Foreign Minister Murray McCully is used to being the centre of attention - but that's set to come to an end when he steps down on May 1. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Foreign Minister Murray McCully steps down from Cabinet on Monday, after more than eight years in the job and thousands of air miles. He spoke to Newsroom about the legacy he leaves behind, and his plans after three terms leading New Zealand’s international agenda.

On the 19th floor of Bowen House, Murray McCully’s office provides a beautiful view of the skies, a picture the jet-setting Foreign Minister must be all too familiar with by now.

A framed photo collage documenting McCully’s many international trips is propped up on a couch – a gift from MFAT officials at a farewell function the night before. A caption on the back reads: “For a Minister who worked to change the world for the better.”

The effect is leavened somewhat by a miniature red punching ball on the windowsill – another gift from a colleague, and a reminder of the veteran politician’s more pugilistic qualities over the years.

McCully, who relinquishes his ministerial warrant on May 1, says he always planned to leave Parliament at the same time as John Key, a sign of the strong bond that formed between the two in government.

“The relationship has to be very tight, both domestically and internationally. If you can fit a cigarette paper between the two, in terms of the positions you take, then … it confuses the public, it confuses partners and makes you less effective.”

Key actually “inherited” him in the foreign affairs portfolio after rolling Don Brash for the National Party leadership, but quickly made it clear he wanted him to remain in place after the 2008 election.

One of the pair’s first major policy manoeuvres came in opposition, when National committed to keeping nuclear-free legislation – a contrast to Brash’s infamous “gone by lunchtime” remarks to US officials.

McCully says the change of approach, hashed out at a caucus retreat and during other discussions, was vital in setting the stage for National’s time in government.

“It would have been pretty easy for the US relationship to be a political football that was kicked backwards and forwards by the two major political parties had we not had quite a clear view about the anti-nuclear legislation on one hand, but also about rebuilding of trust and confidence as well.”

The McCully doctrine?

With just under eight-and-a-half years in charge, McCully is behind only Keith Holyoake and Don McKinnon on the list of our longest serving foreign ministers.

What then is the ‘McCully Doctrine’, the principles that have guided New Zealand on the international stage since 2008?

Perhaps foremost in his mind is the need for “fundamentally mainstream New Zealand positions” able to withstand changes of government in the interests of long-term stability.

“Looking for the middle ground, looking for positions that are going to be sustainable over time is, I think, pretty important for a small country like this.”

He says the Government has reinforced traditional relationships with countries like the UK, the US and Australia, while also building new connections in areas like Asia and the Gulf states.

However, McCully says his most fulfilling and most challenging work has been building New Zealand’s role in the Pacific, redirecting more aid to the area and making every dollar work.

“I’ve put a lot of my personal effort into ensuring that we actually live up to the expectations our neighbours have of us and the responsibilities we should carry.”

Aid researcher Terence Wood this week accused McCully of leaving behind white elephant infrastructure projects in the region. The suggestion sparks a burst of passion from McCully, as he talks about shifting Pacific countries from diesel-based electricity to renewables.

“If you go and talk to the people in Tokelau, who were 100 percent dependent upon fossil fuels for their electricity who are now 100 percent renewable, if you go and talk to the people in the northern Cook Islands … if you go to all of the outer islands of Tuvalu and find the same there, these people aren’t talking about white elephants, let me assure you.”

These “transformational” projects may not have pleased NGOs, McCully says, “but they sure as hell have made their impact in the region”.

McCully also highlights the Government’s progress on trade, with negotiations on the China FTA upgrade underway, a Gulf states FTA set to be signed this year, and progress on an EU FTA after “a lot of sweat and a lot of travel”.

Security Council

Perhaps the most high-profile result of McCully’s efforts came in 2014, when New Zealand won a seat on the UN Security Council for a two-year term.

While the prestige of the position was undeniable, the long-term benefits for the country after relinquishing the position have been less clear to some.

McCully says the role allowed New Zealand to intensify its relationships with other countries involved with the council, including those from the Middle East and Africa.

He says New Zealand’s standing in the international community has improved as a result, building on the reputation which led us to victory in the first place.

“We are a small country that has a good reputation, a reputation for being fair-minded, for being open and having good values, and I think our time on the council, not just what we did but the way we did it, built that brand.”

McCully has never shied away from criticising the UN, particularly veto powers exercised by the Security Council’s five permanent members.

Asked whether meaningful reform is possible, he puffs out his cheeks and audibly exhales before responding.

“The short answer is it’s not going to happen in a hurry … it comes down the 193 members who have to sooner or later say they’re fed up with a body that has governance arrangements that are completely unsuitable to the Security Council carrying out its tasks in a modern environment.”

Saudi Sheep and Israel resolutions

Of course, McCully’s time in charge has not been without its controversies.

Most notorious was the “Saudi sheep deal”, an agrihub set up in Saudi Arabia by the Government as part of an $11.5 million deal with Saudi businessman Hamood Al Ali Al Khalaf.

Opponents alleged it was a pay-off to get a free trade deal across the line and ease anger over a ban on live sheep exports. An investigation by Auditor General Lyn Provost found no evidence of corruption, but “significant shortcomings” in how the deal was presented to Cabinet.

McCully says the issue was “hardly a hanging offence”, while the state of relations between New Zealand and the Gulf region meant something had to be done.

“Doing something as complicated and difficult as that to resolve a problem that was as challenging as that, whilst you’re moving around the world and dealing with a million other things, of course there’d be opportunities to improve the process.

“But the fundamental point here is that we had got ourselves into a completely unacceptable position, not just in relation to the relationship with one country, but the relationship with the whole region, and we had to try to find a way to fix it.”

New Zealand’s decision to co-sponsor a UN resolution last December, slamming Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as “a flagrant violation under international law”, also put the Government in the firing line, with Israel withdrawing its ambassador in protest.

McCully says New Zealand’s policy position was always going to disappoint some countries, while the “rather unusual set of events” which led to the resolution – including a last-minute withdrawal by its sponsor on the eve of Christmas – complicated matters.

However, he is unrepentant about the final decision.

“I’m aware that there’s some criticism, but I regard that longstanding New Zealand position as one that would be very difficult for us not to vote for.”

MFAT relationship

McCully’s relationship with his Ministry has also been a hot topic.

An MFAT restructure early in his tenure was bitterly fought by some staffers, while as recently as February he blasted chief executive Brook Barrington over the Ministry’s delay in responding to Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban”.

McCully says his relationship with MFAT is “much better than news media would suggest”, at times speaking out publicly but more often taking a more diplomatic approach.

However, he says the Ministry needed to change at the time of the reforms, and still needs to adapt to the changing world it operates in.

“This is an environment in which ministers aren’t going to sit around waiting for diplomats to go and confer with some partners and then do some careful wordsmithing and then send a paper along – they’re going to turn on their television set and see CNN or Sky News, and they’re going to pick up their phone and text their colleagues.

“The real challenge for diplomacy is to adapt to that new environment.”

Future plans

McCully praises his successor Gerry Brownlee, saying he’s “sure to do a first-class job”.

Brownlee certainly has a lot to live up to, with McCully’s workload over the years taking its toll.

He spent nearly three months off work across 2015 and 2016, after receiving private surgery to remove a benign tumour and then contracting a superbug.

McCully doesn’t attribute that to the job, saying he was simply unlucky – “or very lucky indeed, depending on which view you take” – but acknowledges the role is physically draining.

“You spent half your time travelling, and the other half of your time trying to deal with a lot of inwards traffic and a lot of paperwork and of course jetlag is not an insignificant consideration – it knocks you around.

“So I think my body’s had a reasonable battering over eight-and-a-half years, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to just not get on a plane for a while, actually.”

As to what awaits on terra firma, McCully says he does not intend to rush into any new work.

However, he speaks of responsibilities that come with the job, and says if the Government or Kiwi businesses call on him for assistance, he is more than willing to assist.

“When you sign up to be New Zealand’s foreign minister and accept the investment that taxpayers make in you to form relationships and gain experience with issues … you don’t just tune out because your term in the portfolio ends.”

He has had some people tap him on the shoulder already, with a couple of Pacific projects “already on my plate”.

But for now, McCully is simply looking forward to some welcome respite from his time in the skies.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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