MFAT a winner in Budget 2018

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talking to reporters in Parliament before Labour's caucus meeting on May 1. Photo by Lynn Grieveson.

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters looks to have delivered the budgetary goods for his ministry for a second time.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have indicated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has won extra funding in the Budget process.

The Budget itself is not due to be delivered until May 17, but most of the major decisions have already been taken. Other departments, including health, have not been so lucky with news emerging in recent days of "phasing in" of pre-election plans, rather than the full delivery in this month's Budget.

Robertson said in a pre-Budget speech to a business audience in Auckland on Tuesday morning the Government wanted to put extra resources into pushing for trade agreements and rebuilding MFAT.

"We will also be continuing to put resources into ensuring New Zealand is in the best position to push for, and benefit from, trade agreements which will grow jobs, exports and our productive economy. The CPTPP gives us a significant opportunity, as do future potential agreements with the EU, UK and others," he said.

"We must give ourselves the resources to achieve these deals, and Budget 2018 will start rebuilding New Zealand’s foreign affairs and trade capability. We must improve our country’s ability to promote trade, have our voice heard on the international stage and be in a position to support our neighbours as the Pacific faces threats like climate change."

Ardern told reporters before Labour's caucus meeting that New Zealand needed to be able to complete trade agreements and deal with an increasingly fast-paced and complex international scene.

"Trade is a big part of our agenda for growing prosperity for New Zealand. When we increase our exports we do well as a nation. We have seen a running down of some of our capacity in that area and when we're pursuing things like an EU FTA, a UK FTA, other opportunities for our exporters, we need to make sure we've got good support for that, and after what National left us, we didn't," she said when asked about Robertson's comments.

"We are in a pretty dynamic environment right now and we do have to make sure we're representing New Zealand's interests globally, and we're doing our bit in our region in particular. That's not a new challenge, but it's not one that I think the last government was facing up to."

Newsroom's Foreign Affairs Editor Sam Sachdeva reported from a select committee appearance by MFAT CEO Brook Barrington in February that MFAT was pushing for a bigger budget because a flat-lining of funding since 2008 was “starting to bite”.

“I’m being shameless here: there’s a Budget round coming up, and I’m happy to put my peg in the ground," he said in February.

Barrington said New Zealand had eight people on average across diplomatic posts, compared with 23 for Australia and 41 for the United Kingdom.

New Zealand’s official development assistance (ODA) was just 0.27 percent of the country’s gross national income (GNI), well below the United Nations target of 0.7 percent, and was forecast to drop to 0.21 percent in four years without an increase.

He's done it before

Peters has history when it comes to boosting spending on international engagement.

Serving as Foreign Affairs Minister under Helen Clark’s Labour-led government, he announced both a $246m increase to New Zealand’sODA budget and a $105m rise in MFAT funding as part of the 2007 Budget.

That work was undone in part by the arrival of the National government in 2008, with Foreign Minister Murray McCully overseeing a controversial restructuring of MFAT in 2011 which initially threatened up to 300 jobs (it was later watered down following protests from diplomats).

Speaking to media in February, Peters said MFAT had been “run down badly” and he intended to turn it around.

“It’s a serious concern...that’s a really bad look for this country and we’re starved of resources and firepower, manpower, womanpower, and if we want to get our trading results up the way we should have them we’re going to have to put far more investment into it and play our role properly.”

Peters confirmed he would make a push for more MFAT resources ahead of the Budget on May 17, and said he was confident his views were shared by Finance Minister Grant Robertson and others in the Cabinet.

It appears those views were heeded and MFAT's budget will be increased, whereas Labour has talked about "phasing" in some of its other election promises around health.