Wellington, September 14, 2018
With the appointment of Rosemary Banks as our next Ambassador in Washington, another piece of New Zealand’s diplomatic jigsaw has fallen into place.
This article outlines Foreign Minister Winston Peters’ preferences, and the implications for the top foreign affairs job.
Through 77 years of diplomatic representation in DC, and nearly 20 Heads of Mission, the Government had not appointed a female ambassador to represent our interests in the United States of America.
That’s now changed, with the news that (formerly) retired diplomat Rosemary Banks will replace Tim Groser on Embassy Row at the end of the year.
Rosemary Banks, New Zealand’s new Ambassador to United States of America (Picture from Wikipedia)
The ground-breaking nature of the appointment is interesting in and of itself, but the choice also offers some hints about Winston Peters’ thinking on the Foreign Affairs front – and who may take up MFAT’s top job.
Banks has held a number of diplomatic postings, but perhaps the most helpful was her stint as New Zealand’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2005 to 2009 – a period which coincided with the last time Peters was Foreign Affairs Minister.
Those familiar with Peters’ thinking suggest his preference is to work with diplomats he already knows and who know him.
Choice no surprise
Given his railings against the appointment of former politicians to diplomatic jobs, it is unsurprising that he has turned to a career diplomat rather than an ex-MP to fill what is a critical role.
Any diplomat trying to make sense of the United States under President Donald Trump is likely to struggle, and it is easy to have some sympathy for Groser even as a beneficiary of Peters’ so-called “brorocracy.”
Groser’s failures and successes
The former National Minister was put on the back foot early on with Trump’s “Muslim ban,” and Murray McCully volubly declaring his displeasure with MFAT officials (although not his former Cabinet colleague) over a failure to get clarity about its impact on New Zealanders.
New Zealand’s inability to secure an exemption from US steel and aluminium tariffs was also seen by some as a failure, although Groser and his team deserve credit for New Zealanders gaining access to E-1 and E-2 business visas – a longstanding goal which others had failed to achieve.
Less public but also concerning have been rumblings about the environment within the Washington Embassy and complaints about the “Tim and Caroline show” – the other half of the act being Groser’s former second-in-charge Caroline Beresford, reprimanded after telling US Democrats to “get your shit together or we will all die” on Twitter, and again when emails revealed she had bad-mouthed her Wellington bosses to US lobbyists.
Banks, described by some who know her as sharp in both demeanour and intellect, may accordingly have seemed an appropriate choice to restore some discipline to the office.
The race to MFAT’s top job
One of Winston Peters’ first major diplomatic appointments offers some hints about how some other critical jobs may be filled. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.
News of her appointment puts paid to one school of thought – that the Washington job would serve as a ‘consolation prize’ to whoever missed out in the race to replace the outgoing Brook Barrington as MFAT Chief Executive.
There are widely believed to be four people on the shortlist to replace Barrington.
Within MFAT, there is Deputy Chief Executive Bede Corry, Deputy Secretary Bernadette Cavanagh and High Commissioner to Australia Chris Seed; externally, although crucially with some foreign affairs experience, is New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Director Rebecca Kitteridge.
As was the case with Washington, there has never been a woman in MFAT’s top job, which could help Cavanagh and Kitteridge.
However, it may be that the appointment of Banks lessens the pressure to make another historic appointment (irrelevant as that may seem).
Another factor is Peters’ Pacific reset and the Government’s push for greater diplomacy and aid in the region.
Of the four, Seed has the greatest Pacific experience, having served as High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and on an international peace monitoring team in the Solomon Islands.
That is one of the reasons why many see him as the favourite to replace Barrington – and it could be seen as a vote of confidence that Peters trusted him to make the case against Australia’s ‘corrosive’ deportation policies to a political committee in Canberra this week.
Sam Sachdeva is Political Editor of Newsroom covering Foreign Affairs, Trade, Defence and Security Issues based in Wellington. The above article and picture which appeared in the Web Edition of Newsroom today (September 14, 2018) have been reproduced here under a Special Arrangement.