Story: Foreign policy and diplomatic representation

Page 10. Developing a diplomatic service

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Department of External Affairs

Although it was a relatively small government department, the Department of External Affairs (renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1970) traditionally carried extra importance within the state bureaucracy because its minister was usually the prime minister, and the secretary was concurrently head of the Prime Minister’s Department. This link was severed in 1975 when a new Prime Minister’s Department was created. The ministry’s internal structure was not affected, and became more complex as the range of policy interests broadened and additional overseas posts were opened. Expanded overseas representation, technological change and public-sector management reforms required frequent adjustments to the administration of and communications with diplomatic posts.

Ministry of External Relations and Trade

The Ministry of External Relations and Trade was set up in 1988. The trade policy functions and several staff of the disestablished Department of Trade and Industry were integrated into the mainstream of bilateral relations work. Collaboration with the newly established trade promotion agency, the Trade Development Board, was made a high ministry priority. In 1993 the department was renamed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT).


A restructuring of MFAT in 2003 redefined the ministry’s aid administration responsibilities. A semi-autonomous body, NZAID, was established to administer a greatly increased aid budget on fully professional lines. Staff numbers working on aid expanded significantly, and procedures and systems changed markedly, diverging from the rest of the ministry. The National-led government elected in 2008 maintained the expanded development budget but reduced the autonomy of NZAID, which again became a mainstream ministry division, albeit a large one.

First woman

New Zealand’s first female diplomat was Southlander Jean McKenzie. She began her public-service career during the First World War as a typist and rose steadily through the Imperial Affairs Section and later the New Zealand Overseas Service. McKenzie represented New Zealand at the UN General Assembly in 1946 and was minister at the New Zealand Legation in Paris from its creation in 1949 until her retirement in 1956.

Political or diplomatic appointments

Most early heads of mission came from political careers, since New Zealand had few overseas posts before the 1960s and there were seldom openings for trained diplomats. Later, diplomats were increasingly preferred in overseas posts. However, political appointments are still made, usually in large English-speaking posts such as Washington, Ottawa, London and New York. In recent years political appointments have also been made to Niue and the Cook Islands. Political appointments are made by the government of the day and override existing diplomatic postings.

Career diplomatic service

Against politicians’ expectations, a career diplomatic service gradually evolved. Diplomatic trainees, mostly university graduates, were recruited systematically, although the volume of intakes fluctuated widely because of budgetary constraints or ideological antipathies. On-the-job training was the norm; its quality varied according to placement. Systematic language training developed only slowly and focused on difficult languages, especially Japanese and Chinese, in which groups of specialists were trained.

Māori diplomat

Charles Bennett (Te Arawa) rose from the ranks to command 28 (Māori) Battalion during the Second World War, and then worked as a senior official in the Department of Māori Affairs. In 1959 he became New Zealand’s first Māori diplomat when he was appointed New Zealand high commissioner to the Federation of Malaya (later Malaysia). Despite initial concerns that his ethnicity would prove an obstacle, Bennett was a great success as a diplomat.

The Public Service (later State Services) Commission took a key role in recruitment, promotion and setting salaries, allowances and other terms and conditions such as accommodation and leave for diplomats. Since the passage of the State Sector Act 1988, MFAT has largely determined overseas terms and conditions. These have become more flexible to address challenges such as alternative overseas career opportunities, higher staff turnover, more female, Māori and ethnic-minority staff, and dual-career marriages.

Diplomatic representation in 2020

In 2020 New Zealand had diplomatic relations with around 150 countries. In some cases this was direct representation via an embassy, consulate or other diplomatic representative based in-country. In other cases representation was indirect, via an agreement with the foreign country known as cross-accreditation.

How to cite this page:

Michael Green, 'Foreign policy and diplomatic representation - Developing a diplomatic service', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

Story by Michael Green, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 May 2016