Jonathan Sinclair in his office at the High Commission in Wellington. Photo: Toby Manhire

‘She’ll be right, Britain’ll be right’: the UK’s man in Wellington on Brexit, the snap election, the Lions and more

With a snap election amid a divorce from the European Union, there’s plenty afoot in Britain. Toby Manhire sits down with the UK high commissioner, Jonathan Sinclair, to find out what it means for him, along with his thoughts on NZ rugby crowds, dossing with the Australians post-earthquake, and how many Pitcairn Islanders he knows by name.

The British High Commission is nearly fixed. Damage sustained in the November earthquakes meant the Hill Street Red-White-and-Blues had to find a temporary home up the road at the Australian High Commission. But today, on the Monday before Anzac Day, the Australians’ doors are closed, so High Commissioner Jonathan Sinclair has returned to his 80s brick base. With repairs largely completed, they hope to move back by about August.

Parked behind the security gates and directly outside the front door is the High Commissioner’s chauffeured vehicle, a Range Rover, carrying the famous DC1 plates – a succinct reminder of the Brits’ historic primacy in New Zealand’s foreign affairs. It’s a change from the traditional Jaguar or Rolls, but even James Bond drives a Range Rover these days.

At a push, you might say Sinclair has a touch of the James Bond about him – 007 via Hogwarts, perhaps. Jonathan William Rossiter Sinclair, to give him his full name, has the obligatory British RP vowels with an occasional flick of Estuary. His looks and voice could have you fooled he was a third Miliband brother, though as a career diplomat he’s infuriatingly unbaitable on any matters of political partisanship.

In his corner office looking out on rows of empty desks, the High Commissioner to New Zealand and Samoa (and, not to be forgotten, governor of the Pitcairn Islands) sat down with the Spinoff to discuss the UK snap election, what Brexit means for Britain and Ireland and New Zealanders, as well as the Lions tour and the truth about Wellington’s cognac sipping diplomatic corps.

Jonathan Sinclair in a UK Foreign Office video. The letter T is missing at the end, obviously

The Spinoff: You haven’t been back in these offices for a while?

Jonathan Sinclair: We have been out since November, as a mission. We had the earthquake on the 14th of November, and a bit like other buildings around town, we were cleared to stay here, and then by the end of that week it was clear that probably some of the aftershocks had affected the building, so we moved out at the end of that week, first into my residence, as a sort of temporary office, and then we’ve been flatting with the Aussies since January.

Sounds a bit like the premise for a sitcom.

There was certainly plenty of conversation at the time, when we moved in with the Aussies, about whether we would have to support each other in sporting endeavour. But I think we’ve decided to remain best of frenemies in that regard.

But you can pull rank, and say, I’m here as representative of the Queen, your Queen?

This is where I can get very arcane, but in New Zealand I don’t represent the Queen, of course. I’m here simply to represent the government and the people of the United Kingdom. The governor general represents the Queen. So I can’t even pull rank in that regard.

So I can write down “High Commissioner rejects Queen, announces new republican stance”?

Well you could, if it were true, but it’s not. She remains, of course, my monarch, I just don’t represent her in New Zealand.

Last week Theresa May called an election, which came as a surprise to all of us. What does it mean for you, as High Commissioner, that there will be an election in the UK in 40-something days?

What happens in the UK, and it’s similar to New Zealand I’m sure, is that when the election is called there is a period of purdah, where civil servants have to basically adopt a very careful position not to do anything that could possibly be seen to be in favour of one political party or the other. That said, foreign affairs goes on, and the government is still the government. So we can continue to talk to the New Zealand government, we can certainly continue to represent British interests overseas, we can continue to represent British people overseas. There’s plenty of important work that continues, such as looking out for consular cases, Brits in trouble, and preparing for things like the Lions tour.

Which you must be mildly interested in.

Yes. I am looking forward to it immensely.

Speaking of the Lions, they’re an interesting collection of countries: England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland. And New Zealand. It’s such an odd aggregation of units in some ways. I’m not sure if there’s a question at the end of this. I guess it sometimes just seems such a muddle.

I represent the government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and that’s a fantastic opportunity as well. So on St Patrick’s Day, that morning we had a great Ulster Fry, up at my house. Being the representative for the UK means you are also representative for all the constituent nations of the UK, and that gives you lots of different points of entry into connecting with your host government. That’s what any high commissioner or ambassador is trying to do, to find the touchpoints between your country and the host country, and then build on those in a way that promotes your own country’s interests. So having Scotland, and the fact that 20% of the British diaspora in New Zealand hailed from Scotland, having Wales and the connections there with rugby, having England, St George’s Day yesterday, and the connections with the English community, in Canterbury and around the country, and yes, of course, with Ireland, too.

It’s interesting that, yes, in terms of rugby, Ireland has been represented by the island of Ireland all the way through the 20th century, and that in itself is a historical marvel. When it comes to the Lions now, the British and Irish Lions are a fabulous franchise that goes back centuries, one that has real resonance in New Zealand, particularly if you hark back to 1971, but if you want to take a sort of political extrapolation from the Lions, you can point to the fact that the relations between London and Dublin are better than they have ever been. So whereas maybe in the past there would have been a little bit of concern of potential friction within the squad if there was going to be any sort of Anglo-Irish bitterness, or anything like that, there’s none of that at all. The Lions represent, I think, the very best of what will come from the United Kingdom and Ireland.

One of the results of Brexit, presumably, will be that the border has to go back up between Northern Ireland and the Republic?

That’s very much not the hope of, as far as I can see, everybody involved in the negotiations. So the prime minister of the UK and the Irish taoiseach have been very clear from the very beginning that they want to build on all of the amazing progress over the last 25 years in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. They do not want a return of what’s called a hard border, the border that was there during the Troubles. And they point to the fact that the UK and Ireland enjoyed a common travel area long before both countries actually joined the EEC [European Economic Community] in 1973. And then on the European side, there’s already been statements from the negotiators that the EU played an important role itself during the peace process – a guarantor, an investor as well – and I think all parties want to find a solution that enables, obviously, the Republic of Ireland to remain part of the EU and for the border to remain as open as possible. So I think this will probably be a technical issue as much as anything, but there is intent on all sides to solve that one.

Part of what has led to Brexit and part of what it is promising is immigration-related – a tightening of immigration rules. Here, too, just last week there was a tightening of sorts, in the UK it’s been called a crackdown. And there are concerns from New Zealanders who have historically had a privileged access to the UK  that this spells problems for access for New Zealand passport holders. You’ve been on a kind of PR push to try and reassure people?

Yes. On the first point about what will happen, that is clearly going to be contingent on the outcome of the election. But what I can talk to is what’s happened over recent years. And I think it’s important to take it from a little bit of first principles. And that starts from the premise which says: the UK has had huge amounts of immigration over the last 10 years. In 2016 we grew the size of Christchurch. So net migration is running at around 350,000 a year. And our population is 65, 66 million, and heading north rapidly. So any government in that context has to take steps to address the societal impact of immigration, be it housing, or education, or healthcare. And there have been steps taken in that regard.

That said, ministers have been very clear to try and ensure that New Zealand has the best possible immigration opportunity of all countries, and it has its closest friends and it wants to help those. And New Zealand has, and this is the point I have been making, New Zealand does have the best single immigration deal of any country outside of the EU. So for instance it’s one of only five countries – Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea are the others, not the USA – that enjoy something called the Youth Mobility Scheme visa. That’s the OE visa, the classic OE visa. And the New Zealand quota is 12,000 a year. That is not being occupied, actually. It’s not being used. Right now New Zealand is up at about four-and-a-half, five thousand a year. So we’re very keen to see people properly taking a hold of opportunities.

One of the important things to try and address in this debate is that there’s been this perception it’s always been one way, tightening all the way. Well actually the OE visa was something that was liberalised a few years ago, so it used to be a visa that allowed you just to work for one year, and travel for one year. It was a two-year visa bit you could only work for a maximum of half of that time. That OE visa now enables you to work for two years. So that’s actually a change to the benefit of New Zealanders. That’s just a few examples. Then there’s the ancestry visa, and there are skilled visas, too. And something like 97% or 98% of all Kiwis who need a visa get it. And that of course is aside from the fact if you just go for up to six months on holiday you don’t need a visa at all.

I know that’s a very long answer but what I want to try and ensure is that we don’t get into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy where people keep talking about “a problem” and it becomes a problem.

But there are certain groups for whom it is harder, aren’t there – say someone in their mid-30s, would that be fair to say?

I don’t think so. I think what’s happened is that in some very narrow areas there’s been a raising of the threshold of the income levels you need to be able to come in on a certain visa, a little like some of the changes that have come in in New Zealand recently. I think that what has happened is that in response to some of the headlines, people have actually started not to apply, I think that’s what tended to happen. I’ve come across – and I’ve always asked for evidence of people saying it’s really hard, but when I’ve talked to people from Business New Zealand, or Export New Zealand, they’re not coming to me with problems. They’re saying, we haven’t got anybody coming to us and saying it’s a problem to get a job if we need to. So I think there is a risk around self-fulfilling prophecies.

Some of the stipulations are different, and are higher, certainly. But to get one, and if you want one and you are backed by a company or if you’ve got the opportunity to get the role, I think that opportunity is still there.

Your boss, Boris Johnson, who is the foreign secretary, remarkably, used to advocate, when he was London mayor, for freedom of movement, more or less, between the Anglosphere Commonwealth and the UK. Is that plausible, at any point?

So I think this is where I just have to play it very straight: we’re in a position of purdah and that gets into areas of politics which I best steer clear of.

You mentioned exporters, and one of the impacts of Brexit for a New Zealand exporter is they’ll no longer have one common market, they will be waiting to see if a new trade deal is negotiated.

On one side, there’s the issue of Brexit, and what does that look like, and that hinges on the outcome of the election in the UK, there will be a negotiation. On the other hand there is also the future in terms of a UK-New Zealand free trade agreement, which is, again, not dependent on the election but is something that will follow any election. I think what I would focus on, though, is that 35% of all New Zealand exports that go to the EU go to the UK, and you export more to us than you do to France, Germany and Italy put together. Forty-four per cent of all your services that are exported to the EU come to the UK. And overall the UK is New Zealand’s fifth biggest trading partner. So within the EU there’s no doubt that the UK is New Zealand’s biggest trading partner. And clearly it’s my intent and my role to look to build on that, to build two-way trade, two-way investment.

The exact nature of what New Zealand exporters will have to do, at the moment we leave the EU and at the moment we have an FTA with New Zealand, remains to be seen. But I think what we’ve got here is a real opportunity over the next three years to shine a spotlight on that relationship, because talking to New Zealanders, especially those within government, and exporters and businesses, it’s not that when you sign an FTA a magic wand is waved and suddenly exports go booming. The opportunity is there, but it’s just as important to put in place lots of ideas and initiatives to make sure that exporters take advantage of the free trade agreement. So we’ve got a two-year period or a three-year period, depending on how long these negotiations take, to really take advantage of that spotlight.

I don’t think it’s a zero-sum issue at all. We’re very keen for the EU to have a free-trade agreement with New Zealand that holds while we’re a member of the EU and will hold when we leave the EU. We’re very keen at the right time to get a UK-New Zealand free trade agreement. These aren’t zero sums. Hopefully the end goal is lots of opportunities for New Zealand exporters, particularly for the UK but also for the EU.

Jonathan Sinclair’s Foreign Office CV, from the FCO website

Tell me about how you ended up in Wellington, sitting in an earthquake damaged building. It doesn’t seem, in one sense, the most glamorous place in the world to come in work, for a diplomat.

I would disagree. This is a highly sought after job.

Is it? Is it really?

Yes, it is. So to answer your question how do you get there, well, I joined the Foreign Office in my mid to late 20s and then did a series of jobs around the world, and around the time that I was looking to go overseas and bid for an ambassador job, this was coming up. And I applied for it – there was a sort of internal competition, interviews and the like, and I was delighted to get it.

Were there athletic bouts?

No. The reason why I wanted the job was because, yes, of course it’s a lovely country to work and live in, and I’ve got a young family and that’s been fantastic and we’ve made some fantastic friends, but it’s the opportunities to make a difference to a relationship that is already strong, but could have real potential for even more.

And it’s striking when you talk to people in New Zealand about how New Zealand has changed in the last 25 years that, going back to Brexit a little, they look at what New Zealand has done in the last 25 years and say, well, look, we’ve done really well by adopting an independent trade policy and by reforming our economy and we’re really keen as you move out of Europe – out of the EU, I should say, not out of Europe – to partner with you. And so – not that when I arrived here I was anticipating Brexit at all – in the last 10 months the role has got even more fascinating because there’s a real groundswell of desire in New Zealand, I detect, to make those links anew, and to benefit, not just in trade and investment, but in areas of public policy and diplomacy and people-to-people links. So I’m quite bullish about the next few months and years.

You put a very glowing gloss on that but there must also have been people going, “Oh for goodness sake, what have you done, leaving the EU? What on earth is going on?”

Actually, I’m really struggling to think of any conversation like that I’ve had. I’ve had a lot of people who were surprised at the result and quite a lot of commentary about what this means about the UK, that’s been going on around the whole world, but actually the response was led very dramatically and quite fast by government and followed by business. So even on that first Monday – the results came through late afternoon on the Friday in New Zealand. By Monday afternoon I was talking to ministers and officials, who were already looking at the opportunities. And as I go round the country talking to Export New Zealand audiences, there are very much a series of general currents of reaction to what’s gone on. One is, tell us everything you know. Secondly there is a sense of “yeah, she’ll be right, Britain’ll be right. Because New Zealand were OK, and look where we were in the 80s, and we reckon that you can learn from us,” says New Zealand.

Lockwood Smith, recent NZ high commissioner to the UK, has been making that case a bit.

I think Lockwood, a former trade minister, is particularly in that space – I bumped into him back in November when he was over here – but this is just the general [view of] small, medium and larger enterprises I come across around the country.

It’s outrageous politeness.

There’s certainly a realisation it’s going to be difficult. Negotiation will take time. This isn’t going to be instant. But there’s a sort of coiled anticipation.

Your job is also high commissioner to Samoa and govenor of the Pitcairn Islands, which is an interesting kind of sidebar in your work. Have you been to Pitcairn?

Yeah, I’ve been twice. I’m going again in August.

Jonathan Sinclair in his office at the High Commission in Wellington. Photo: Toby Manhire

Do they lay down a carpet and fan you with palm fronds?

No. No, they don’t. They are fascinating and really fulfilling parts of the role. Pitcairn is very small. It’s the smallest self-governing entity on the planet: 42 people. But in my time there have been some remarkable things that the community and the council and the government have done together. In 2015 we were the first overseas territory to legalise gay marriage. And just last September I got the privilege of signing the paper that created the second largest marine protected area in the world – Hawaii is just slightly bigger. These are quite impressive achievements for a very small community.

Do you know them all by name?


Do you?


Do you?



I meet them all when I go. And they’re incredibly resilient and of course there’s the storied history from 1789 and onwards, but when you meet people who’ve grown up there, lived there and are happily seeing out their days there it’s really quite striking how much they’ve achieved.

And Samoa.

I’ve been to Samoa six times. I was there just earlier this month. There we’ve got some real interests around climate – there’s been a long collaboration between small island states, especially the Pacific islands, and the EU. In Paris about 18 months ago, COP-21, there was an alliance between the EU and small island states, which drove the world towards the 1.5% reduction target in greenhouse gas emissions.

This EU sounds like a good body to be a member of.

Well, it’s something that the UK has driven in terms of its climate change requirements and desires. But Samoa is also a Commonwealth country and we’re very keen to have the input of many islands across the Pacific and around the world that are part of the Commonwealth in the run-up to the Commonwealth summit in London next April, in April 2018.

How long have you been here now, two years?

Two and three quarter years.

So you’re settled in, your kids are in school – have there been things that have surprised you? I encourage you to give a non-diplomatic answer – just as a Briton living in Wellington for an extended period of time, are there things about New Zealand that are not quite as you expected then to be?

I think the only thing that really stands out is the occasional funereal atmosphere at an All Blacks game, where everyone is intently watching and almost analysing the rugby.


Close to. I’ve been at several All Blacks games, and the difference in atmosphere between rugby games I’ve been to here and rugby games I’ve been to in the UK and football games I’ve been to in the UK, there’s generally just that bit more atmosphere. And I think it comes from just the fact that you’ve got an amazing team. When the All Blacks have won 90-odd percent of all their games in the last five years the expectation is that you’re going to win, and so everybody goes there expecting to win, whereas I think for most of British sport and most of other Kiwi sport, the average fan goes into a stadium hoping to win, and when you’re going in hoping to win, there’s quite a lot of space for joy, whereas I think when you’re going in expecting to win there’s less space for joy.

So I think while I’ve not been surprised at all by the brilliance of All Black rugby, or the brilliance of club rugby in New Zealand, I’ve been surprised by that slightly quieter, more analytical, more studious atmosphere than I had expected.

Is this some mind games thing you’re doing now ahead of the Lions tour?

No, I’m not as good as Hansen or Gatland in that regard. No, this is just an observation.

Where does the career of a rising star diplomat go from here? I’m sure that if you could have it your way you’d stay in New Zealand forever because it’s paradise but at some point it will end – is there a sort of tour of duty, four years?

The usual tour is four years, in an OECD country. I’ll probably do three and a half, for kids’ schooling reasons, so probably go back around Christmas this year. And then, after that, what used to be a very rigid pattern of home / overseas / home / overseas has changed over the years, and if you want to spend a bit more time in the UK for kids’ schooling reasons that’s fine. So I think we’ll probably go back to London and spend six or seven or eight years back in London before going back overseas again, I imagine.

Hopefully before you leave you’ll get a chance to cross paths with Scott Brown, the new American nomination for ambassador to New Zealand.

Well, yes. I mean, obviously we’re very close allies and friends with the Americans, and I would want to work closely with whoever the American ambassador is here. I note that he’s got to go through confirmation first, and having served in Washington myself I know that can be a long process. But yes we’re always very close with our American friends.

Does Wellington have a diplomatic circuit? Is there an ambassador set where you all meet together and drink cognac and all that?

It’s good to hear the stereotypes. So, there is a diplomatic corps. It’s growing. So even while I’ve been here we’ve had the Hungarians come, we’ve had UAE come, and I think there are other countries joining, coming to set up embassies here, which is great. We don’t tend to gather as a group very often. When we do it’s for occasions like tomorrow at the Anzac service, mid-morning. So we get together on occasions like that.

But you don’t drink cognac together? Some sort of secret club with wood-panelling?

Cuban cigars! No. Afraid not.

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