Story: Foreign policy and diplomatic representation

Page 8. Developments in foreign policy-making

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Greater public involvement

For many years New Zealand’s foreign policy was developed by a small number of ministers and officials with little public participation or knowledge. However, public interest swelled in the 1960s and 1970s, triggered especially by concern over New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the country’s apparent support for the apartheid regime in South Africa, and opposition to French nuclear-weapons testing in the Pacific. Concerned citizens lobbied politicians, demanding that policies reflect public opinion more closely. Gradually, policy formulation became more open, especially after the Official Information Act 1982 made access to official papers easier.

Today the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) actively shares information and consults with domestic interest groups, including businesspeople, Māori and NGOs when formulating policy for trade and other international negotiations.

No nukes

The foreign policy issue of visits to New Zealand by nuclear-armed or -powered ships aroused intense public interest. A waterborne protest group, the Peace Squadron, was formed to oppose such vessels entering New Zealand ports. In 1976 former Minister of Education Phil Amos joined the squadron in his sloop Dolphyn to try to prevent the US cruiser Long Beach berthing in Auckland. Amos later faced charges and was defended by lawyer David Lange. In 1984 Lange, by then prime minister, announced the nuclear-free policy that prevented further visits by vessels such as Long Beach.

Combining foreign and domestic policy

Foreign policy was once considered distinct from the domestic tasks of government. However, by the 21st century many government agencies had an international dimension to their work. Some sent staff to New Zealand diplomatic posts or as expert members of New Zealand negotiating teams. Although these representatives had objectives specific to their home agency, they contributed to achieving broader objectives for New Zealand. MFAT took a leading role in coordinating these inter-agency efforts, in Wellington and at overseas posts.

Unified overseas service

In the late 1970s a ‘unified overseas service’ was set up to improve the focus of diplomatic representation on trade and economic interests. Staff from different agencies were seconded to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, serving under common terms and conditions. The unified service concept ended in 1988 when state-sector management principles changed fundamentally. In the 2010s cooperation between different government agencies was promoted by MFAT coordinating the work of agency staff. Rapidly changing communications technology has improved coordination while reducing the autonomy of overseas missions.

Expansion, contraction and re-deployment

The trend to set up new diplomatic posts abroad was not consistent over time. Periodic reviews of representation, often driven by budgetary constraints, closed a number of posts and reduced others in size in order to finance representation in more promising locations. Posts were closed in India (1981, reopened 1984), Bahrain and Peru (1990), Greece (1991), Austria (1991, reopened for UN purposes 1993), Iraq (1991) and Zimbabwe (2000). Posts were opened in Spain (1991), Turkey (1993), Vietnam (1995), South Africa (1996), Argentina (1998), Brazil (2001), East Timor (2001), Poland (2004), Egypt (2006) and Sweden (2008). Consular posts in Australian states were opened and closed more than once. Experimental ‘mini-posts’, with only one or two seconded staff, had mixed success. They extended New Zealand’s diplomatic reach but administrative burdens lessened their effectiveness.

How to cite this page:

Michael Green, 'Foreign policy and diplomatic representation - Developments in foreign policy-making', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

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