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Written By: - Date published: 9:52 am, August 21st, 2008 - 27 comments
Categories: International, Media - Tags:

The coverage of the Australian Dfat* briefing paper on Helen Clark is as unsurprising as it is depressing. Depressing in that this appears to be Martin Kay’s biggest scoop of the year (he’s dragged it out to a second article today) and no-one covering the issue seems to be aware of what these briefing papers are usually like, indicating poor contacts within the diplomatic community.

I wrote a number of leader, country, and issue briefing papers for a Pacific Islands Forum and a number of other events when I was working for a foreign embassy in New Zealand. I’ve also read more briefing papers written by others than I care to remember. Three important points from that experience can inform our reading of the Dfat bio:

1) They are kept as short and memorable as possible, preferably bullet points on a single page (interesting that the Dompost provides no image of the briefing paper, whereas in a similar position we would as a matter of course and our readers would demand it). The language is ungilded and to the point. Inevitably, this means they employed hackneyed phrasing and simplistic statements.

2) Somehow, they always seem cartoonishly unsophisticated, almost naive to a native of the country whose leader is being written about. They contain the same kind of statements a poor first year politics student might make and nothing that one couldn’t pick up from reading the papers. This can be because of lack of information, the need to keep the briefing, um, brief, because the papers and chats with political hacks are the main source of info for these papers, and because one never truly understands the politics of another country as intuitively as one does one’s own country.

3) The info is often out of date and recycled. Getting sign off on briefing papers can be a total pain in the arse, so, wherever possible, the same phrasing is reused from previous briefing papers on the topic. This can be seen in the Dfat briefing paper with the outdated reference to new governing arrangements with UnitedFuture and New Zealand FIrst. I wouldn’t be surprised if the reference to Heather Simpson as H2 was originally written back in 2000 and the reference to the Vietnam war from briefing papers written before Clark was even PM.

So, briefing papers are often simplistic, naive, and out-of-date. They serve merely to provide basic info and, frankly don’t actually get read that often – any leader or diplomat attending the PIF who is worth their salt would already have a much more sophisticated understanding of a long-serving, major regional leader like Clark than is contained in one-page of bullet points.

And what exactly does this briefing paper say that is so scandalous? Clark’s foreign policy views were formed during the Vietnam war protests and they are informed by her having chaired the Foreign Affairs select committee and being PM for nearly 9 years. Clark is left, moderately so, so what? We all knew that too. Clark operates a tight ship, yup. Heather Simpson is powerful, yup. The term ‘control freak’ is Kay’s, not the briefing’s (you would never see such language in a briefing paper).

All that this affair has shown is why such briefing papers are usually kept away from the media. The professionals writing and reading them know what they are, they read them in context, – whereas the likes of Kay can be trusted only to try to create a scandal. The most depressing thing is that this has crowded out any actual coverage of the actual forum – all the likes of Kay are bothering to tell us is that Bainimarama didn’t attend and there was this briefing paper. It’s a crying shame that that’s the best we can expect.

*(Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, not to be confused with our Mfat, and Canada’s Dfait)

27 comments on “Briefly ”

  1. Lew 1

    Aussie DFAT officials have apologised to Clark – not for the paper itself, but for its circulation, and the fact it was out of date. I think that illustrates the point.



  2. Smokie 2

    No such brevity.

    But all good points SP.

  3. Better Dead Than Red 3

    Good to see some honest appraisal of Helen Klark Clark, outside the usual gushing of the Labour Party Journalists Association of NZ that dominates NZ’s mainstream media.

    [lprent: Corrected your spelling. You should really finish that remedial course. ]

  4. djp 4

    It sounds like you are saying that briefing papers are so useless that there is no point using them (in fact you say they are not often read).

    One wonders if briefing papers are that bad why they are bothered with at all.

    The funny thing is that these briefing papers seem to say exactly what a “right wing” commentator would say.

  5. djp.

    No they don’t say what a rightwing commentator would say.. there’s nothing controversial in the breifing paper

    and yes, you can wonder why you’ve spent days writing breifing papers only to haul them around a forum where they are never read but that’s the nature of the beast – the leaders need access to backgrounders even if they often don’t use them. Leaders’ time is very precious, and they only get brief periods to spend together in such fora… it would be amateur and wasteful not to have resources on hand in case they are needed.

    I didn’t say breifing papers are bad, they serve a role, but don’t think they are some James Bond secret intelligence view of an issue.

  6. coge 6

    Briefing papers from a left-wing Australian Govt. Brilliant. Say what you will about Aussies, I’ve usually found them straight shooters.

  7. bill brown 7

    I agree cage, it’s clear that the Australians understand that HC is a strong, in control, left leaning leader – which she is.

  8. coge. The papers are written by junior diplomatic staff – they are apolitical.

  9. Patrick 9


    I’m sure that if you had access to the same sort of briefing 12 months ago you would have found Howard’s DFAT providing a very similar briefing. As Lew has pointed out, they have even acknowledged the briefing was out of date.

  10. Tim Ellis 10

    There’s nothing in the briefing paper that is controversial. We pretty much know everything that’s in it. I agree the controversy is over the naivety behind distributing it to Australian journalists.

    Even discounting the content of it, I agree it is bizarre to assume that an Australian journalist covering the Forum would not have an inkling of who Helen Clark was, after nine years as PM of New Zealand. A far better solution for DFAT, if they really thought the media was uninformed, would be to say: “You don’t know anything about Helen Clark? Then look her up on wikipedia.”

    Or maybe, just maybe, the DFAT moron could be trusting enough of the Australian media to look things up on Wikipedia without even being prompted.

  11. Lew 11

    As sketchy as briefing papers are, they’re still shitloads more reliable than wikipedia.


  12. unless you use wikipedia as a primary source… um… look it can be really hard to find info on Anote Tong http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anote_Tong

  13. Rob 13


    What ever spin you wish to put on it and understanding you have some in depth knowledge in these matters. Its what they are thinking that counts and when you take that into context its not very good look for the way they are looking at Helen. I would have expected this from a Howard Government not a Rudd Government. It is very embarrassing for both Governments

  14. Lew 14

    Hm. Steve, are you saying that in some cases a briefing paper could be written from wikipedia?

    Quelle horreur!


  15. bill brown 15


    They think this:

    She is renowned for her managerial skills, the discipline she demands from those around her and her tight control of all things Labour undertakes under her leadership.

    and this:

    She holds generally leftwing beliefs with foreign policy perspectives forged during the Vietnam war.

    Which are:

    A) True
    B) Laudable in a Labour leader

    What’s the problem?

  16. Andrew 16

    Rob this was written by DFAT officers, not Rudd’s office nor even PM&C. So your point that you would expect this from the Howard Govt is redundant – its the same people and going by the content it was written during the Howard Govt.

    In fact because Howard knew Clark so well (and vice-versa) this was probably the first time the bio had been pulled out in a long time – hence it was out of date.

    Its embarassing for DFAT but hardly the most controversial document to ever be leaked.

  17. lprent 17

    Rob: Have a closer read of Steve’s post. Governments change, but civil servants don’t.

    What Steve said, was that the briefing paper was probably largely written a decade or more ago and recycled with minor updates before each of these contacts.

    The trick with all of these things is in looking at the detail rather than the headline. Headlines are there to sucker you into reading the article and thereby make you hang around for the Ad’s.

    Around here we don’t have ad’s. We usually tend to leave most of the breathless buzzy excitement and/or outrage with talkback listeners, and find out what is actually happening. Even if it does happen in the posts on occassion, we can rely on our moderates and rightists to put it in perspective for us.

  18. She holds generally leftwing beliefs with foreign policy perspectives forged during the Vietnam war.

    I’d discribe her as a lapdog for US foriegn policy demands, im not sure how that recconciles with the briefing?

  19. Crank 19

    As you point out SP the briefing papers in themselves are not very exciting.

    The only reason this story has seen the light of day is because as New Zealanders we seem desperate to find out how others view us. It is probably a symptom of how small and far away we are from everyone.

    So finding supposedly confidential comments about our PM from our nearest ally is quite interesting. Especially when if you read between the lines in a scurrilous manner you get: Control freak socialist with foreign policy objectives that haven’t moved on since the Tet offensive of 1968.

  20. mike 20

    “The papers are written by junior diplomatic staff – they are apolitical.”

    Yet they can still spot an out of touch control freak who can’t trust anyone (elected) in her own party. Brilliant

  21. But they were right, she has moved The Labour Party from a centre left party of the people, to an extreme left wing, Marion Hobb’s wet dream type party.

    They will do any disgusting tactic to hang on to power, the great David Lange will be turning in his grave.

  22. Razorlight 22

    I don’t thing the contents of the brief are the scandal at all. As everyone knows, she is a lady who loves power and control.

    The leak or mistake in disclosing the brief is the story.

  23. Anita 23

    Brett Dale,

    she has moved The Labour Party from a centre left party …, to an extreme left wing … party.

    What makes you think the current incarnation of the Labour Party is extreme left?

    I would argue that it’s centrist, maybe centre-centre-left, but not left, let alone extreme left.

  24. Pascal's bookie 24

    Brett, that’s just silly.

    You wouldn’t know an extreme left govt if one nationalised your bollocks.

  25. Anita 25

    Pascal’s bookie

    You wouldn’t know an extreme left govt if one nationalised your bollocks.

    That’s the other kind of knowing.

  26. Kevyn 26

    Tim Ellis, Is it bizarre to assume that an Australian journalist covering the Forum would not have an inkling of who Helen Clark was, after nine years as PM of New Zealand? Any more bizarre than not knowing who the Premier of Tasmania is? Or the Northern Territory’s leader (who may or may not be a Premier)?

    I bet none of the NZ journo’s covering the forum can answer those questions. Maybe NZ journo’s really only need to know who the Premier of Victoria is as that state has been using tax breaks to lure NZ manufacturers to build factories there instead of expanding NZ factories to serve the Oz market.

  27. Kevyn 27

    Before you ask, no I don’t know the answers either but I’m sure I can google my way to the answers if I need to. The problem is that method tends to lead to interesting and timewasting sidetracks. 😆

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