A Seismic Change: Winston Peters Outlines a Major Boost for New Zealand's Foreign Service

By Peters, Winston | New Zealand International Review, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

A Seismic Change: Winston Peters Outlines a Major Boost for New Zealand's Foreign Service


Peters, Winston, New Zealand International Review


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New Zealand's economic well-being depends upon its foreign services ability to push its cause on the international stage. For too long those responsible for our international relations--our diplomats and staff at head office--have been grossly under-resourced. They have had to skate on thin ice. The need to change this situation is imperative, and the government has agreed to take the necessary steps to give the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade the critical mass it needs to meet all the challenges that have now emerged. A 'step change' will be possible with the huge increase projected in its operating funds.

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That foreign policy ought to be bipartisan has been the accepted wisdom in New Zealand politics for many years. The government's key foreign policy goals reflect this approach. But New Zealand needs to continue lifting its game across the Asia-Pacific region. We must seek new ways of adding vigour to our relationship with Japan, but at the same time put more effort into less traditional relationships such as those with India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. There is no argument that the intensity of our efforts with Australia, the United States, and in the United Nations must not slacken.

We are already seeking to play a greater leadership role in the Pacific. We are working hard to ensure a meaningful Doha outcome, and we know New Zealand cannot afford to miss out on securing free trade agreements with the United States, Japan, and Korea.

The pressing issue, however, is one of resourcing. When a political party talks of cutting back bureaucracy, the public has the right to know exactly what that means. All Foreign Affairs staff are bureaucrats. Can New Zealand truly afford to cut the number of its diplomats at a time when the country's economic future well-being is so heavily dependent on them pushing our cause on the international stage?

The potential impact could be disastrous, and not just in the short-term. Let us not forget that in the 1990s the government took the pruning shears to New Zealand's foreign service, forcing on it a decade-long decline in funding, in real terms, of more than 30 per cent. The result was the closure of a number of overseas posts, and a 14 per cent reduction in offshore staff. Even with the extra resources they have received in recent years, Foreign Affairs still has fewer staff today than 20 years ago, and those staff seem to be working permanently in overdrive. The time has arrived to do something about that.

Twenty-four hours a day, in 50 embassies and high commissions around the world, and at head office here in Wellington, our diplomats and support staff are building and maintaining New Zealand's relationships with other governments. They are working to increase trade access for our exporters to foreign markets, and they are looking after the well-being of New Zealanders living or travelling overseas.

Complex environment

The environment in which this work takes place is becoming steadily more complex, more crowded and more competitive than ever before. Issues are increasingly tied up with each other. More countries than ever before are actively seeking to secure their position in the world. Significant new economies are emerging on the world stage. Non-governmental groups are increasingly influential. Virtually instant communication and information flows mean that countries have to be quicker than ever before to take advantage of opportunities or respond to problems.

This changing world picture means that our diplomats and support staff now have to work smarter, faster and harder than at any time in the 60-year history of New Zealand's foreign service. Generally the ministry has been able to stretch itself to deliver a credible level of support to the government's foreign policy. But in my time as Foreign Minister it has become quite apparent that the ministry is skating on thin ice. …

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