Mfat disfunction

The Malaysian diplomat who did a runner from New Zealand after invoking diplomatic immunity will return to New Zealand to face charges, says the Malaysian Government.

Of course, the main question currently exercising the minds of the media, MFAT and our MPs is how the diplomat, Muhammad Rizalman bin Ismail, managed to get out of the country to begin with.

The alleged offending occurred on 9 May, with Mr Ismail appearing in Court on 10 May and Murray McCully being briefed on that same day. Mr McCully says he was told on that date that Mfat would be seeking a waiver of diplomatic immunity from Malaysia, and that was the last he heard about the matter until 27 June, when he faced media questioning on the issue. In the intervening period, an Mfat staff member appears to have implied that New Zealand would turn a blind eye, and Mr Ismail would be free to return to Malaysia if diplomatic immunity wasn’t waived. Accordingly, on 21 May the Malaysian Government stated that it refused to waive diplomatic immunity, and the following day Mr Ismail departed for his home country.

The problem is that no one at Mfat who was dealing with this matter seems to have thought it serious enough to have kept the Minister or Chief Executive in the loop. As Mr McCully put it on National Radio’s Checkpoint programme yesterday evening, regardless of whether the alleged offending was investigated by military tribunal in Malaysia or police in New Zealand, there was always going to be significant international media interest. It beggars belief that a) Mfat officials didn’t see that, and/or b) they believed or hoped that the Malaysian Government would simply take no investigatory steps, meaning the matter could be effectively swept under the carpet.

But there’s another issue. Why did Mr McCully not think to follow up with his officials, once he heard nothing further? A month and a half went by between McCully’s briefing and the first media questions. During that time, did he not think to ask, “By the way, whatever happened with that Malaysian diplomat who was facing serious criminal charges?”

Mr McCully may be happily placing the blame for this debacle on Mfat’s “compartmentalising” of information in order to limit its spread, and the inevitable review of Mfat procedures has been ordered, but this shows a serious breakdown in senior oversight of Mfat.

Mr McCully should be thankful that Malaysia have so quickly agreed to return the diplomat to New Zealand. A drawn-out diplomatic saga created by Mfat’s incompetence, and weeks or months of questioning about McCully’s leadership of the department, is the last thing National would have wanted during the election campaign.

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