With the appointment of Rosemary Banks as our next ambassador in Washington, another piece of New Zealand’s diplomatic jigsaw has fallen into place. Sam Sachdeva reports on what Banks’ appointment says about Winston Peters’ preferences, and the implications for the top foreign affairs job.

Finally, New Zealand has a woman in Washington.

Through 77 years of diplomatic representation in DC, and nearly 20 heads of mission, the Government had not appointed a female ambassador to represent our interests in the United States.

That’s now changed, with the news that (formerly) retired diplomat Rosemary Banks will replace Tim Groser on Embassy Row at the end of the year.

The groundbreaking nature of the appointment is interesting in and of itself, but the choice also offers some hints about Winston Peters’ thinking on the foreign affairs front – and who may take up MFAT’s top job.

Banks has held a number of diplomatic postings, but perhaps the most helpful was her stint as New Zealand’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 2005 to 2009 – a period which coincided with the last time Peters was Foreign Affairs Minister.

Those familiar with Peters’ thinking suggest his preference is to work with diplomats he already knows and who know him.

Given his railings against the appointment of former politicians to diplomatic jobs, it’s unsurprising he has turned to a career diplomat rather than an ex-MP to fill what is a critical role.

Rosemary Banks’ time at the UN coincided with Winston Peters’ last stint as foreign affairs minister, which may have counted in her favour. Photo: Getty Images.

Any diplomat trying to make sense of the United States under President Donald Trump is likely to struggle, and it’s easy to have some sympathy for Groser even as a beneficiary of Peters’ so-called “brorocracy”.

The former National minister was put on the back foot early on with Trump’s “Muslim ban”, Murray McCully volubly declaring his displeasure with MFAT officials (although not his former Cabinet colleague) over a failure to get clarity about its impact on New Zealanders.

New Zealand’s inability to secure an exemption from US steel and aluminium tariffs was also seen by some as a failure, although Groser and his team deserve credit for New Zealanders gaining access to E-1 and E-2 business visas – a longstanding goal which others had failed to achieve.

Less public but also concerning have been rumblings about the environment within the Washington embassy and complaints about the “Tim and Caroline show” – the other half of the act being Groser’s former second in charge Caroline Beresford, reprimanded after telling US Democrats to “get your shit together or we will all die” on Twitter, and again when emails revealed she had bad-mouthed her Wellington bosses to US lobbyists.

Banks, described by some who know her as sharp in both demeanour and intellect, may accordingly have seemed an appropriate choice to restore some discipline to the office.

The race to MFAT’s top job

News of her appointment puts paid to one school of thought – that the Washington job would serve as a “consolation prize” to whoever missed out in the race to replace the outgoing Brook Barrington as MFAT chief executive.

There are widely believed to be four people on the shortlist to replace Barrington.

Within MFAT, there is deputy chief executive Bede Corry, deputy secretary Bernadette Cavanagh and High Commissioner to Australia Chris Seed; externally, although crucially with some foreign affairs experience, is NZ Security Intelligence Service director Rebecca Kitteridge.

As was the case with Washington, there has never been a woman in MFAT’s top job, which could help Cavanagh and Kitteridge.

However, it may be that the appointment of Banks lessens the pressure to make another historic appointment (irrelevant as that may seem).

Another factor is Peters’ Pacific reset and the Government’s push for greater diplomacy and aid in the region.

Of the four, Seed has the greatest Pacific experience, having served as High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea and on an international peace monitoring team in the Solomon Islands.

That’s one of the reasons why many see him as the favourite to replace Barrington – and it could be seen as a vote of confidence that Peters trusted him to make the case against Australia’s “corrosive” deportation policies to a political committee in Canberra this week.

This article was first published on Newsroom Pro on Thursday, September 13 at 6.40 pm. Subscribe to Newsroom Pro here.

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

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