Budget battle begins with push for MFAT boost

The head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has made a blatant bid for more money in this year’s Budget and it seems likely his prayers will be answered.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has hinted at a funding boost for MFAT, after the ministry’s chief executive Brook Barrington appeared before a select committee to plead his case.

Speaking to the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee as part of MFAT’s annual review, Barrington said a failure to increase baseline funding since 2008 was “starting to bite”.

The Ministry was “both small and young”, with only 230 diplomats across 57 posts in what was “an increasingly complicated world”.

“I’m being shameless here: there’s a Budget round coming up, and I’m happy to put my peg in the ground.”

Barrington said New Zealand had eight people on average across diplomatic posts, compared with 23 for Australia and 41 for the United Kingdom.

“The issues that we are dealing with, whether you are the United Kingdom or New Zealand, by and large are shared: smaller countries with a global interest don’t have fewer issues to prosecute, we just have fewer people to prosecute them with.”

“In my view [our international aid] is not only below like-minded company, it is below what a reputable developed country like New Zealand should be spending.”

New Zealand’s official development assistance (ODA) was just 0.27 percent of the country’s gross national income (GNI), well below the United Nations target of 0.7 percent, and was forecast to drop to 0.21 percent in four years without an increase.

“In my view that is not only below like-minded company, it is below what a reputable developed country like New Zealand should be spending.”

Barrington said he was keen for more money to be channeled through multilateral organisations for health and education, along with more funding for youth in the Pacific and for climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Jonathan Kings, MFAT’s deputy secretary for the Pacific and Development Group, told the committee that climate change was going to put real pressure on New Zealand’s aid budget.

“If there is no change, I can see climate change over coming years crowding out essential spend in other areas because it is for the Pacific an existential issue and it is increasingly expensive.”

Barrington said he was keen for successive governments’ focus on the Pacific to continue.

“We don’t have that many people in the queue behind us wanting to spend on the Pacific, so the less we spend on the Pacific is a spend which by and large is not being taken up by others.”

King said there was a real risk Pacific countries would fail to meet their UN Sustainable Development Goals without further aid to tackle issues like poverty reduction.

Peters a champion of MFAT resources

Peters has history when it comes to boosting spending on international engagement.

Serving as Foreign Affairs Minister under Helen Clark’s Labour-led government, he announced both a $246m increase to New Zealand’s ODA and a $105m rise in MFAT funding as part of the 2007 Budget.

That work was undone in part by the arrival of the National government in 2008, with Foreign Minister Murray McCully overseeing a controversial restructuring of MFAT in 2011 which initially threatened up to 300 jobs (it was later watered down following protests from diplomats).

Barrington acknowledged the reforms had led to a shift in the shape of New Zealand’s foreign service, which was “unusual, unique perhaps” for a developed country.

“It’s a serious concern...that’s a really bad look for this country and we’re starved of resources and firepower, manpower, womanpower."

“[The restructuring] simply accelerated somewhat a process that would already have occurred, but the consequence is we now have if I can talk about a population pyramid we’re very wide at the bottom and very thin at the top...

“Our problem is not at the junior levels — it’s weight, it’s diplomatic weight further up our pyramid, and for that I need some surety of funding.”

Speaking to media, Peters said MFAT had been “run down badly” and he intended to turn it around.

“It’s a serious concern ... that’s a really bad look for this country and we’re starved of resources and firepower, manpower, womanpower, and if we want to get our trading results up the way we should have them we’re going to have to put far more investment into it and play our role properly.”

Peters confirmed he would make a push for more MFAT resources ahead of the Budget on May 17, and said he was confident his views were shared by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and others in the Cabinet.

“I can’t tell you what my Budget bid is, but we’re going to do the best we properly can to meet the circumstances of this country’s need.”

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