2 Mar 2016

US ambassador told Clinton staff in NZ were a problem

12:33 pm on 2 March 2016

Just-released emails reveal the former United States Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, had serious worries about the competence and quality of senior staff at the American embassy in Wellington.

Former US ambassador David Huebner, far right, pictured with Prime Minister John Key, left, and Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae preparing to lay a rose on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in June 2012.

Former US ambassador David Huebner, far right, pictured with Prime Minister John Key, left, and Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae preparing to lay a rose on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in June 2012. Photo: AFP

The emails were written in 2012 and copied to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is now seeking the Democratic Party nomination to contest the US presidential election.

In the emails, Mr Huebner said when he arrived in Wellington in 2009, there were 10 officers in both Wellington and Samoa he considered to be in upper-mid or senior positions.

Four of them were performing at an impressive level while one was performing at minimum competency, he said.

"Five - a full 50 percent of them - were performing well below acceptable competency and in ways that created serious morale, retention and performance issues for junior officers and locally engaged staff under them."

Mr Huebner said he then took an active role in recruiting staff as positions became vacant.

"I thought that such active involvement would correct the problem, which I had attributed to New Zealand and Samoa simply attracting a disproportionate share of 'lifestyle' or 'problem' officers because the posts have for the past two decades been low-activity, low-ambition outposts."

But he said, many of the incoming officers exhibited the same incompetence as those who had left.

"I would hope that my observations are not unduly discounted because I am a political appointee. My initial attempts to reorient the management culture at Post were met with various degrees of passive and active resistance and a couple of prior attempts to raise the issues in [Washington] DC were met with instinctive defence of DoS [Department of State] culture and excellence.

"I am in fact an enthusiastic booster of the Department but that does not blind me to deficits that need attention."

He was worried that without competent staff the significant progress made in relations with both New Zealand and Samoa would likely evaporate under a "less-hands-on" ambassador, he said.

These emails were sent on to Mrs Clinton, who responded: "Really well done. Let's discuss."

It was not clear whether any further changes were made to respond to Mr Huebner's criticisms.

However, current US Ambassador to New Zealand Mark Gilbert said he was extremely pleased with his team at the Wellington embassy.

The embassy had the largest and most professional staff it had ever had, which was a testament to the importance of its partnerships with New Zealand and Samoa and the vital work they did together every day, he said.