The Machiavelli of New Zealand foreign policy departs

He was known as a back room dealer, Machiavellian in nature. His colleagues in the National Party, his electorate and in the Beehive know him to be abrasive and hard headed. But to the world, Murray McCully was the New Zealand Minister of Foreign Affairs. And now as he enters his final weeks in the job, the question hangs over the head of his boss Prime Minister Bill English: who to replace him with.

Murray McCully had a mixed time as Minister of Foreign Affairs for New Zealand. On one hand he was delightfully successful in getting New Zealand one of the rotating seats on the United Nations Security Council, a two year period where as one of the ten non-permanent members we held a prized opportunity to positively influence global affairs. Mr McCully enjoyed a surge of respect from unexpected quarters late in 2016, when just before Christmas and the end of New Zealand’s tenure in the Security Council seat, New Zealand along with Venezuela, Malaysia and Burkina Faso got a resolution through that condemned Israeli occupation of Palestine.

But Mr McCully also had chances that he failed to take, and took decisions that still rankle the international community to this day. His ongoing support for the United States led “War on Terrorism”, even when it is on increasingly questionable grounds, has raised the ire of human rights campaigners, legal experts and left people wondering if the independent foreign policy platform of New Zealand was being deliberately eroded. The switching of New Zealand aid to support the South Pacific was another controversy that Mr McCully had to deal with.

This article should not pass without mentioning his handling of internal reorganization in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the loss of skilled diplomatic staff, researchers and planners. The Machiavelli in Mr McCully alleged came to the fore here. Tracy Watkins writes of him as the Machiavelli because he was, she writes, a wheeler, dealer and a plotter to the extent when some of his colleagues called him the dark prince, they meant it.

Mr English faces a dilemma in replacing Mr McCully though. Less than six months from the election at the of a three term Government, in a country where Governments in peace time are not generally favoured by history to win a fourth, what impact could the replacement Minister have? Would it be better to appoint a care taker Minister of Foreign Affairs until Mr English knows what shape the National Party will be in after the election? And what direction does Mr English want to take – a centre/centre-right approach like Mr McCully took under former Prime Minister John Key, or a swing to the right? And, given history’s preferences, does – aside from a fourth term – Mr English have anything to lose?

Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee is one of the leading candidates. Member for Ilam, Minister for Earthquake Recovery and former Minister for Energy and Resources, Mr Brownlee has had substantial Ministerial experience over the last 8 years. But he is abrupt, blunt and some people might say in the wake of the Nicky Hager book, lacking regard for international law.

Another candidate is Dr Jonathan Coleman, Minister of Health. Dr Coleman took over this after Tony Ryall left. His time has seen him face increasing criticism over cuts to the budget, apathy over medical marijuana and a lack of empathy for people with mental health issues. But would Dr Coleman want the job?

The ranks thin quickly after that. Few others have much experience on the international stage and in a time when as Ms Watkins notes, building relationships is everything in international diplomacy, would the newcomer be up to the task?

Or will history veto a fourth term like it has done so many times before?

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