Newly appointed Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee has wasted no time dealing with the diplomatic intricacies of his new role, reaching out to Israel and advocating for Kiwis’ rights in Australia. He spoke to Sam Sachdeva about the difficulty of following in Murray McCully’s footsteps, and the legacy he leaves behind in Christchurch.

Gerry Brownlee, natural diplomat?

The reaction of some to his appointment as Foreign Minister is perhaps no surprise – after all, this is the man who took it upon himself to insult the people of Finland during a parliamentary debate.

However, take into account Brownlee’s experience as defence minister and his time forging cross-party consensus as Leader of the House, and it’s easier to see why Prime Minister Bill English saw him as a safe pair of hands.

Brownlee sees his new role not so much as a promotion, rather a progression on the work he has been doing for the past few years.

“I’ve always kept a fairly close eye on foreign relations and what was happening in that particular portfolio, and in defence you do quite a lot of ‘defence diplomacy’ if you like, so it seemed like a natural progression in a way.”

However, Brownlee knows he has big boots to fill, describing his predecessor Murray McCully as an “outstanding foreign affairs minister” and paying particular tribute to his work in the Pacific, with the United States, and in building a truly independent foreign policy voice.

“If you look at the development of New Zealand’s relationships in a number of parts in the world, he can take huge pride in what he’s done.”

Brownlee says he comes into the job without “a hellbent desire to do a particular thing”.

In the five months before Kiwis go to the polls, he wants to lead a “refocusing back into Europe” and the trading opportunities which will flow from Brexit, while also building on ties with the Gulf states and maintaining our relationship with traditional allies like the US and the UK.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his biggest concern is the increasing volatility of North Korea, given New Zealand’s trade ties with Asia.

“We have a good trading relationship with all of Japan, South Korea and China, we’ve also got growing trade with Vietnam and into that part of the world if you like.

“Having a rogue state there that could disrupt the order of that part of the world is a serious concern, and something that we need to be very cautious of.”

The pitfalls of the foreign minister’s role can be personal, as well as political.

In an exit interview with Newsroom, McCully spoke about the physical toll of the job, reflecting on the “reasonable battering” his body received through a combination of jetlag, constant travel and the workload of the role.

Is that a concern for Brownlee?

“You obviously can’t ignore that … but there’s a lot of travel in defence – I was in 17 different countries last year, quite a significant amount of travelling, as well as doing two other fairly grunty portfolios as well, so I don’t have too many concerns about that.”

Advocacy in Australia, olive branch to Israel

Brownlee’s first overseas trip won’t be too taxing – he’s heading across the ditch to visit Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on Thursday, in the wake of a number of policy changes affecting Kiwi expats which have taken our government by surprise.

He says changes to the country’s tertiary education system, which could lead to Kiwi students paying tens of thousands more in fees, should be seen in the context of a government “under very significant financial pressure, [with] big deficits, and a pretty distant-looking horizon for the break-even point”.

More worrying, says Brownlee, is what other reciprocal arrangements between the two countries may come up for debate in Australia without advance notice.

“The change to citizenship crystallised the problem – the two prime ministers had reached agreement but the Australian system appeared not to remember that …

“We are close as countries, there’s no question about that, the people-to-people links between us are extraordinarily interconnected and that won’t go away, but we would just like to see that their system has a little more respect for us than appears to have been demonstrated at different times.”

Another relationship Brownlee is trying to repair is that with Israel, after New Zealand’s decision last December to co-sponsor a UN resolution condemning the country’s settlements on Palestinian territories.

The move was reportedly interpreted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an “act of war”, with Israel’s ambassador recalled from New Zealand.

One of Brownlee’s first acts after receiving his ministerial warrant was to offer an olive branch to Netanyahu, seeking a restoration of diplomatic ties.

“I sent him a letter … expressing a desire to get the relationship back on track, to recognise that we have had an incident that has caused a problem and proposing that we have a process for getting full diplomatic representation back in place and reasserting that New Zealand has been a long-term friend of Israel,” Brownlee said.

Asked whether he has any concerns about how the UN resolution was handled by New Zealand, Brownlee’s diplomacy was on full display: “I’m too new to have a view.”

A complex legacy in Canterbury

Some Cantabrians would argue that tact was not always evident in his nearly seven years overseeing the region’s earthquake recovery – a role he has relinquished to take on his new brief.

Despite tussles with residents, businesses and city councillors, Brownlee says he never took the insults hurled his way personally.

“The tensions, the arguments, the people having a go at me and that sort of thing – in many ways all that was very encouraging, because it just meant a lot of people were passionate about what they wanted for the city, and I don’t think there was ever a point where I lost sight of that.

“People often say I’m short-tempered and intolerant of people – that’s not really the case at all, I’m just respectful of the fact that they do have those views but equally keen to let them know that I don’t agree with them, and I don’t think that’s wrong.”

That keenness to engage is in part driven by his personal connection to the loss many suffered on February 22, 2011.

“A lot of people in Christchurch knew other people who were killed in those earthquake events, right, and I’m not any different to that.

“I can name seven people who I knew reasonably well who died in the earthquake event in three locations, and you can’t sort of have that knowledge and know those families and not have quite an intolerance for some of the stupid things that people were wanting to do.”

“I was always accused of wanting to bulldoze the whole city – that’s never been the case, but there was a time there when some people weren’t sensible in the way they were looking at things.”

That “stupidity” includes the desire of some heritage advocates to retain as many historic buildings as possible after the September 2010 earthquake, which Brownlee argues led to deaths that could have been avoided.

“Had we after September 4 been a lot more sensible about the state of buildings, then we might have been a better position, might not have lost so many people.

“Now that’s a pretty bold statement, I’ve never said that before anywhere, but I know of one place where bricks killed someone who I knew and those bricks shouldn’t have been standing at that point.

“I was always accused of wanting to bulldoze the whole city – that’s never been the case, but there was a time there when some people weren’t sensible in the way they were looking at things.”

Despite the public blowback, Brownlee says he appreciates the “unique opportunity” he had to make a difference in Christchurch, and believes the full extent of the city’s recovery won’t be clear until decades from now.

“There are some amazing things I think took place here, the way in which the red zone people responded, I still find it absolutely amazing …

“I look back and say, could you have done things better or differently? I think yes, probably, you’d be crazy not to say [that] … but when there’s so many ideas floating around about what should happen and how it should be done, in the end you just had to say right, this is where we’re heading and stick to it, and I think the sticking to it has been useful.”

His new role will be a change of pace, “much more considered and nuanced” than the rawness of the initial post-quake environment.

He admits to some regret at leaving his Christchurch role, but says it’s the right time for a change – and with the current state of the world, there will be more than enough to distract him in the coming months.

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

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