World Class new Zealand: The high-achieving, humble knight

Nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, Commonwealth Secretary-General, Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand, nine honorary doctorates – the list of achievements and accolades is impressive, and that’s just for starters.
A lesser-known entry on Sir Don McKinnon’s CV is his teaching of communication skills to Paremoremo prison inmates for around 10 years, coaching their debating teams to victory in local competitions. His personal humility contributed greatly to his success as global diplomat. When asked by journalist if he wished to be addressed as “Sir Don”, he suggested that “Hey, you” would work just as well.
Sir Don is widely respected for being able to bring out the best in people. He is internationally recognised for his ability to deal with tough situations and difficult people; anyone from third-world despots and fractious armed rebels to warring office factions and unruly politicians. It’s these skills for which he is recognised by this year’s World Class New Zealand judges.
Sir Don is “humbled” by his award. “I look at the amazing people who have gone before and frankly, I don’t see myself as being in the same category of accomplishment. It is bit of surprise really.”
So does he think New Zealand and New Zealanders should aspire to be world class? “Yes. It’s good to have aspirations but it’s also important that we keep our feet firmly on the ground,” he cautions. “There are things about which New Zealand cannot take so much pride. Child abuse for example. There are areas in which we are perhaps among the world’s best. But there are other areas in which we must do whole better. And we should be demanding that we do them better.”
Sir Don’s most fervent wish for New Zealand is to catch up with Australia’s per capita income. “We will suffer continual drain of our best, most skilled people across the Tasman if we don’t.”
New Zealand is viewed “very positively” around the world, he says, but the important reality is that “we have drifted behind Australia by about one percent year for the past 40 years” and that is having negative consequences.
“Changing this trend will take real political leadership,” he adds conceding that the government has already identified the problem and promised to reverse it. “Somehow we have to do better.”
Sir Don was born in London of New Zealand parents in 1939. He subsequently studied at Lincoln Agricultural College and then spent time as an army conscript, worked as farm manager and farm consultant and sold real estate.
Sir Don entered Parliament as the National Party Member for Albany in 1978. He went on to serve as the Party’s Chief Whip. He became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade after the 1990 election and also became Leader of the House. His almost 10-year stint as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade allowed him to build New Zealand’s diplomatic and commercial influence in Asia, Latin America, all regions within the Commonwealth and, at the United Nations.
He oversaw New Zealand’s election to the UN Security Council in 1993 and the despatch of New Zealand peacekeepers to help maintain order in world trouble spots. In 1997 Sir Don brokered an accord to end decade of civil war on Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. It was this that prompted his Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
When he retired from Parliament in 2000 he was appointed Secretary-General of the Commonwealth. He served two terms until 2008. He is credited with modernising the Commonwealth Secretariat’s structure, raising its public profile, prioritising the needs of young people to sit at the heart of its work focus and, promoting youth programmes, especially to deal with HIV/AIDS.
Sir Don’s Order of New Zealand is this country’s highest honour. As supporter of home-grown honours, he once turned down Knighthood from the New Zealand government. But when the Queen approached him personally to accept the honour of Knight Grand Cross of the Victorian Order for his Commonwealth work he relented.
He continues to advise on international relations. He works with agencies such as the Global Panel Foundation, the Aspen Ministerial Forum, and the G3 strategic consultancy and its charitable foundation. He chairs the New Zealand China Council, the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Trust and Regional Facilities Auckland. M

Reg Birchfield Life FNZIM is writer on leadership, governance and management. [email protected]

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