CEOs, the PM, and the degraded state of the public sector

What do you think of when you think of a CEO of a large or prominent New Zealand entity?   Mostly, I think of a highly-paid confident political operator and virtue-signaller.

I’m sure there are exceptions (many of them will be the ones who consciously choose to kept a modest profile).  There will even be some hugely-impressive people who’ve created and built businesses that have made them and society as a whole better off.  Sadly –  marker of our long-term economic failure –  there aren’t many of them, at least among that “large or prominent” grouping.

But apparently I don’t really know what I’m thinking at all.   At least according to a bunch of highly-paid corporate bureaucrats (private and public).

I opened the Dominion-Post newspaper this morning to find a full page advert, half of it in Labour Party red, screaming “What does a CEO look like?”.   Well-dressed, highly paid, and scared of upsetting anyone was my first thought?

But I was wrong (at least according to this advert)

“Admit it. You pictured a white middle-aged male didn’t you.”

Well, no, I didn’t actually.  Of course, the majority of (big private business) CEOs in New Zealand probably are white, middle-aged, and male, but (conservative as I am) I try to view people on their merits, not their sex, skin colour, age, religion or whatever.  In passing one might note that most people in New Zealand are “white”, and mostly I’d expect heads of big and powerful agencies to be middle-aged (that loose label than can encompass anything from about 37 to 67 – although at least one 12 year old reader of the paper tells me 35 is really the starting point).

Ah, but really age has nothing to do with.  It is all about sex.

Could it be because every time we see a female CEO we still refer to her as a “female CEO”?

Speak for yourself, because I know I don’t.  Incompetence (and no doubt competence) knows no bounds of sex.

But apparently it is “indefensible”, this crime that the advertisers have convicted us –  the (overwhelmingly) liberal readers of the Dom-Post –  of, the more so

in a country where a mother in her late thirties is up there on the world stage being a pretty excellent Prime Minister

I guess advertisers are welcome to their opinion.  Personally, I view our current Prime Minister as proof that we have now reached the generally welcome stage in public life where a woman leader can be as useless and ineffectual as any man (Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir may well have been in days when a woman had to be markedly better to excel).

They go on, strangely, to describe the Prime Minister as “the CEO of New Zealand”, which is wrong both in law and in substance.  The government is not the country.  The “CEO of New Zealand” is invoked in support of their cause –  “ask her and she’ll tell you”.

And who is behind this advert?  Given the Labour Party colour and the slathering praise of the Prime Minister you might have assumed it was paid for by the Labour Party, or some front body.

But it wasn’t the Labour Party.  It was a group called Champions for Change.  When you look them up you find that they are a bunch of CEOs and board chairs (one was a chair until very recently when a High Court judgment against her saw her ousted), who also seem to have forgotten the name of the country (it isn’t called Aotearoa New Zealand).  There are 52 of them, about 30 per cent female and the rest male.   They represent (note the word –  these people aren’t here as individuals) 45 organisations (their logos bedeck the front page of the website).

If people in the private sector want to spend their money, or that of their shareholders, on praise of the Prime Minister –  a party political figure –  that is, of course, their choice.

But who is on this list of leaders?  Among them is

Gabs Makhlouf, Secretary to the Treasury

Mike Bush, Commissioner of Police

Peter Chrisp, Chief Executive of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise

and the Ministry for Women (CEO not pictured) is also a sponsor.

These people have clear responsibilities to be neutral public servants, not putting public money under their control into full-page adverts championing the Prime Minister personally.   There are State Services Commission guidelines around the political involvement of public servants, and if involvement in an advert like this doesn’t breach those standards, there is something very wrong with how the guidelines are written.    Among the key points of those guidelines

Very senior State servants, and those who have regular, direct contact with Ministers, or represent a public face of their agency should exercise careful judgement when considering involvement in political activities.

Judgement that seems to have been sorely lacking in this case.

These aren’t the only public sector people involved (although they are the clearest breaches of acceptable conduct).

We also have the CEO of Auckland Council (note the Labour mayor) and the chairs and chief executives of various SOEs (wholly state-owned) and majority Crown (or council)-owned companies.  That list includes New Zealand Post, Air New Zealand, Genesis Energy, Ports of Auckland, and Transpower.    You could add in a couple of a university senior managers as well, one of whom (Massey) must be very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving her cover in her little spot of bother last year.

I get that these individuals, and even their organisations, might want to bash the public around the ears and do their virtue-signalling, but they simply shouldn’t be using their office (and public resources) to champion the Prime Minister.  It is the sort of thing one expects in degraded semi-authoritarian states, not in New Zealand.  It should be totally unacceptable.

One other thing that was striking about the advert was that looking through the organisations these people represent there were (see above) lots of public sector agencies, government bodies, and Crown-owned businesses. There were plenty of local bosses for big overseas businesses.  There were people from really highly-regulated entities (looking at you banks), really quite dependent on government favour, and professional services firms –  dead keen on government contracts – likewise.  There wasn’t, as far as I could see, a single representative of a successful outward-oriented New Zealand business that had developed in the last 30 years (and, actually, only a couple of inward focused ones).

It was not a confidence-inducing sign that these people really had any idea how to build and lead a top-performing business in a genuinely competitive environment. But I guess they know how to keep on the right side of the Prime Minister.

As I say, private sector people can do or say (“get with the project peasants”) whatever their board and shareholders are happy with.  Public sector figures –  particularly the heads of such important agencies as the Police and The Treasury – need to get out, and stay out, of partisan political projects.  They need to called to order, but in the degraded state of modern New Zealand (isn’t Shane Jones still a senior minister?) you’d have to wonder who would actually do that.

(UPDATE: And I almost forgot to mention that the CEO of Stuff –  publishers of the Dominion-Post – is also part of the slathering praise of the Prime Minister.)




28 thoughts on “CEOs, the PM, and the degraded state of the public sector

  1. Reblogged this on The Inquiring Mind and commented:
    An excellent post by Michael Reddell. He highlights a very disturbing situation – brought to the fore by an advert in the Dominion Post. The post highlights just how dreadful the degradation of the public sector has become.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The involvement of serving, senior public servants in this paid endorsement of the Prime Minister is deeply worrying. A politically neutral public service was once regarded as one of the foundations of our democracy. And Ministers used to be held to account for their behaviour as well. These things no longer appear to be the case. Now with the threat of further restrictions being imposed on free speech, the clouds are truly darkening over New Zealand. As for the Dompost, I cancelled my subscription to this miserable excuse for journalism some months ago.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. It’s seems like an indirect political advertisement touting the competence of the Prime Minister. Something no public servant should be doing if they list their position as part of that advertisement. It’s a bit like the “Citizens for Rowling” campaign years ago where high profile folks told the low profile folks who was the better candidate. Was Sam Neil on the list of admirers? He seems to have an opinion on everything these days, and that the rest of us need to know.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The problem now is why have these leaders, both public and private, put their names to such an ad. Either they are prepared to come out as a definite Labour supporter, which could lead to problems with their positions when National gain was he reins again. Or they have been pressured by the Labour establishment and are to weak to do what is right.

    Either way, they are proving themselves to be not the type of boss that deserves to be in the positions they hold.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d be surprised if Labour themselves had put any set of pressure on. I suspect these people are mostly just enthusiastic feel-gooders and virtue signallers, who simply never stopped to think – esp the public sector bosses – that such text explicitly praising the sitting Prime Minister isn’t appropriate as part of pushing their particular cause.

      Such is the slow degradation of our institutions that to many it probably didn’t even seem that unusual. As I noted, after all Shane Jones is still a senior minister, after the sort of unreprentant behaviour that would have led to pretty instant dismissal, in the face of intolerable political pressure, had it come to light say 20 years ago.


      Liked by 1 person

  5. It seems that the first class job the PM has done since 15 March in uniting New Zealanders and demonstrating the depth of our shock as well as the lead she took in. Passing legislation to alter the gun laws, has passed you by. Had the situation not been handled with great sensitivity and skill I think we could have expected a very unwelcome reaction from a number of countries. But of course you are welcome to your own views



    • I’m not overly impressed with the performance in the last few weeks. She is certainly personally empathetic and I have no particular quarrel over her appearances at events etc. But that isn’t the main job of a PM – and actually I’m pretty sure any PM in the last 30 years would have done a decent job of recent weeks – so my criticisms are much as they were on 14 March. On gun laws, I don’t have a strong view on the substance (don’t object to the ultimate effect of the changes), but I do think that rushing it thru the House with no proper consultation or proper select committee process was more political theatre than good govt, and I am always opposed to the use of Henry VIII clauses in legislation.

      All that said, had she led any serious housing reform, initiated work that might sustainably left productivity growth, or stood against the corruption of our system (around the PRC) I’d (overall) probably be cheering.

      But the bottom line here is not my view, or anyone else’s, of the PM’s performance, but the highly inappropriate nature of the involvement of senior serving public servants in this advert and its use of cheerleading for the PM.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Sorry, but you are missing the point: public servants, especially senior ones, are expected to be politically neutral. It is improper for them to publicly endorse politicians, or indeed criticize them.

      Liked by 1 person

    • So if hypothetically a Prime Minister had made a bad job of uniting NZ then senior civil servants would be putting their names to an advertisement critical of her performance? Seems unlikely.

      When Helen Clarke upset Maori with seabed and foreshore legislation (Nov 2004) and thus dis-uniting NZ I don’t remember the Secretary to the Treasury, the Commissioner of Police, the Chief Executive of Trade and Enterprise and the Ministry for Women sponsoring a public criticism of her.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Ah so you are saying the collusion of the major parties to rushing through what will be faulty and uncontested legislation in the middle of the night is an act of democracy?

      Well let me disabuse you of that notion. Its and act of foolishness and desperation. Not saying nothing should have been done but a lessor approach of a temporary ban on the sales and a considered approach involving all the community would have been better.
      It was after all an act perpetrated by an Australian immigrant, aided and abetted by the Labour Govt.’s changing the Gun Laws late last year and kowtowing to Mike Bush and co over the need to properly vet people before handing out a license to purchase. No checks its seems on his past nor his travels.
      I spend more effort on employing someone.
      So the conclusion must be that this was backside covering from SLG and bullying of the Nats. who are frightened of their own shadow and so appeased, as they often do.
      Neither lot deserve to run our nation.


    • “we could have expected a very unwelcome reaction from a number of countries”
      Please enlarge on that Gerald.


  6. Your whole post is like… just your own opinion man.

    You love framing your personal opinion like it is an objective benchmark of right and wrong, but ultimately I know just as well as you do that your opinions are just driven by self interest. You are afraid to see the disestablishment of the political and economic order dominated by white males, because you benefit from the current system. All of your moral virtue signalling about what is appropriate or not is just a cover for this self-interested preference.


    • In addition to the more fundamental point made by Odysseus i’m at something of a loss to know what you mean by the rest of your comment. As a more or less retired stay at home parent, my narrow economic interests would probably now be furthered by a policy that banned all promotions of males to senior public service positions.

      (Needless to say I don’t favour such a policy.)

      And to repeat again, serving senior public servants shouldn’t be declaring in public how wonderful they thing the PM is – any PM.

      Liked by 4 people

    • ‘Spark fined $675k for misleading consumers’

      ‘Chorus failed to prevent migrant exploitation – review’

      These are two headlines from today’s edition of my lovely local newspaper…

      Justine Smyth, “Chair” of Spark: ‘As an employer who supports diversity and gender balance, Spark recognises the value women bring to senior leadership positions and is active in developing its female talent. By investing in the future of its women leaders, providing high-level mentoring and targeted professional and personal learning opportunities for women, Spark has created a pipeline of future women leaders across its business.”

      Kate MacKenzie, CEO of Chorus: ‘We take pride in building and managing one of the world’s best open access networks, rolling out ultra-fast broadband that will benefit generations to come.’


    • It’s a blog mate. He has opinion just like you and I do and Sam Neil.

      But that advertisement is less about promoting women thru the glass ceiling and more about promoting one Jacinda. It’s a very thinly veiled political advertisement.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sliding share prices perhaps. disgruntled customers who still can’t get Broadbandand so it goes. Rara in the Ivory Tower and at jenny’s place.
      Wasn’t it Gump who followed Jenny?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, and I don’t suppose that they noticed that their statistic (98% of CEOs in NZ’s top-performing businesses are maie) jarred a little with the number of women on the list promoting the ad. Presumably not many of their organisations qualify as “top-performing businesses”.


    • The Ministry of women’s affairs is really bought into the unconscious bias argument. I asked them under the Official Information Act of them ever heard of Claudia Golden because they never cited her. They said they had heard of the but didn’t hold any information on her and never cited her. Unforgivable not to cite the top female labour economist in the world who specialises in the economics of gender.


    • There is a study which I simply can’t find now that found that evidence of having women directors on the board was a proxy variables error for more severe monitors of corporate performance.

      This brilliant recent study noted that for Fortune 500 companies, to find their women directors, they have to go out of town and recruit across the country.

      The authors thought well that would mean these women directors would have fewer personal contacts with the executives of the company and would much more rely on corporate reports and share price trends. If the CEO misses his revenue targets two quarters in a row, he’s fired.

      They tested this by looking at whether the women directors had to fly board meetings and change planes to fly to the board meetings at the corporate headquarters in another city. Women directors who fly to another city and change planes while they were doing it were particularly grumpy monitors of corporate performance.


  7. I wonder if there is a deeper problem here, in that Centre-Left and Centre-Right governments and bureaucrats are stymied in making further progress on social welfare, health and education because of the very institutions set up in those areas. They’re sclerotic.

    For the Centre-Left, what more can they do that is further Left-wing? More money? Different measures, ones that can be manipulated into more kindness re-wire our collective consciousness?

    Right-wing options – even when observed in countries like Sweden, with vouchers in education and enabling more private sector hospitals in healthcare (Germany also), is not acceptable to the Centre-Left, and our Centre-Right are both too scared and incapable of making the argument.

    But doing nothing is not acceptable either in the face of small but grindingly continuous reductions in performance, especially in relevant performance, in these areas.

    So we head for more command and control (Education) and increased and new taxes to provide more money to prop it all up. Aside from that one might as well praise the government of the day and suck up to them. Maybe you’ll keep your job despite repeated failures.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Every single one of them looks to benefit from the the govts favour in one was or another. Simply staggering – but handy of them to provide a list of who they are!

    I wonder if the advertising copywriter got a bit carried away and these busy people didn’t pick it up? There is no other plausible explanation.

    When Fletchers announced their massive loss I did check who was on the board – it did have excellent gender balance and experience from a wide range of disciplines. Except building.


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