Suggestions of a breakdown in relations between the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry surfaced yesterday in a submission to a Select Committee from the Auditor General.

The submission drew attention to a line in the Ministry’s annual report, which reported on a survey of the satisfaction of the Minister, Nanaia Mahuta, with the policy she was getting.

This declined from 2019-20 (when Winston Peters was the Minister).

That year he recorded a satisfaction level of 4.47; above the long-running standard of 4.

But by 2021, that had plummeted, under Mahuta, to 2.96.

This fall was part of a wider fall in stakeholder satisfaction with the Ministry.

“The Ministry achieved 47 (60%) of its performance targets in 2020/21,” the Auditor General said.

“Of the remaining 31 performance measures, 25 were not met, five were not reported due to the unavailability of data, and one measure was new, so it was its baseline year.

The Auditor-General, John Ryan, said there were a range of reasons for the Ministry not achieving its performance targets, “including, understandably, measures related to levels of international engagement”.

“Notable areas of non-achievement included stakeholder satisfaction with their engagement with MFAT, stakeholder satisfaction with MFAT’s effectiveness at representing New Zealand’s interests and satisfaction of the Minister with policy advice.”

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In his submission to the Committee, he suggests members should acknowledge the challenging environment the Ministry operated in this past year due to Covid with a proposed question.

“Nonetheless, with stakeholder satisfaction rates all below targets, is there anything the Ministry is considering to improve stakeholder satisfaction, including the Minister?”

The fall in the Ministry’s approval rating by the Minister with the replacement of Peters by Mahuta suggests that the judgement was hers rather than a measure of any systemic failing within the Ministry.

POLITIK sought comment from her yesterday but by late last night had received no response.

However, it is widely believed in foreign policy circles in Wellington that there has been a difference in foreign policy emphasis between the Ministry and the Minister.

The Ministry, necessarily, has tended to focus on world affairs through a conventional strategic political lens, whereas the Minister has been keen for New Zealand, in its view of the world, to put a greater emphasis on indigenous people.

Massey University Senior Lecturer in Security Studies, Anna Powles, has written that a common theme in Mahuta’s speeches on foreign policy has been the centrality of Te Tiriti o Waitangi to New Zealand’s foreign policy principles and practice; and that New Zealand’s approach to the Pacific is anchored in New Zealand’s connections to Polynesia.​

Mahuta summed her priorities up in a speech to the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia in Jakarta in November.

“Since taking on the role of Foreign Minister, I have spoken of how New Zealand’s independent foreign policy can benefit from drawing on the bicultural values that characterise who we are and how we relate to others.

“This means that New Zealand approaches our relationships with an understanding of:

  • whanaungatanga: our connectedness to each other and our natural environment;
  • manaakitanga: kindness and the reciprocity of goodwill;
  • mahi tahi and kotahitanga: working for a collective benefit; and,
  • kaitiakitanga: acting as guardians for the people and the planet.”

The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has tended to focus on the more strategic aspects of New Zealand’s foreign policy.

But with that recasting of priorities by Mahuta, it is easy to see how she might have felt dissatisfied with policy advice from a conventional foreign ministry.

Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee told POLITIK there was an inconsistency in the Auditor general’s report.

While the quality of the Ministry’s overall policy advice was rated among a wide group of stakeholders as x, it appears it was only the Minister who found it wanting.

“It’s a little bizarre that the overall rating for the quality of the agency’s policy advice papers is 4.03, but the satisfaction of the Minister with the policy advice is only 2.96,” said Brownlee.

“Why is there such a large gap?”

Brownlee also asked why the level of satisfaction among domestic stakeholders was only 78.4% when the standard was 90%.

It is typical of the way that Select Committees work that the Auditor General’s advice was tabled yesterday, 26 days after the Ministry appeared before the Committee for the annual review of its performance.

There is thus no opportunity for members of the Committee to question the Ministry about its relationship with Mahuta.

The situation in Ukraine has changed the strategic environment on which the Ministry must advise the Minister.

The change was conceded by the Prime Minister yesterday.

“I do absolutely accept that the dynamic has changed considerably,” she told Parliament’s Question Time.

“These events (the situation in Ukraine) only demonstrate the changing strategic environment that New Zealand is operating in.”

Ardern was answering questions about whether she would commit New Zealand to spend two per cent of its GDP on defence as Australia does.

Seymour’s question reflects the hawkish conventional strategic view of the world that the current Government obviously has some questions about.

Ardern’s reply emphasised the Pacific.

“I would say that our response, both at a bilateral level to this conflict, but also the spending decisions that we’ve made on our defence estate—including, for instance, the purchase of P-8s, additional assets for the navy, and so on—demonstrates our ongoing focus on ensuring that we have the capability and the kit that’s required to respond within the Pacific to the changing threats that we face,” she said.

New Zealand’s percentage spend is not all that out of kilter within the region; the World Bank reports that the average spend across East Asia is 1.7 per cent of GDP; Japan spends only one per cent.

But what Ardern’s answer does underline is that our defence and foreign policies have undergone a subtle realignment under the current Government, and it is that which may explain the unhappiness in the Minister’s office about the advice she has been getting.

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