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House of Representatives
5 April 2012
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8. Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ministry—Implications of Proposed Changes

[Sitting date: 05 April 2012. Volume:679;Page:1735. Text is incorporated into the Bound Volume.]

8. Hon PHIL GOFF (Labour—Mt Roskill) to the Minister of Foreign Affairs: What concerns, if any, have been expressed to him that proposed changes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will damage New Zealand’s promotion of its international trade and foreign policy interests?

Hon CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON (Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations) on behalf of the Minister of Foreign Affairs: Concerns have been expressed about aspects of the proposed changes by ministry staff and external parties. The Minister has emphasised the need for the ministry leadership to pay close attention to all feedback before decisions are made, and from the outset the Minister has made it clear that he will not permit changes that compromise New Zealand’s foreign affairs and trade interests.

Hon Phil Goff: What was his response to the head of mission who came back to Wellington this week and said that his most able and talented staff had sought references from him because they were looking for jobs outside the ministry, and to the collective statement by 46 heads of mission that said that the change proposals were botched and were undermining the ministry’s most important resource, its competent and committed workforce?

Hon CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON: As I said in the answer to the primary question, the Minister is very concerned to make sure that no changes affect the foreign affairs and trade capabilities of this country. He has had very useful discussions with the heads of mission when they returned to Wellington and is confident that there will be a positive outcome.

Hon Phil Goff: If the Minister was so concerned, why did he not call in his front-line staff to ask them how he could improve value for money in the ministry’s spending before he wasted over $9 million on expensive consultants in a grossly inflated change office who have only come up with proposals that even he admits will not work and will damage the morale and commitment of his ministry staff?

Hon CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON: Well, change can often be a difficult and fraught exercise, and this is a ministry that for some time, in the opinion of this Government, has required restructuring and modernisation. It is certainly not regarded as a bad use of money. It is a shame that Minister made no progress—

Mr SPEAKER: Order! Had the member answered the main thrust of the question somewhat I would have been less concerned about the last comment. But if I remember correctly the main thrust of the question asked why the Minister had not consulted with the front-line officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade before deciding on the changes, and I did not hear the Minister answer that main thrust of the question at all. Given the way the Minister departed at the end, I invite the Hon Phil Goff to repeat his question.

Hon Phil Goff: Why did he not call in his front-line staff to ask them how he could improve value for money in the ministry’s spending before he wasted $9.2 million on expensive consultants and a hugely inflated change office, which have simply come up with proposals that even he admits will not work and will damage the morale and the professionalism of his ministry?

Hon CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON: As I said in the answer to the previous question, I dispute that the sum is wasted money. As I said, it was a fraught process, and change and modernisation can be difficult, but I dispute that it is a waste of money. I trust that answers the question.

Hon Phil Goff: Does he agree with the Ministry’s briefing to him as incoming Minister that Europe is the world’s largest economic entity; our third most important export market; a major source for us of migrants, capital, tourists, and innovation; and an important political and diplomatic partner; if so, why is he now suggesting that we close nearly half of our embassies in Europe?

Hon CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON: It would be very difficult to disagree with those propositions in the briefing to incoming Ministers. The issue really is whether the resources are in the right place; whether having an embassy in Stockholm to satisfy Helen Clark’s wishes is a good use of money remains to be seen. But I would say this: his Cabinet colleague the Attorney-General opened an embassy in Vienna some years ago because it was regarded that that was a very important place, and a jolly good time was had by all there.

Hon Phil Goff: God knows what that answer meant—

Mr SPEAKER: Order!

Hon Phil Goff: —but my supplementary question is how will his proposal to close Madrid, Stockholm, Rome, Warsaw, and The Hague—nearly half of our total number of embassies in Europe—assist his intention to have a comprehensive framework agreement with Europe including freer trade access; and how will it assist embassies in Europe to get that message across to those individual countries?

Hon CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON: What the member seems to be saying is that once an embassy is opened it should never be shut; there should be absolutely no change. What has happened, as illustrated by the Vienna example, is that circumstances and needs change, and embassies will be opened and embassies will be shut from time to time. That is all part of the business of running the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade when one is a small country. There is nothing magical in that, but the proposition that once an embassy is opened it should never be changed is, with respect, ridiculous.

Hon Phil Goff: I raise a point of order, Mr Speaker. Of course, I never made the suggestion that once an embassy is open it should never be closed. What I asked him specifically was how the closure of those five embassies would assist in the negotiation of a comprehensive framework agreement. I have had no answer to that at all—no attempt. [Interruption]

Mr SPEAKER: Order! I realise that these sorts of questions have no precise answer, but the question is about a serious issue, and it lists some embassies. I do not know whether they are actually slated for closure or not, but it asked how that would assist the development of a comprehensive framework agreement with Europe, which one understands is on the Government’s agenda. In the answer the Minister said that just because embassies open does not mean to say they should stay open, and some open and close. But the question did ask specifically about the closure of particular embassies in relation to the development of a framework agreement with Europe. Some answer in relation to that would be helpful to the House.

Hon CHRISTOPHER FINLAYSON: I said needs change depending on the particular circumstances, and just because there has been an embassy in Rome since shortly after the Second World War does not mean that those particular strategic goals need to be reflected in an embassy in Rome forevermore.

Hon Phil Goff: I seek leave to table a letter from the Minister of Foreign Affairs to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs suggesting that in addition to the proposed closure of Stockholm and Warsaw this would call for consideration of significant downsizing or closure of The Hague, Rome, and Madrid.

Mr SPEAKER: Leave is sought to table that document. Is there any objection? There is no objection.

  • Document, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.