Here is a way to liven up a Wadestown dinner party — announce that Murray McCully is the most significant Minister of Foreign Affairs we’ve had for a long time..
If there are Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade veterans there, particularly if they were among the many who were purged between 2008 and 2011, then you will probably be asked to leave.
There is a level of bitterness regularly rehearsed around Wellington from some of this country’s longest serving, most accomplished diplomats directed against McCully which isnot matched from any other department against their Minister.
Ask him about it and he now says that maybe John Allen, the lawyer turned political advisor who had worked with Simon Upton on the Crown health enterprise health reforms and then went on to become the deputy CEO of NZ Post got a few things wrong.
“I had some reservations about some of the things that happened myself,” he says.
“I was not the chief executive; I was the Minister.
“But overwhelmingly the Ministry did need to change.
“You can argue about different elements of it but overwhelmingly the outcome has been very positive and the Ministry today is a better more effective Ministry than it was eight years ago.”
Why McCully appointed, Allen is a mystery – except that there is a part of McCully’s personality which has a larrikin streak.
He showed that when he was a young blood in the Auckland National Party during the Muldoon era when he and his long-time friend Michelle Boag seemed to be constantly at loggerheads with Muldoon’s so-called Tamaki Mafia.
Since then he appears to have retained a healthy disrespect for both the political and governmental establishment.
Whether it is Radio New Zealand or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or civil servants generally or even the more self-important part of his own party, he seems to have no regard and arguably no respect for them.
This has meant careers that have been destroyed, people who have been deeply hurt and as in the Saudi agri hub deal all sorts of questions about the way he operates.
Yet, just maybe, it is this willingness to be no respecter of the status quo or tradition that has led to him producing a foreign policy for New Zealand which, as Bill English said at a press conference a week ago, is truly independent.
It will surely be one of the ironies of New Zealand history that a tribal National Party Minister, has ended up implementing what so many Labour Party activists hoped could be implemented back in the early 80s when they pushed the nuclear free policy through their own party.
Now, as of today, there is a new Foreign Minister, Gerry Brownlee, in many ways cut from the same cloth as McCully, but in some important ways different.
Brownlee is more pragmatic than McCully, less political, less inclined to tear down temples and a natural chairman who looks for support and consensus.
What Brownlee inherits is really New Zealand’s first coherent foreign policy since Labour refused to allow the USS Buchanan into a New Zealand port in 1985.
What is often forgotten, or ignored, is how much that policy was the product of a great deal of thinking that McCully did in opposition.
“The National Party had been either ambivalent or ambiguous about the question of ANZUS; I took the view that we had to be clear that we would be outside of the alliance.”
A cable from the United States Embassy in Wellington published by Wikileaks sets out the background to McCully’s thinking and makes the point that National’s policy was to only change the nuclear-free legislation after a referendum.
However, this had opened the door for Labour, in particular, Phil Goff, to accuse them of wanting the ban “gone by lunchtime”.
It was undoubtedly because of that political risk that McCully wanted the policy clarified.
“I went over to the United States in Opposition having announced the policy.
“I had taken it to our caucus, where there was some spirited debate, and I went and consulted around the party.
“I found there was less debate there than I had expected.
“But John Key asserted that position on the nuclear legislation within 48 hours of becoming party leader (in 2006) “
In Washington McCully argued that to have the policy settled meant it could no longer be a political football which changed every time the Government changed.
“I said to those who were disappointed in the US that it may not be the policy you want but it is the one that is going to best serve the relationship between our two countries.”
But by ending the possibility of a return to ANZUS, McCully and the Ministry had created a vacuum in New Zealand foreign policy.
And as McCully tells it, persuading the Ministry to respond to that vacuum in a creative way was the challenge that preoccupied his time as Foreign Minister.
“I said this to the Ministry; that we needed to get past being commentators on events.
“We need to understand that it is our role to try and shape events and influence the course of affairs and not just be commentators.
“I think the Ministry has moved into a more activist confident space.”
McCully was surprised when he became Minister at how concentrated New Zealand’s relationships were.
“So I have worked pretty hard to encourage the Ministry to take a more expansive view.
“We should be confident about New Zealand’s brand and personality in world affairs.
“We should be reaching out to countries that we might not have had strong relationships with.”
He says Africa is a good example, 60 per cent of the world’s undeveloped arable land is in Africa and if New Zealand wanted to be a significant player in international agriculture, then it would have to become involved in Africa.
He has encouraged New Zealand to develop its relations with China for the same reasons.
“We made it clear that we wanted to build a strong diplomatic relationship with China to match the ambitions for a trade and economic relationship that was clearly going to become our biggest.
“In five or six years time China will overwhelmingly be our biggest trade and economic relationship and that means we have to invest in the diplomatic relationship so that we can manage something that is that big with a country that is so different in terms of size and history and political system and it also means that we need to work a lot harder to grow other relationships.”
That’s not always as easy as it sounds.
His idea to fast track the relationship with the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia through the Agri-hub has led to a long-running parliamentary saga which has exposed McCully’s damn-the-torpedoes disdain for proper governmental process.
And he admits that he is still finding it difficult to get the Ministry to put the emphasis on the Pacific that he would like to see.
“I’d say that it is a work in progress.
“The challenge for the New Zealand Foreign Ministry is to become the acknowledged international expert body on Pacific affairs.
“We’re not there yet; we’re not close to being there yet.
“It’s going to take much longer than my term to see that achieved but its’a good goal to have.
“If there is one thing that I hope I have done it is to cement that as an objective even if we haven’t got there.”
McCully believes that the Pacific policy is both the base and the model for the rest of our foreign policy.
“I think with our diplomatic and development work we have tried to sit down and say what is our value proposition to the world
“Certainly, we’ve tried to do that in the development space where I’ve tried to shift us into doing things where we’ve got a world-class offering.
“In the diplomatic space we’ve tried to ask the same questions – what have we really got to offer here, what is our brand, what is our value set and how can we contribute to some of the challenges in the world.”
And so McCully has presided over a Ministry which has broadened its approach to the world; the term on the Security Council assisted that enormously, and the appointment of Brooke Barrington as Secretary of Foreign Affairs has seen that broader approach systemised into a coherent foreign policy.
In February Barrington defined it to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee thus:
“New Zealand’s foreign policy is built on four central pillars:
“Support for a rules-based international system which reflects our national values, and which delivers all countries the same rights and obligations regardless of size, location or power,
“Membership in international and regional architecture, as a way to reinforce the rules-based system and amplify our influence,
“A network of strong bilateral relationships underpinned by our reputation for being a fair-minded people, which we can leverage in the pursuit of shared interest, and
“The diversification of our trade, as a way to underpin our prosperity and insulate New Zealand from the vagaries of the international economy.”
That is McCully’s real legacy.