NZ FOREIGN AFFAIRS
From Chapter 3 of the memoir Compass Points
I have no idea where the notion came from when I was 16 or 17 years old that I wanted to make New Zealand’s overseas relations my career. There was nothing in my Palmerston North or school or family environment that would have led me to be aware that a Department of External Affairs might exist or that people could work in something called diplomacy or foreign policy. My only previous serious thoughts about a career had been that I might enter the ministry of the Anglican Church.
But I am glad indeed that the notion did arise. When my father suggested around that time that I might prepare to take over his business, I firmly declined. Initially I knew that I wanted to go to Wellington and get a degree in the liberal arts, and then do something of a public rather than commercial nature. That soon morphed into foreign relations, so my father arranged an appointment at the department and one day we went to Wellington to seek out the prospects. ‘Go and get a good degree and come back to talk then’ was the advice from that, almost accompanied by a physical pat on the head.
And so university and teaching intervened, but as I worked through the first year of my teaching bond, this other career prospect reasserted itself. I contacted the department and had an interview with a small panel of senior officers. I later played it over in my head so many times that I soon realised my memory could not differentiate between what I had said and what I wished I had. To complex questions about the Middle East in the aftermath of the Suez crisis, I responded, ‘They are the sort of questions that I want to join the department for, to learn the answers.’ Did I say that?
Then came psychological and intelligence tests. The interviewer was a genial man and the conversation went well, as far as I could judge, until he asked about religion. I started fudging and then we were sparring. After a while he asked why I was deflecting his questions. I told him I didn’t know his religious beliefs. If he was devout and I declared myself an atheist, or if it were the other way round, I felt my chances would be diminished. He smiled gently. ‘I’m actually not interested in your religious beliefs,’ he said, ‘But I am interested in whether you have thought about these things.’
There was a long wait before I was told I had been accepted, and was due to start early in the new year, 1961. Meantime Rachel was pregnant, with a baby due also around that time. She continued teaching at Queen Margaret until an advanced stage, a situation readily accepted by both the other staff and her students.
Philip arrived on 16 January 1961. I like to recall that it was a relatively uncomplicated occasion, in the context of the huge nature of the event. I am still amazed at birth, life and growth and all the biological processes of nature. I was kept well away from the delivery room, an edict that I had no intention of challenging, although the time was approaching when a husband might be admitted. Today, having seen birth a number of times on television, or on art videos in galleries, I reckon I could take it in my stride, but not, by a long shot, back then.
Philip was small but grew healthily. I learnt the demands of a baby who was reluctant to go to sleep. But I felt immensely proud. In a concession to tradition and to my parents we had Philip baptised in All Saints Anglican church in Palmerston North, all the men in suits and Rachel and the ladies with hats as was done in those days.
Our flat in Wellington was in easy walking distance to the department, which was on the top floor of parliament. The department served as the Prime Minister’s Department, which accounted for its pre-eminent location. I was assigned to a room with seven other new or junior officers. My old wooden desk had an inbox and an outbox and not much else. The others in the room included the department’s Legal Division, with Robin Burnett who we met up with again 18 years later in Canberra where she taught at the Australian National University, and Ken Keith (later the Right Honourable Sir Kenneth Keith, Judge of the International Court of Justice in The Hague) who left to have an eminent national and international judicial career. They warmly celebrated the new arrival’s new parenthood when Philip entered the world a few days after I started.
I was assigned to the South Pacific Division, with Tim Francis as the division head. He said to me, ‘Would you please review the constitution of the South Pacific Commission in Nouméa. See if it is still right for today’s needs.’ I was stunned. ‘I know nothing about it. I’ve never been to one of its meetings to see how it works.’ ‘Yes you do,’ he said. ‘Your application said that you did a paper on the South Pacific for your history degree.’ Well, I dimly remembered that that was true. But what had I learnt there that helped with this exercise? I found the constitution in the Records Section and went from there — slowly.
The main focus of the division was on the impending independence of Western Samoa, scheduled for 1 January 1962. I was not directly involved, the matter dealt with at higher levels by Tim and Frank Corner, the deputy secretary. Western Samoa had been administered by New Zealand since 1914, through various arrangements that included the Military Administration — my thesis subject — a League of Nations Mandate and a United Nations Trust Territory. I did all sorts of other things related to the other Pacific territories.
In that context my unfinished thesis research was a good fit. Germany had controlled the non-American part of Samoa for only 14 years when the war broke out. A British Military Expedition was formed of British and Australian ships, and New Zealand troops, to take over the territory, which it did successfully, capturing for the allies the first German territory of the war. The specific objective was the radio station, one of a network of German stations for its navy across the South Pacific. The German residents decided to acquiesce in the occupation, so there was neither shooting nor guerrilla resistance. A New Zealand colonel was installed as Governor, reporting directly to the Governor-General in Wellington. Because of this, most of the raw material for a thesis was available in Wellington.
The Germans had been reasonably successful administrators and there was no widespread local support for their replacement, but the New Zealanders boxed on quite well and won some acceptance, only to damage their standing seriously by not preventing the introduction of the devastating influenza epidemic in 1918. In 1920 the territory became New Zealand’s under a League of Nations Mandate, and a civilian administration was installed. The demands of my first year in the department and our first child meant that progress with the thesis was slow.
At the office I called for the files of places like the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), Tonga, Fiji and the Solomon Islands and found they were virtually empty. We had a subscription to a magazine called the Pacific Islands Monthly, and I cut out and filed articles about their governments and economies, so that if a crisis emerged I would have something to draw on for a briefing paper.
The Tongan leader Crown Prince Tungi visited Wellington and I was called in as note-taker for his appointment with the departmental head, A D McIntosh. The prince sat on a huge leather couch, big enough for two or more, and caused it to sag to the floor while he rested his elbows on each arm-rest.
The Samoan prime minister Mata‘afa Faumuina also visited and I was required to do the brief for Prime Minister Holyoake. Somewhere near the bottom of page 2 I asked if a gift was required and that was the one part of the paper that came back with a big X beside it. I was hauled before a senior manager and dressed down for my sin. I held my tongue but was nonplussed since the brief must have gone through his and other hands before it was signed up, and what was wrong with giving the prime minister the choice anyway?
The review of the South Pacific Commission was complete only in draft when — consistent with the department’s policy of rotating new recruits, called ‘diplomatic trainees’, every six or twelve months during their first two years, — I was told to report to the External Aid Division. This was in a separate building, isolated from the rest of the department in outlook as well as physically. But it offered stimulating work, and there was a good team there, David McDowell, Mary Riches, Graeme Law and others, seriously committed but enjoying a light touch and a fair bit of fun as well.
I was assigned to look after a group of Thai doctors out on postgraduate courses, and Vietnamese university students, and later a large group of young Indonesians, out to learn English as a second language. Rachel helped and we sometimes had them at home, in our small flat. They loved to take over the kitchen and cook for us as well as themselves; we were equally delighted. We probably came to know the half dozen Vietnamese best of all. They were from an affluent, land-owning class. In 1961–62 the war in their home country sometimes came up for discussion. We suggested to them that land reform, by way of breaking up large estates and redistributing it to a wider population, would be the best way to pre-empt things from getting worse. They absolutely could not contemplate it.
There was much more writing of memos, reports and briefs at EAD, compared with the reading and research required in the South Pacific Division. One day my immediate boss, Barbara Angus, who checked all correspondence from those dealing with students, and made plenty of revisions, said that my drafting was getting better. In the department you never wrote a paper, you always drafted it. I said no it wasn’t, it was just that I was learning the External Affairs style of drafting. But I realised a bit later that she was right, and there was something materially better in terms of clarity, and conveying nuances of meaning, that was a step ahead of what I had done at university.
I became a committed believer that foreign aid in the form of studentships and fellowships was a tremendously beneficial investment for New Zealand. Recipients all went back with a reasonable understanding of and good feelings about this country, and many rose to senior positions in their own countries. I now wish I had known much more about cultural differences and cultural adjustment, to be able to help them better make the most of their New Zealand experience. A book came out that year which was a little discussed, called Culture Shock, which identified the breadth of the subject and some of the best approaches, but basically we were untrained amateurs using what instinctive intelligence and goodwill we had to get by.
Joining the department meant joining a highly agreeable and quite close-knit social group. Ken and Pam Piddington took us under their wing and invited us to parties at their home high above the city in Wadestown. They were always relaxed affairs, women bringing a plate, and with wine out of casks. We also met up with Barbara and Glen Evans, who had a son the age of Philip. Glen, a budding lawyer, had been at Palmerston North Boys High. He had records of the satirical hits of the time, like those of Tom Lehrer, the maths professor from Harvard who sang very clever political and social commentary to his own piano accompaniment. I can still hum oddball snippets: ‘ ’Mid the yuccas and the thistles, I’ll watch the guided missiles, while the old FBI watches me …’ And after grinding up his mother-in-law, ‘sprinkled just a bit, over each banana split.’ And so on.
In similar vein Spike Jones’s very clever horse-race (won by Beetlebomb with Mother-In-Law nagging at the rear) version of Rossini’s William Tell Overture has stuck in my mind, and is too often imposed on my long-suffering grandchildren.
Young brother Simon came to Wellington to attend Victoria University and came to our flat often, sometimes to babysit Philip. But it led to another visit to the lost department of life. Tragically, by far the saddest event in my life until then, he was struck by a bus while riding pillion with a friend. I was gardening on a Saturday afternoon when the phone rang from the hospital. I went to see him, finding him totally unconscious and breathing with great difficulty. He died a few hours later. He was more academic, less sporty and gentler than Brian and me, and left a gap that could not be filled.
About 20 months into my apprenticeship I was asked to accept a posting in Apia, Western Samoa. It was not New York or Paris but it was exotic in its own way and important to New Zealand because it had just become independent from us at the beginning of the year. We didn’t need to discuss it much at home before saying yes.
Among the mass of activity preparing for our departure I sat with an officer from the Protocol Division to complete an application for a diplomatic passport. Where it said Occupation, I wrote Public Servant. ‘Oh no,’ she said, ‘we need to do better than that,’ and wrote, ‘Government Official.’ It was an incident with a consequence ten years later. I was being posted to Rome and squeezed in some after-work Italian lessons at Victoria University. I went home first and changed out of my suit into scruffy clothes that befitted an older student. On the first evening we were asked to look up our profession in the potted dictionary at the back of the textbook, and the lecturer then went around the room asking each of us to say our occupation in Italian. I, well trained that I was an official, said when my turn came, ‘Un ufficio.’
She looked at me with disbelief. ‘Where do you work?’
‘In a government department,’ I replied.
‘Un impiegato,’ she said, and again, ‘un impiegato, a clerk.’
Rather more to the point, back in 1962, our second son Geoffrey arrived on 12 July around the time the posting was suggested, and we were building a house on a gorse-covered slope on Rutland Way in Wilton, a newly developing western suburb. It was disappointing to think that we would not be its first occupants, but our over-riding concern was to have it ready for tenants before we left. It was a straight rectangle of 1100 square feet, the way first houses were built, and on a steep slope. Clearing the gorse, building steps down to the house, and pouring concrete retaining walls were not in the contract, and called for long and exhausting hours of hard labour every weekend. It was done, enough for the purpose, just in time for our departure.
Heading to Apia in November 1962 we could look back on three quite eventful years — we had married, acquired two children, embarked on a new career, bought a section and designed and built a house, subjected ourselves to a mortgage, — and scraped in qualifying for those wonderful 3% housing loans they had at the time — and left an unfinished thesis. And now we were travelling overseas for the first time. I felt only excitement at the way life in all these respects was shaping up.
For the first weeks after our return I felt curiously detached, restless. I had expected after just two years or so in the islands that we would fit back into Wellington as though we had never been away, but it was not quite like that, and several months passed before life felt normal. I was walking the streets of a foreign country, looking at all the passers-by: who were all these people called New Zealanders? It was a mild lesson that cultural adjustment was required at both ends of a posting cycle.
The transition for the family may have been more testing: for the two boys the change of life from being looked after for extended periods on most days by a Samoan ‘nanny’ in a tropical environment, to attending pre-school or primary school in the Wellington suburbs would have been profound, but they took it with equanimity. Rachel had to find a new job, which was another lesson that in a life of postings the family member with the career has the best hand.
Late in my time in Apia a circular went out from head office to all diplomatic staff inviting us to specify the areas of the department’s work in which we would like to specialise. I decided I would be happy enough in any regional field — Europe, Asia, North America — and in most of the sectoral areas too, such as the United Nations. I had no interest in administration, as it was called, and felt I knew nothing about international economics, and so simply wrote that I would be okay with all areas of the department’s work except the Admin and Economics divisions. I spent my first year back in administrative work, the second in economics.
The first of these was outside of the department. To ensure consistency of conditions of pay and working conditions across the several departments that had staff overseas, including Trade and Industry, Customs, Agriculture, Defence, Treasury and Immigration, the State Services Commission co-ordinated an Overseas Service Committee comprising the heads of those departments, and a three-person secretariat to service it. One of three was always a Department of External Affairs officer on rotation, and for 1964 it was me.
It was not a bad thing to do. There was a scale of overseas allowances fixed separately for each office, designed to reflect local costs of living. So the figures on the scale for New York were much higher than for Canberra. The scale was adjusted in percentage terms according to local cost-of-living increases, but that meant over time that the scale had stretched out unreasonably, with every year the gap between the top and the bottom steps widening further. The department had no particular problem with this, but the Treasury certainly did.
At that time the British government completed a full review of the pay and conditions of its foreign service, and New Zealand decided it should do the same and adapt the Plowden Report to our needs. So it was a year of revising and changing the whole system, as well as keeping everyday things going with decisions on education allowances, housing, transfer and related costs. One upshot was the establishment of an overseas inspectorate, whereby two inspectors from Wellington would periodically visit each office abroad and cost out a long list of household and clothing items as the basis for setting living allowances.
The year at the Commission had many benefits, besides developing an intimate knowledge of ‘the system.’ I met many officials from other departments and respected their different roles and perspectives. I was intrigued to find that there were satisfying careers to be had throughout the public service, and that all departments had important roles in shaping New Zealand, views that may have influenced my later career choices.
The year of ‘economics’ was a great mixture too. I was assigned partly to EEC trade matters, and specifically the problem of picking New Zealand apples in orchards in a way that retained their stems, so that they met EEC entry requirements. Without the stem they started to go bad rather quickly, around the depression at the top of the fruit where the stem would be. I didn’t need to know much about the science of all this, my job was to make sure that all the officials in MAF and elsewhere received all the reports from Brussels, and that a properly co-ordinated reply went back.
But more demanding was being assigned to be secretary of the Cabinet Economic Committee. My taskmaster there was Ray Perry, secretary to the cabinet, and he pored over my draft minutes with pen poised in more detail than I have ever had before or since. It was a good introduction to both the range of economic and trade issues facing New Zealand, and to the ways of operating of our most senior ministers in the Holyoake cabinet.
In early 1967 the question came, would I go to Washington? I said I would reply in the morning, and talked it through that night with Rachel. But there was not a moment of doubt for either of us — the answer was yes.
We had been back from Samoa for two years, and were fully ready to see more of the world. The time since Apia had flown: we settled into our Wilton house and licked the lawn, yard, garden and inside into shape; we continued to visit my parents’ holiday house at Foxton Beach; and we had another child — Gillian delivered on our hopes for a girl, in October of 1966.
I was mystified that not everyone shared our enthusiasm for accepting the posting. The strand of anti-Americanism in New Zealand thinking became obvious. ‘How can you bear to go there? It’s a racist country.’ ‘How are you going to survive there? It’s one great urban mess from Washington DC to Boston.’ ‘Why are you going? You can’t even breathe the air, it’s so polluted.’ It was mixture of distaste for American capitalism, as perceived, accentuated by New Zealand’s own quite socialist past; of America’s racial history, compared with our own (as perceived!); and of the little guy’s envy of the big guy. None of it deterred us for a moment.
We disembarked on the tarmac at Auckland Airport — no airbridges then — and saw, outside the long, low shed that was called the terminal building, two carpenters in singlets and shorts, leather boots, nail pouches hanging like a colonial sporran around their waists, pieces of pine four-by-two at their side. Above them was a large sign: Extensions to International Airport. We knew we were home.
We moved back into our house at Rutland Way, which had been seriously damaged by tenants. One had changed the oil in his motorbike on our near-new front-room carpet, and all carpets throughout the house needed replacing. And all the walls repainted or repapered … and so on. But we did more than repair it. The house was built on a steeply sloping section with a large basement underneath, and because we now had three children, and needed more bedroom and living space, we put internal stairs down and incorporated it in the house. It produced a year of turmoil but was well worth it.
The children went to Wadestown School within walking distance of our house, and did not seem to suffer too much from having American accents, which Geoffrey and Gillian quickly dropped and Philip more slowly. We had been warned before leaving Washington that New Zealand children were tough on non-conformity such as foreign expressions and accents and so I told them to be careful on their return. ‘For example, here in the United States when you say thank you to someone, they are likely to reply, ‘You’re welcome’. But no one in New Zealand ever says that,’ said I. ‘Just something like, “That’s okay”.’ We had sent a large trunk back by airfreight, to tide us over until our effects arrived by ship, and in our second week I went down to the Air New Zealand depot to collect it. The man hauled it to me from out the back, I said, ‘Thank you,’ and he said, ‘You’re welcome.’ American television had come to New Zealand while we had been away.
Nor did the change of school systems prove too disruptive. Later on that problem became more real. Perhaps in sport the difference was greatest — rugby and cricket were not part of American schooling.
At work I was asked to be the deputy head of the administration division, with responsibility for postings overseas for staff up to my own level of counsellor, and for the annual review of staff gradings and promotions. I had an office on The Terrace at Dalmiur House, where all of the ministry’s corporate services were located, positioned between Gordon Parkinson, the Head of Administration, and Brian Lynch who was responsible for recruitment. They both became firm friends.
The annual review of salaries and promotions was a sore point for most of the staff. It was due to be carried out in the months following the end of the financial year, 31 March, but it had not been done for over 18 months, creating much discontent. I thought the best contribution I could make would be to remedy that, and so we undertook one and as soon as it was finished started on another, then another. It is my self-proclaimed achievement to do three annual reviews in two years and leave that part of the system in good shape.
The exercise was an insight into managing human resources, into staff expectations and into how to measure and reward staff performance. The department ultimately depended on reaching a consensus across the division heads over each individual’s worth, a matter seriously debated, and on giving everyone a grading mark of between 0 and 10. The above-average performers were given a one-step promotion up the salary scale, and high flyers might be given a ‘double’, a two-step increase, or in some outstanding cases a ‘triple.’ It was as fair a process as could be devised and I made no effort to change its structure. But there were always a few who found it difficult to accept that the staff pyramid was inevitably closing in and not everyone was going onwards and upwards every year.
The postings process required equally strict management. The broad intention was to give people a stint at home before a posting, and if this happened, preferably to leave them at home for two years or more. It hardly seemed fair to bring a person or family back and then reassign them abroad after a matter of months. There was also a preference to spread people around the overseas offices, to give a broad rather than a specialised experience in international affairs. A number of the staff resisted some of this, preferring London or New York to follow a Paris posting, rather than a place of less political or trade importance. When all the variables, of length of time since the last posting, level of seniority, relevant or irrelevant experience, ability relative to the demands of the job and so on, were factored in, there was often little choice in who should be asked to go.
I won’t admit to perverting the system but my own next posting was due to be at counsellor level and a number of these came up during my second year in the job. Towards the end of that year I found that all these positions except one had been filled, and that all the staff who could go out at that level for some time, except for me, had been assigned. The position was in Rome. In fact by most counts in the department this was not a good career move, the post there not having the clout of Brussels, New York or Tokyo, but with family consent I happily put my name for it up the line, with the notion that an immersion in Italian culture would offset any other drawbacks.
For all of our business with house and job, we were determined during those two years, after so long in the United States, to get the feel for New Zealand and to ensure our three children felt an integral part of the country. We had good holidays at Foxton Beach, literally as well as metaphorically getting the country’s sand between our toes. I bought a small P-class yacht to teach the children as well as myself how to sail. Foxton was ideal for that because as well as having the ocean beach it had the wide and protected estuary of the Manawatu River.
We happily met up with Cliff and Elspeth Terry and their family, who had preceded us back from Washington. Cliff was now a divisional director in the Treasury and we had plenty to talk about, but more to the point his family would come and stay and barbeque and all the rest with us at Foxton.
Our biggest New Zealand adventure was to hire a camper van and set out around the South Island. That was a marvellous experience, complicated by a moment of bad driving causing the van to edge off a shingle road heading to Mt Cook, and getting stones in the fan-belt area which could not be repaired locally. We had to stay at our Mt Cook motel rooms for about three days while a replacement part was brought in and installed, and it rained most of that time. It couldn’t have been better for the family. We stood in front of the mirror with the camera taking all sorts of mug-shots of ourselves. After we were away again we took the steamship Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu, panned for gold on the West Coast, climbed on a glacier and did all those things that were the great pleasures of New Zealand’s natural world.
The tail end of our stay back in Wellington was dominated by an accelerated departure for Rome. My predecessor was seriously injured in a severe motor vehicle accident on the ring road around the city on his way to the airport to meet the new ambassador, and since the ambassador was a former cabinet minister who had not served overseas before, the ministry was keen that as the most senior career officer I should get there as soon as I could. Italian lessons were truncated, and packing and preparing the house for letting and all the rest had to be done in a rush.
But we were pretty much agape at the prospect of living in Italy, and it fitted the northern hemisphere school years, so we made it.