A decision that government ministers will no longer represent New Zealand at embassies’ national days has been portrayed by National as a slight to our international partners.

However, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says the change of policy is not a snub, but a reflection of the unusual accessibility of ministers in the past.

In a verbal note to diplomatic missions from 2017 viewed by Newsroom, MFAT said government ministers would no longer act as New Zealand’s official representative at national day receptions, with the role to instead be filled by an MFAT official.

“In reply to the speech or toast by the host Head of Mission, the New Zealand Government representative will offer a toast to the Head of State of the host country.

“There will be no substantive speech by the New Zealand representative.”

The note said missions were still free to invite ministers to attend their national days as guests.

MFAT chief executive Brook Barrington was pressed by National MP and former trade minister Todd McClay on the rationale for the decision, at a select committee appearance on Thursday morning.

“Coming straight after a government change, this is a very big signal we’re sending to all of these countries who have invested in a relationship by establishing a mission in New Zealand,” McClay said.

“Actually, there won’t be a single capital around the world who has an embassy or high commission here who doesn’t view this as a slight.”

Barrington said the move was not intended as a snub, but a reflection of MFAT’s view that the Government had been “unusually accessible” to diplomats at functions in New Zealand.

“It’s not, I hasten to add, an act of disrespect to the corps or to the importance of diplomacy, but a reflection of the fact our system is remarkably open … and I would not want to underestimate how difficult and time-consuming it was for the foreign ministry to get ministerial-level attendance.”

MFAT’s previous policy had raised expectations among the diplomatic corps that a minister would always be present at national days, leading it to be seen as a slight when one could not attend.

“I would rather have that the other way around, whereby there is an expectation that the chief of protocol will host such events and represent the Government, and where it makes sense because of a personal relationship or incoming visit or what have you for a minister to attend, there’s no slight intended.”

Barrington said he was “puzzled” by suggestions of unease regarding the policy change, as it had not been brought to his attention by any heads of mission.

“I think they’re worried about more important things than who attends national days.”

Asked about the change in protocol, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said he supported MFAT’s view that ministerial attendance at the events was not sustainable.

“We couldn’t do them all, and the moment you can’t do them all you start being accused of favouritism.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t go to some of them, but because you can’t do the lot we thought alongside MFAT’s decision as by way of advice, and also something which was begun by the Lange government actually not to try and make the whole lot and offend people.”

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

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