Annette King on making the switch from politics to diplomacy

In the three years since Dame Annette King has been New Zealand’s High Commissioner to Canberra she has adjusted her views about how Australians see Kiwis.

“In some ways, I think they like us more than we like them,” she tells the Herald.

“Sometimes I feel that we don’t quite see Australia they way that they see us.”

Part of that assessment is down to having experienced Australia’s reaction to the Christchurch mosque massacre in 2019, in which an Australian terrorist murdered 51 Muslims, mostly at prayer.

The response was more than about the perpetrator being Australian, she believed.
“It was about ‘how could this happen to our New Zealand friends and cousins and family?’

“I was just really overwhelmed by the response of ordinary Australian people but right through the bureaucracy and politicians at what had happened to New Zealand and New Zealanders.”

King, a former Health Minister and deputy Labour leader, retired in 2020 as New Zealand’s longest-serving woman MP.

After a year outside politics, former Foreign Minister Winston Peters appointed King to Canberra – the only exception in terms of preferring to appoint career diplomats.

“He did say there was only one exception and I was fortunate to be the exception.”

It has also been an exceptional three years: after the mosque massacre in 2019, the 2020 year began with terrible bushfires in Canberra and other parts of Australia, followed by Covid last year and this year including nine weeks of lockdown.

In between times, a hailstorm destroyed the roof of the High Commission office building and it had to be replaced.

She returned to New Zealand in May when Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison made an official visit to Queenstown for talks with Jacinda Ardern.

King says relationships are strong with the Australian Government at the political and bureaucratic level and at the federal and state level. That had been important during Covid which was the most difficult issue she had navigated in three years.

“The doors are open to us whenever we want something or we want to talk to somebody …The Aussies are incredibly open and generous with their communications with us.”

King, a former Health Minister, said she had a particularly good relationship with Australia’s Health Minister, Greg Hunt, who is retiring at the 2022 election.

There were about 700,000 New Zealanders in Australia without permanent residence or citizenship and after advocacy by New Zealand, they qualified for Australia’s job-keeper allowance.

“They came to the party on that.”

But there had been a lot of ongoing consular work to help New Zealanders who could not support themselves to get back to New Zealand.

“They are very hard cases because there is only so much you can do. We don’t have a fund to fund people to keep going. That is not possible.”

King heads the mission of about 30 people – although Foreign Affairs staff are supplemented with staff from other agencies such as Police, Immigration, Defence and Customs.

She has two deputy heads of mission and says because Canberra is one of New Zealand’s most important diplomatic posts “they always appoint really good people here.”

The current secretary of Foreign Affairs, Chris Seed, is a former High Commissioner and two deputy secretaries, Ben King and Vangelis Vitalis, both had postings to Canberra.

Her three-year term has been extended until December 2023, the 40th anniversary of the Closer Economic Relations (CER) agreement which will be suitably marked.

Her personal highlight had been attending the East Arnhem Land Garma festival as guest of Government – under canvas with 2000 other people experiencing Aboriginal culture and debate.

“And it was three days under canvas way out in the back blocks -only to find out later that they had removed 16 brown snakes from this campsite but that’s another matter.”

The biggest public diplomacy event of the past year was the high commission forming a cricket team, the Overarmers, the take part in a weekly social competition know as Last Man Stands.

Defence adviser Shaun Fogarty came up with the idea and the name – it was 40 years ago that Australia won a nail-biting one-day international when Trevor Chappell bowled underarm to prevent Kiwi Brian McKechnie from hitting a boundary.

“So we joined up, we got our beige uniforms of the old 1980s so they are all dressed in the dreadful synthetic beige uniforms and we have a huge turn-out, all the partners, the kids, the followers. But I have to tell you, we are hopeless.

“We won one game last year, we had a couple of draws but only because the games were cancelled due to rain but boy, have we had some fun.”

The High Commission challenged the Canberra press gallery to mark the 40th anniversary.
“We even brought along to help them, a big belt sander in case they wanted to put a bit on sandpaper on their cricket balls. They beat us by 16 runs so we had to throw the bat into the air and re-enact the whole thing.”

However, King said it had been an amazing team-building event for the staff, their partners and children.

“They all come and we have a barbecue and sausages and everyone has got their deck chairs out. It has been really good during Covid when you think how tough times have been for people.”

On a more serious note, she has had ministerial visits recently from Trade Minister Damien O’Connor and Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta whose relationship with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne was going “from strength to strength”.

She has largely kept her head down although in a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald about Apec was asked about the Aukus security agreement with Australia, the United States and Britain.

And she raised the prospect of New Zealand signing up to the non-nuclear parts of it, such as cyber.

“So we have expressed interest but we want detail on what does it mean and when will this part of it be implemented.”

She said she had not been reprimanded for anything in the three years she had been there.

So does that mean she hasn’t put a foot wrong?

“I probably have but it hasn’t been noticed.”

She said having the year out of politics before taking up the job had helped her to adjust.
“Sometimes I think people think if you are appointed a diplomat it is going to be cocktail circuit and it is going to be an easy life.

“It is a hard life, in that you work hard, long hours but fortunately if you’ve been politician you are accustomed to that but it is not the same. You are not there to represent a party view or your views. You are there to represent your country.

“It’s not for everybody. But certainly it is something I am enjoying greatly.”


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed in a speech in July that when she was at Waikato University, she had attended a Foreign Affairs recruitment event on campus but didn’t think she would be qualified enough so didn’t even apply.

Some of New Zealand’s most successful and important diplomats are women including Rosemary Banks in Washington, Clare Fearnley in Beijing and Jo Tyndall in Singapore.
Women head 23 of the 59 New Zealand missions abroad, or 39 per cent.

And they all agree that prospects for a diplomatic career should be curious.

Banks’ advice to a young person considering a career in foreign affairs is to “go for it.”
“You will never regret choosing such a rewarding career.

“Be curious, study what is going on in the world but also stay grounded in your own society. Be ready to dive into new areas of specialism – diplomacy these days is also about science, cyber and viruses.”

Tyndall says Mfat looks actively for diversity in all its forms and it is not a requirement to have studied international affairs.

“I think it’s important to be curious, to be proud of our country and what it stands for, to have a good understanding of matauranga Māori and at least some understanding of basic te reo. “

“Good communication skills, the ability to influence and to analyse – not just what’s being said or happening, but often just as importantly, what’s not, and being ready to take on challenges anywhere in the world (not just Paris or Rome!) are also important.”

Fearnley says: “Be curious. Look for ways to find out what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

That could include learning te reo Māori if you hadn’t grown up with the language.

“Although diplomats tend to be thought of as polished speakers, I’d rate listening as the more important skill.

“To have influence, countries of New Zealand’s scale need to understand particularly accurately the motivations of others, in order to best be able to advance New Zealand’s interests and values.

“To do that, honing listening skills is crucial.”


Rosemary Banks was appointed as Ambassador to Washington in 2018.

In a career spanning 42 year, she has previously been Permanent Representative to the United Nations, served as ambassador to France and Portugal, and had other postings to Australia, the Solomon Islands and at the UN in Geneva.

“The first person to suggest a career in diplomacy to me was Dr Alex Lojkine, my guide and mentor at the University of Canterbury, when I was graduating with a Masters in Russian,” she said.

“No one in my family had ventured into the world of diplomacy, but I was open to it on account of my father’s love of travel and his interest in the outside world.”

The US embassy is one of the largest with 65 people from a range of agencies including Defence, Education NZ, NZTE and Police.

High points in the first year of the Biden Administration have included the prominent role of Jacinda Ardern in the President’s climate summit and the visit in November by Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta.

“Career highlights include standing under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris with NZDF colleagues at a lighting of the eternal flame ceremony dedicated to New Zealand’s First World War sacrifice. And watching a RNZAF C-130 carrying relief supplies land at Henderson Field in the Solomon Islands, the first flight to arrive after a cyclone.

“Looking back, I like to recall some comical moments of a ‘lost in translation’ nature.Being called “Your Majesty” by a French schoolgirl unsure of how to address an ambassador in English!”


Jo Tyndall started her posting as head of mission in Singapore in February 2019 but is also known for her roles in trade and climate change as well as high-profile private-sector jobs.

“While I’m a paid-up subscriber to the chaos theory of career, I have always wanted to represent my country or to influence how my country is represented,” she said.

“I have also wanted to demonstrate that the so-called glass ceiling doesn’t exist, and to terrify myself by taking on completely new challenges at regular intervals. Mfat has allowed me to indulge all these passions and drivers, and offers endless variety within the breadth of its work.”

She has joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade three times, initially as a trade policy specialist from the old Department of Trade and Industry.

She was posted to Geneva early in the GATT Uruguay Round, which led to the formation of the World Trade Organisation where she specialised in trade in services.

“By the time I left Geneva, after nearly five years, I was pregnant and took LWOP when my husband took a job in Auckland. It took me more than 15 years to return to Mfat.”

In the meantime, she had jobs heading the Screen Producers and Directors Association, NZ on Air and the broadcasting unit in the Ministry of Arts Culture and Heritage.

Her second stint as Mfat was as Climate Change Ambassador which culminated in the new global treaty of the Paris agreement 2015. She also co-chaired a new international working group (APA) to develop detailed rules for the Paris agreement, which was adopted in Katowice in Poland in December 2018.

Career highlights have included watching the gavel go down on the Paris Agreement in 2015 and on the Rulebook in Katowice in 2018.

“I went to some amazing parts of the world – ironically – including for meetings in The Gambia, Tajikistan, Venezuela, Malawi, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, but the highlight was an epic journey to Ny Alesund (only 1000km from the North Pole) to see the very obvious impacts of climate change first hand.”


Clare Fearnley was appointed ambassador to China in 2018, one of New Zealand’s most important posts and largest embassies with 10 different agencies under the embassy umbrella. She was previously Ambassador to South Korea.

She did not go straight from university into Mfat. After studying law, she taught English in Xian province, then studied Mandarin in Beijing and worked for an Australian consultancy.

When she started at Foreign Affairs – the first member of her family to be a Government employee – she had five years’ work experience under her belt and started in Mfat’s legal division.

Her first full posting was four years in Geneva at the NZ Permanent Mission to the UN, cross-credited to the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi.

“It was a great opportunity to be involved directly in some very diverse negotiations -from climate change to human rights, to landmines, to trade – sometimes leading for New Zealand.”

Other jobs have included Consul-General in Shanghai, deputy director of trade negotiations, chief legal adviser for trade negotiations, head of the North Asia Division, and head of the New Zealand Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei.

“Over the decades I’ve been working on New Zealand-China links, the nature of the relationship – its breadth and depth – has evolved remarkably.

“Given our differences in systems and history, we are going to see some things differently, and we address these issues in our engagement with China. But these differences need not define the relationship.”

She pointed to a little known area of work, conserving ecosystems for the migratory kuaka (godwit), which spends it summers in New Zealand, but needs to stop off in the coastlands of northern China to get to Alaska for breeding.

Next year will be the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and China.

A career highlight for Fearnley was taking part in the airlift of New Zealanders from Wuhan in February 2020 during the Covid outbreak and the pride of cross-agency work, onshore and offshore.

“This was best illustrated through the efforts of three colleagues, Guy Lewis, Darryl Ryder, and Mike Roger, who volunteered to drive into Wuhan at the peak of the outbreak there, when the local hospital system was under great strain and there were so many unknowns, to prepare the way for the NZ evacuation flight out.

“They showed remarkable professionalism and resolve.”

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