"The best small country Foreign Service in the world"

Speech to MFAT Heads of Missions
Leader's Week, 22 May 2018
Intercontinental Hotel

"The best small country Foreign Service in the world”


It is a pleasure to be here today with New Zealand’s Heads of Mission and other Ministry leaders.

This is the first Heads of Mission meeting to be held since the formation of the new government.

It is a chance for you all to see that a new direction is the government’s renewed ambition for MFAT.

We see the Ministry not only positioning our country better, but also proving itself as the best small country foreign service in the world.

First Steps

To do this requires resources.

It would come as no surprise to you to hear that securing one billion dollars in extra funding required considerable work and discussion with both the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance.

Securing the extra funding is critical to protect New Zealand’s interests. 

Near on a decade of underfunding had serious consequences. We have been losing depth of experience. Our ability to advance our interests and our independent voice was compromised.

A billion dollars is a significant increase. It was a decision made not from the lens of short term political calculation but foresight in the best interests of New Zealand’s position internationally.

There has been positive commentary about the budget increase from some unexpected quarters such as the NZ Initiative and Mathew Hooten. 

But frankly the diplomats versus doctors’ campaign by the National Party has broken the political bipartisanship you could normally expect around foreign affairs.

The challenges ahead

Regardless, there are plenty of challenges ahead for the Ministry.

It is legitimate to regard the rules-based international system as struggling to adapt to the magnitude of difficulties faced.

Changes in the geopolitical order are apparent in the Asia-Pacific, especially the consequences of China’s growing strategic weight, Japan’s ongoing importance, and the interplay with the United States’ crucial role in underpinning the region’s stability.

Furthermore, India is becoming an ever more significant actor in the Indo-Pacific.

As well the South China Sea territorial disputes and the future of the Korean Peninsular are big moving issues which could swing from good outcomes or long running polarising stand-offs. .

On trade, it is notable that the opportunities opening up in some markets are tempered by changing protectionist winds which could significantly constrain New Zealand’s future opportunities.

And the Pacific is the region where we have most influence but are facing increased competition. 

It pays to address issues in our backyard before they manifest into problems that require expensive military intervention.

This Government will not sit on its hands – as the old saying goes, “a watched pot never boils.”

In working with Pacific countries, we consider the principles of respect and partnership to be fundamental – one which all staff need to demonstrate in their day to day work. All of you are our face to the world.

Being the best small Foreign Service in the world

Being the best small Foreign Service in the world means you will have to display a range of attributes.

We need to keep our eyes open to the fact that international events can move quickly, like with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which were not widely predicted.  

More recently, most commentators did not foresee the election of President Trump, nor the Brexit vote.

These events should be a reminder to all Ministry staff to keep an open mind and to consider all possibilities when developing foreign policy – even possibilities that seem unlikely.

Being the best small Foreign Service in the world also means we vigorously pursue New Zealand’s independent voice guided by our commitment to:

  • supporting an open and inclusive international rules based order
  • principles of democracy, good governance, media freedom, human rights, and women’s empowerment
  • playing our part in responding to challenges such as climate change, including in the Pacific region.

More than ever, we need to stand by fundamental New Zealand values that should be above politics.

With a continuous parliamentary democracy since 1854, New Zealand’s experience is a proud one and it informs our voice when we speak in foreign capitals or to regional and global forums. 

Within the policy perimeters set by the Government, we also expect you and your staff to be innovative, pragmatic and where appropriate take well informed risks for the benefit of New Zealanders.

As mentioned at the start of this speech, this is a time for action – not a time for timidity.

Perhaps most importantly, a hallmark of a foreign service of excellence is conducting the fundamentals of diplomacy well.

So much of our ability to make our way in the world is based on personal relationships and doing things with the right manner – this sometimes is overlooked in the rush to use new technology.

Without being extravagant, it is important that we engage with the rest of the world in ways which are effective, including by showing respect to other cultures, and understanding that others may do things differently.

The role of Heads of Mission

All of you, as Heads of Mission, have a critical job in leading your posts and representing New Zealand’s interests. 

At this time your sense of professionalism is mission critical.  The Ministry is receiving a big budget boost but along with it will come increased scrutiny.

Ensure every dollar is spent wisely, and spent wisely to amplify the New Zealand voice around the globe. 

At times there is criticism voiced about the calibre of New Zealand public servants, including at the Ministry.  Such commentary in your case is seriously uncalled for and unjustified.

Without any doubt the Ministry and our Embassies and High Commissions have provided the country with a remarkable service, and will continue to do so.

As a politician I campaigned on the necessity for our country to have the resources and the diplomats to do the job properly. 

As well my view is that offshore postings are to be for foreign policy experts. Political appointees should only ever arise as “exceptional exceptions”.


Obtaining the funding you need has only just begun.

To conclude, we are at the point where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has now been presented an opportunity.

Given the increasingly complex international environment we need to be focused, and deliberate, and action orientated in our efforts to ensure New Zealand’s voice is strong on the world stage.

Being ambitious, taking leadership and demonstrating action is not something confined to those occupying senior positions in the Ministry.

All staff should be encouraged and empowered to work to their fullest in advancing New Zealand’s foreign policy interests and delivering results.

We all have to demonstrate to the sceptics that it is money well spent and in doing so rebuild New Zealand’s reputation as having the best small country Foreign Service in the world.

Thank you.