The Government’s diplomatic appointment of Louisa Wall almost immediately after the Labour MP’s resignation raised eyebrows – and internal papers show foreign affairs officials had reservations about the role’s value

A former Labour MP’s new diplomatic role was set up despite officials’ concern about duplicating existing work and getting offside with Pacific leaders expecting more senior engagement, internal documents show.

In April, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced Louisa Wall’s appointment as a new ambassador for gender equality in the Pacific – less than a fortnight after Wall announced the end of her 14-year career in Parliament.

The timing of Wall’s appointment, coupled with the well-established tensions between the outspoken MP and some within Labour, led to speculation that the role – to which she was appointed directly, without advertisement – had been created to move her on from Parliament. Wall fuelled such claims when she told the NZ Herald she had reached an agreement with Labour to retire this term when a suitable job came up.

Documents obtained by Newsroom through the Official Information Act show work on what would become Wall’s role began in May last year, when the ministry produced a memo for Mahuta on its use of roving ambassadors.

The memo said the two main forms of diplomatic representation used outside of bilateral ties and regional bodies had been permanent “thematic ambassadors” – Wellington-based roles, such as for climate change and counter-terrorism, filled by career foreign policy staff or specialists – and special envoys appointed to handle particular issues or projects.

The only example of a fixed-term thematic ambassador related to the Pacific had been former Labour MP Shane Jones (whose own appointment as a Pacific economic ambassador in 2014 by National foreign affairs minister Murray McCully was labelled a “dodgy deal” by some commentators).

Among the issues which the ministry recommended be taken into account was the need for a clear and well-defined role to minimise risks.

“Active management would be required to avoid duplication or confusion within your role, and those of the Associate Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth, as well as the role of the Deputy-Secretary of the Pacific and Development Group and New Zealand’s high commissioners/ambassadors in-country.”

While envoys and thematic ambassadors could have “real ‘cut-through’” at a global level or in regions where New Zealand had a thin diplomatic presence, when it came to the Pacific the country’s partners expected to be able to engage with their elected counterparts – “ideally with the Prime Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs”.

“The challenge with any political envoy would be managing risks that partners view the appointment as a diminution of their political access.”
– MFAT memo

Aotearoa also had a strong presence in the region already, through both the diplomatic network and deep engagement across the public service.

The appointee’s personal qualities were also a vital factor, given the need to establish strong relationships with partner governments, key stakeholders and within the ministry.

Such appointments were most successful when they had a narrow remit, the ministry memo said.

“Appointments of this kind are less likely to be successful if the role overlaps with the core business of diplomacy, and in a context in which the appointee is not in the decision making line nor holds financial delegations.

“Moreover, the challenge with any political envoy would be managing risks that partners view the appointment as a diminution of their political access.”

In September, the ministry’s deputy secretary for the Pacific and development group Jonathan Kings wrote to MFAT chief executive Chris Seed to provide advice on how to create a Pacific ambassador position.

Kings said a ‘package’ could be built around a number of roles, including high commissioner or administrator positions or work on issues like economic resilience, soft diplomacy and Pacific languages.

He had not made a recommendation on the position, other than in relation to Mahuta’s suggestion that the ambassador have responsibility for the Pacific Islands Forum (while his exact views were withheld, it appears from the context of the documents that he expressed concern about such a move).

An apparent five-month lull in communications about the role followed – during which time the Government finalised a new “reset to resilience” approach in the Pacific – before in mid-February the ministry prepared and made multiple revisions to a job description for the position (initially described as Pacific women’s sport and political participation ambassador).

A spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the position had not been redesigned to suit Wall. Photo: Rob Kitchin/Pool

One draft document said the role “lends itself to being less than full-time”, and noted the ministry would need to check how the work aligned with Associate Foreign Affairs Minister Aupito William Sio’s portfolio interests.

At one point, the role shifted to a broader position of an ambassador for gender equality and LGBTQI+ rights – only for the ministry to raise “a number of issues linked to the proposed global focus of this role”.

In a message to Seed, a ministry adviser raised concerns about the LGBTQI+ component in relation to the Pacific, saying: “The Pacific dimension is tricky however. LGBTQI+ rights are very important in the region but sensitive.” Homosexuality is still criminalised in seven Pacific countries.

A final draft for the role was sent to Mahuta on March 9 and finalised on March 14, after a conversation between the minister and Seed.

The released communications show Mahuta pushing for swifter progress on the role. On February 17, the minister sent a message to Seed asking for an integrated job description and a “more specific discussion” regarding a start date, KPIs and remuneration issues before she flew to Europe days later; “We’ll be doing our best,” the chief executive was recorded as responding. 

A spokeswoman for Mahuta told Newsroom the position had not been redesigned to suit Wall, with the changes instead reflective of ministry advice to narrow its scope for greater effectiveness. The reference to the role lending itself to being “less than full time” was a reference to its flexibility, with a full-time role providing better results.

The role would support New Zealand’s delivery of the International Development Cooperation programme, with a specific focus on delivering sustainable development goals related to gender equality and reducing inequality within and amongst countries.

“MFAT saw greater value in a specific opportunity to advance its work on gender and development in the Pacific, including through sports.  The ministry has a gender action plan agreed in 2021 which requires focused diplomatic engagement and leadership,” the spokeswoman said.

A ministry spokeswoman told Newsroom the five-gap month in communications about the role had been due to a “hiatus in the discussions”.

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

Leave a comment