NZ POLITICS DAILY: Malaysian diplomat controversy – who is to blame?

Bryce Edwards

‘What didn’t he know and when didn’t he know it?’ That was the question Winston Peters asked last year of John Key. It is also a question that might be equally applied now to Murray McCully, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Chief Executive John Allen, and MFAT officials. This is in regard to the on going controversy over New Zealand’s handling of the incident involving Malaysian diplomat Muhammad Rizalman Ismail. There are serious questions to be asked of all involved, and perhaps some resignations to be demanded. So who is to blame?

A plague on all concerned?

Commentators are near universally scathing of the handling of the Malaysian diplomat affair, and there is plenty of blame to go around. As Vernon Small writes: ‘It's all too easy to call for heads to roll but it's hard to think of a more justified occasion than the diplomatic cock-ups by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) over the Malaysian diplomat accused of sexual assault. It is a catalogue of unacceptable blunders with huge consequences. And it's difficult to decide which is the worst’ – see: Buck needs to stop for Mfat's botch-ups. The issues raised in Small’s piece range from the apparent failure of MFAT to keep McCully informed, to the embarrassment to New Zealand-Malaysian relations, to the lack of disclosure of the case at all – which was only revealed by a leak to the Herald on Sunday. 

Murray McCully or John Allen?

The Herald’s Thursday editorial suggests that the incident may be a sign that MFAT is dysfunctional: ‘The incident occurred early in May yet Mr McCully says even he knew nothing about it until last Friday when the Herald on Sunday inquired into what had happened. If diplomats keep even their own minister in the dark over an issue of criminality, something is seriously wrong in the department's culture’ – see: McCully has many more apologies to consider. But the Herald also points the finger at McCully and says of contradictions between his statements and those of his Malaysian counterpart that a ‘more cautious minister would have suspected there was more to it’ and that he was ‘too quick to blame his officials’. 

Murray McCully’s own view is clear – his officials are to blame, not him. The Herald’s Lincoln Tan reports McCully’s statements in an interview with Radio New Zealand: ‘The appropriate thing to do here is to enable the police on one hand and the protocol people on the other to take it through the system - and that is what always happens in these cases. I was confident that I would be told if anything significant happened on the case. I was entitled to believe what I was told in black and white and forwarded to the Prime Minister was correct’ – see: McCully defends lack of action on diplomat's sex case. See also the 5-minute interview with McCully on TVNZ’s Breakfast in Disgraced diplomat will be returned to NZ

Gordon Campbell says the refusal of McCully to accept blame is part of a pattern: ‘when things turn out badly on McCully’s watch its always someone else’s fault. To an almost pathological degree, McCully appears chronically incapable of taking responsibility for any of his actions – or inactions – that turn out to have negative political consequences. Once the needle hits the red, he’s out of there, incognito… McCully, in his usual fashion, has been blaming his officials – just as he did when his reforms of MFAT went off the rails. Everyone was to blame but himself when his pet project failed, and talented people began to leave MFAT in droves and /or kept their heads down, with consequent damage to MFAT’s quality of output. If, as signalled, a fresh witch-hunt is being readied at MFAT, someone needs to intervene – if not in the name of natural justice, then at least because of the risk of constructive dismissal liability for the Crown’ – see: On the diplomatic immunity fallout at MFAT.

TVNZ political editor Corin Dann raises questions about MFAT Chief Executive John Allen, who he says was completely unaware of the whole affair: ‘Mr Allen revealed today that he was not aware of this entire incident until Friday, and remember this first happened about six weeks ago. So for that head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to not know about that is extraordinary.’ – see Diplomat to return to NZ to face charges.

For his part, Allen has admitted to information being ‘compartmentalised’ in his own department and that the information was therefore not passed on to him, something which he says will be reviewed – see Audrey Young’s Sex case diplomat 'hasn't got away with it'

So will McCully get away with it all? Reading John Armstrong’s column today, you get the impression that New Zealand’s Foreign Minister might have been saved by the Malaysian Government – see: McCully's bad day ends well as common sense rules.

MFAT officials?

While John Allen and Murray McCully are under fire for their handling of the incident, John Armstrong thinks MFAT bureaucrats in the protocol division should bear their share of the blame as well: ‘It is this unit which dealt with the Government's request that Malaysia waive its right to diplomatic immunity. The ambiguity of some of its messages to the Malaysian High Commission ended up delivering exactly the opposite outcome that the Government wanted - and expected… the lowlier officials are in the gun. They always are when ministers try to distance themselves from the blunders of their public servants. But this time the officials are the ones with the questions to answer.’ – see Lowly heads most likely to roll as everyone licks wounds

Blogger Danyl Mclauchlan, while by no means letting McCully off the hook, also thinks that MFAT mandarins may be to blame. Mclauchlan says the incident is ‘pretty typical of what happens when you get organisations like MFAT – elitist, pointlessly secretive, largely unaccountable. The incentive is for officials in these departments to act in their own short-term interest, which then gets conflated with ‘the national interest’. After all, are they not our intellectual elite? Do they not know best? Thus it was in the national interest for an alleged attempted rapist to just quietly leave the country, because the alternatives would have been really awkward and meant a load of extra work for everyone in the protocol department’ – see: Deep state syndrome

Partisan views

Meanwhile, commentators from left and right are weighing in on the scandal and are equally scathing – although the where the blame falls depend on the partisan hue. National blogger David Farrar puts the blame on MFAT officials: ‘NZ likes to say we have an independent foreign policy. The last few days have made it look like MFAT foreign policy is so independent, it is even independent of the NZ Government! It’s almost like an episode of Yes Minister. The official letter says we want him extradited, but then some diplomats say “Don’t worry about the letter, it is just pro forma”.’ – see: Our foreign policy is so independent not even the Government controls it! Similarly, National supporter Matthew Hooton (@MatthewHootonNZ) has set off a debate on Twitter by blaming Allen: ‘I reckon hapless #JohnAllenMFAT should resign immediately. Otherwise McCully is (unfairly) going to get the blame #nzpol’.

On the other hand, Labour activist Greg Presland is hoping for another ministerial scalp. Presland writes: ‘There are obvious attempts to blame the public servants for what has happened.  McCully’s recent bungled handling of MFAT’s reorganisation has clearly hurt its capacity.  But if there is any surviving vestige of the concept of Ministerial responsibility McCully should be gone’ – see: McCully is in trouble

The Malaysian view

Has Malaysia been unfairly portrayed in the handling of this controversy? Sympathy for the Malaysian position and actions is well presented in Audrey Young’s Malaysia has done the right thing

For the Malaysian view on the incident, it is worth seeing TVNZ’s Documents contradict Malaysia's version of diplomat saga, which includes an interview with the Malaysian foreign minister, whose statements revealed the inconsistencies in the New Zealand position.  And for a profile of the diplomat concerned, see Tova O’Brien’s Who is Muhammad Rizalman Ismail?, and Shane Cowlishaw’s Diplomat's neighbour: He was weird. Meanwhile, the case has naturally also been the subject of interest in the Malaysian media – see for example the article NZ welcomes decision to return Rizalman in the Rakyat Post. The international nature of the incident is reflected in a useful summary article by the Associated Press in Malaysia will return diplomat to face attempted rape charge in New Zealand.

Changing version of events

It is worth noting that earlier in the saga, the government’s position had been that its hands were tied and that responsibility for the lack of prosecution lay solely at the door of Malaysia – which now seems like an unfair assessment. Just two days ago, on Tuesday, The Dominion Post reflected the information the government had released to date in its editorial Case underlines price of immunity: ‘New Zealand is doing its best to pursue the diplomat, as it should. It has asked his government to prosecute him. The moral case for prosecution is unanswerable, of course, but governments don't usually comply. So the abuse of the principle continues’.

Similarly, on Tuesday, the Herald wrote about the diplomat: ‘he represents a country of the Commonwealth, which makes it all the more disappointing that it does not submit him to New Zealand justice. Commonwealth countries share a British common law inheritance, though perhaps not all treat intended rape as seriously as New Zealand does’ – see Diplomat's nation should be named.

More generally, it is worth consulting the timeline of events to make sense of the incident. The best of these are included in Greg Presland’s post McCully is in trouble, Patrick Gower’s Govt 'poorly served' by MFAT – McCully and Stuff’’s Malaysia wanted to seal file on accused diplomat

Twitter reaction

Finally, I sum up the strong reaction on Twitter to the case in my blog post Top tweets about NZ’s Malaysian diplomat controversy and Murray McCully. Highlights include Bill Ralston’s ‘Extraordinary to see McCully, the cunning Dark Prince, getting such a thrashing. That's what happens when you take your eye off the ball’, Duncan Garner’s ‘Murray McCully left it for 7 weeks, does nothing, zip, zero, and now calls it good and proper process. Resign now. Totally useless’, and Morgan Godfery’s ‘Remember how the pundits were squaking about Murray "The Prince" McCully a couple of months ago. Yeah, about that #McMachiavelli #not’.

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