from the building--ever since, the diplomatic mandarins have been gypsy tenants: up and down The Terrace, until now nesting in the high levels above Lambton Quay far from their ministerial masters and their principal bureaucratic rival, the Treasury.

Our foreign service warrants new scholarship. A decent enough effort was made at the time of the service's half-century with Malcolm Templeton (ed), An Eye An Ear and A Voice: 50 years in New Zealand's External Relations 1943-1993; Ian McGibbon (ed), Undiplomatic Dialogue: Letters between Carl Berendsen and Alister McIntosh 1943-1952; and Ann Trotter (ed), Fifty Years of New Zealand Foreign Policy Making: papers from the Twenty-eighth Foreign Policy School.

Some of the more interesting explorations available to a new scholarly survey are suggested here and Malcolm McKinnon's Treasury: The New Zealand Treasury 1840-2000 (2003) could be the model. Or perhaps biography would be a better template, for example David Days Antarctica: a biography (2013). There are lessons for the learning and the personalities to be recalled because it was the personnel more than the institution that had previously got us closest to what Winston Peters now wants--the 'best small country Foreign Service in the world'. (3) That means a new galaxy of personalities capable of fitting Alister McIntosh's dictum when he found his initial staff:

people who possessed those qualities of character and personality and New Zealandishness which could cause people overseas, as well as their compatriots, to feel and say, 'That must be the best type of New Zealander'. And it is surely true, as he believed that all our international actions are a constant test of what New Zealand and New Zealanders are like. (4) There must also be not-to-be-missed stories that could now be told by this not-so-venerable 75-year-old. The saga of New Zealand House rising above London's Haymarket and how the foreign service came to own a major collection of contemporary New Zealand art are two fine tales looking for the public stage. New Zealand House becoming our 'eddystone lighthouse in the middle of clubland' has to have been a prime Alister McIntosh moment. The end-result of his decade-plus campaign saw New Zealand constructing the first tower block to be built in central London after the war. The building is widely regarded as failing the good architecture 'smell test': the design complexities that it went through before leaving the drawing boards is an enthralling story, warranting its own book. More so, though even if done as a chronological 'grocery list', a mundane account of the associated political diplomacy that McIntosh conducted with the British government and separately with his own prime minister, Sid Holland, whose principal interest was his own suite on top of whatever was constructed, has to be a classy thriller--quite a who-dun-it'.

McIntosh's marshalling his London-based senior lieutenants, principally the brilliant R.M. ('Dick') Campbell, the long-serving deputy at New Zealand House, is captured, in 1956, at the height of the scheming with his: 'I am all for backing him [Matthews, the London architect in charge] up to the hilt for a tilt against the uppercrust--that gang of complacent deadbeats who have brought the Commonwealth and Empire tottering in ruins about their fat heads'. Four months later he...

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