(The following is reprinted with the permission of Bryce Wilkinson. It is the eulogy he delivered at the service to honour Roger’s life held on Thursday 3 November 2011 at 2.30pm at Old St Paul’s in Wellington.)
(Photo courtesy of the New Zealand Herald)
Roger Kerr committed his working life to improving the quality of public policies in New Zealand.
We are extremely fortunate that he did so.
He had outstanding personal qualities and was one of the most talented and hard-working New Zealanders of his generation.
He could have achieved greatness at home or overseas in easier, far more self-centred and far more financially rewarding ways.
But why did he make that commitment?
Roger knew that such a life meant prolonged battles against entrenched opponents, long periods of frustration, and no guarantee of success.
Inside the public service it meant battling with mediocrity and poorly incentivised politicians.
Outside the public service it meant having to engage in public debate and to be the target of misunderstandings, misrepresentation and endless personal attacks.
Deep down Roger was a private man. He seldom spoke about his motivations and never wore his heart upon his sleeve. He knew that good motivations were one thing, but good policy was another. Policies must be assessed on their merits alone.
Roger was an optimist. He loved New Zealand. He combined deep humility with deep respect for the integrity and worth of New Zealanders as individuals. He wanted them to be able to enjoy more prosperous and satisfying lives, and he really cared about the effects of poor policies on the most vulnerable. Roger cared, full stop.
There was also a key external reason for his commitment. At some point early in his career as a diplomat when Britain entered the EEC, he decided that New Zealand’s economic decline was in fact largely self-inflicted.
If you can bear to, take your minds back to the late 1960s and 1970s. There was an abundance – of limited choice. Blanket foreign exchange controls, high tariffs, tight import quotas. No new cars for ordinary people. No weekend shopping. Queues to get mortgage finance. Too few licensed restaurants to matter. Union strikes a matter of course during school holidays. Monopolies everywhere.
So Roger got himself transferred to the New Zealand Treasury in 1976 and relaunched his career doing an economics degree part time.
Some years later he wrote that he saw economics as being about making the best use of scarce resources so as to raise people out of poverty. Stop right there. Most economists, including me, would not have added the last bit about poverty. They would have made the more general statement.
This otherwise unnecessary reference to poverty was a discrete personal statement.
Recall here his drive to increase school choice, his opposition to minimum wage rates, and his resistance to putting concern with income distribution ahead of concern with poverty.
What was the basis for Roger’s optimism? Not wishful thinking. Roger was a highly objective realist who wanted to make a difference. He had to have a reason for justified optimism.
Happily this reason came through in a brilliant essay he wrote on leaving the Treasury in 1986. It concluded that ideas are of some consequence and that the public can and does eventually learn from experience what works and what doesn’t work.
This judgement demonstrates an underlying faith in New Zealanders.
So what qualities did Roger bring to his lifelong task?
Roger was one of a kind. He had outstanding personal and professional qualities across many dimensions. These included almost unmatchable energy, skill, capacity for sustained concentration, and commitment.
His word was his honour and his ethics, values and integrity of purpose were unshakably of the highest order. At the same time he was unfaltering in his commitment to friends and colleagues and unstintingly generous with his time, intellect and energy.
He accumulated a rich fund of insightful material about public policy issues which he generously shared with anyone who asked him for assistance without seeking any recognition for himself. A great many did, from cabinet ministers to youthful students. We will never know the extent of his generous assistance to others, but it would have been enormous. I would not be surprised if most of you in this room will have benefited from it.
In his last weeks, despite his frail condition, he made a final trip to the office to prepare for and keep a promised appointment with a cabinet minister to outline the Business Roundtable thoughts in a key policy area.
He was a courteous, gracious and gentlemanly man. It was usually more trouble than it was worth to try to get him to be the first to pass through a doorway, or in and out of a lift. It was harder to still to be the first to pay for a meal or a taxi.
Roger was generous with his money in a good cause. A few months ago I helped Rotary collect for the Christchurch earthquake. I casually mentioned this to Roger. “Well done” he said simultaneously disappearing into his office. Moments later he was back thrusting unwanted into my hand a donation five times larger than any I had collected.
There are lots of us here today who are going to miss that impulsive, cheerful and generous vigour.
He was staunch, calm, fluent and persuasive, always preferring to debate the issues rather than the person. He firmly believed in the eventual success of reasoned, well-researched debate.
His courteous, well-argued responses to belittling attacks gradually induced many opponents to raise the quality of their own responses in return.
I recall him once showing me a letter from a university professor who had attacked him personally for years over environmental policy. The letter handsomely apologised for his earlier disparaging attacks, and put the matter right.
And so Roger’s courteous and patient self-discipline once again had worked its magic.
He had great courage in entering the lion’s den time after time to stand up for unpalatable policies in front of audiences that he knew would be overwhelmingly hostile.
On one occasion he debated minimum wage rates with Cardinal Williams. It was in front of a 100 percent hostile audience that refused to entertain even the possibility of harm to those thereby shut out of jobs. This was an occasion when the Christians were the lions.
In a speech in 1993 that he titled, On Doing What is Necessary, Roger indirectly indicated how he drew strength from personal attacks, as long as the positions he was taking were sound. He endorsed Charles MacKay’s poem:
“You have no enemies, you say?
Alas, my friend, the boast is poor.
He who has mingled in the fray
Must have made foes.
If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight. “
Roger was both driven and demanding. He chose the title “Excellence isn’t optional” for a compendium of papers in 1998.
For me it sums up the standard he set and achieved for himself and what he aspired to see achieved for the country. But he demanded more of himself than of anyone else.
Insisting on excellence from bureaucracies is certain to raise tensions. On one occasion, despairing of Treasury’s ability to raise its game adequately, Roger proposed that the entire senior management team, including himself, resign. Only then could the State Services Commission start with a clean slate. I am sure he was genuine. But who but Roger would have proposed that, then or since?
Roger’s drive for excellence has also led him to call for more than one head of department to resign or be fired. No doubt, some of you are here today reliving the memory. But none of it would have been personal.
Roger always uplifted others with his energy, optimism and courage. He rejected the idea that individuals were powerless to effect change and considered that quality leadership meant taking on difficult challenges rather than submitting to mediocrity or expediency.
One of my early experiences of his capacity for work occurred in the early 1980s. It came after I had dropped, late one afternoon, two major Treasury draft reports and a draft speech on his desk for his consideration. The pile was the product of days or weeks of work for my staff.
The next morning, when I arrived at work, all three pieces were back on my desk, fully annotated, complete with drafting improvements, corrections to a professional proofreading standard and, to cap it all off, thoughtful and constructive suggestions for adding further points or material.
I checked with the other section head reporting to him and found that Roger had turned around a similar volume of material for his section on the same evening.
Few bosses could achieve such a turnaround, let alone sustain that pace. Yet Roger did this for his entire working life.
He is probably editing this eulogy as I speak.
One of Roger’s exceptional skills was his ability to condense the critical aspects of a complex issue into a parsimonious set of logically-ordered bullet points. Usually his list had such cumulative logical clarity that once one had absorbed it there was not much more to be said.
Roger strongly encouraged quality-raising team building through peer review and the circulation of leading insightful think pieces. A unique aspect was his use of a green pen to critique any sloppy work in the clips of the Treasury reports that had gone to ministers the previous day and were circulated around all senior officers. Those next on the list would see the annotations. This form of peer review could not be ignored.
One constructive result was that other divisions became used to consulting Economics II during the policy formation stage, thereby reducing the risk of devastating green pen annotations further down the track.
Another aspect of Roger’s leadership was that he taught his staff that the way to be successful was to be exceptionally well-prepared, analytical and methodical. The contrast with bosses who were less well organised was telling.
One upshot of the quality recruiting, intensive work loads, good relations with good people across the divisions and much preparatory thinking, was that when the snap election was called in June 1984, Treasury was able to write, under Graham Scott’s supervision, Economic Management, a far-reaching blueprint for reform, in just four weeks.
There were many fine economists in senior positions in Treasury, but Roger still stood out. It has been said that having Richard Lowe in the All Blacks was like having an iron bar in support of your side of the scrum. Having Roger in your team was a bit like that too. Roger was a central figure because of his breadth, work capacity, leadership and above all the quality of his constructive contributions.
Roger left Treasury in 1986 saying that it was important that the business community supported an open competitive economy and kept its back turned against the past habits of lobbying for privileges for firms – such as import protection, export subsidies, tax breaks, antitakeover laws or other forms of corporate welfare.
For the next 25 years he was the core figure who kept majority opinion in the business community in that configuration. That is a rare thing, even globally. To crib from one citation in his honour: “His highly principled and consistent advocacy changed the dynamic of politics in New Zealand”, in part by making it very hard for others to lobby self-servingly.
Initially, reactions to the Business Roundtable were very hostile. Roger all too often found that the daily newspapers would not report what a publication had actually said. Instead they would report a dismissive comment on it from an offended interest group that had probably not bothered to read it. With his usual energy and directness Roger approached the editors to confront them with the situation, and it slowly changed.
A more amusing reminder of the hostility to the Business Roundtable in those early years was then Prime Minister David Lange’s comment that he would not “be seen on a bus” with the Business Roundtable. When Roger and a senior member of the Business Roundtable called on him to smooth things over, the irrepressible Lange invited them into his office, explaining to the watching journalists that “this is not a bus”!
For the last quarter of a century, Roger bore the roles of chief fund raiser, media frontman, research director, event organiser, speech writer, editor and proof-reader. He personally commissioned and oversaw the production of more than 200 books and reports and well over a thousand articles, submissions, media releases, speeches and policy backgrounders.
For much of the time he did it with just one or two administrative staff and from time to time a research assistant.
In my view Roger was by far the best speech writer in the country on public policy matters. His speeches and articles had a seamless quality. One idea would flow into the next logically and effortlessly, but perhaps half way through you would be taking subtle and unexpected directions. Just when you had lost track of where this could be heading you would reach an apt and well-rounded conclusion.
One example is his speech in 2004 on The ‘We’ Word. I had suggested to Roger one day that it might be useful to write something on the bureaucratic fad of using the word ‘we’ ambiguously, sometimes to falsely imply a consensus. Poor analysis was being disguised by sloppy language.
Some weeks later Roger dropped onto my desk a deeply profound speech. It started with George Orwell’s concept of double think, shifted to political correctness, cited linguistic Hayek, and discussed collectivism versus individualism.
As so often with Roger, I felt I had proffered a sow’s ear and received a silk purse in return.
One of Roger’s major contributions arose from his rare ability to induce top quality people to take an interest in New Zealand. This reflects his personal qualities and his networking skills.
The list of visiting scholars and authors, who have contributed to the Business Roundtable’s extensive library of publications, reads like a scroll of the world’s best and brightest.
The close friendship that he built up with University of Chicago Law Professor Richard Epstein is an outstanding example of how New Zealand public policy debate benefited from Roger’s networking skills and personal qualities. Richard was cited for a prestigious award this year as “one of the most extraordinary legal scholars of this generation — or any other”.
Yet, largely if not entirely because of his relationship with Roger, Richard made four trips to New Zealand and the enduring result is a major book, Simple Rules for a Complex World along with 32 monographs on a vast range of topics of specific application to New Zealand. This set alone is a major resource.
A wonderful tribute to Roger from Richard is posted on the Business Roundtable’s website.
The commendations in support of Roger’s many awards and honours also attest to the enormous esteem in which he was held domestically and internationally by the best.
He really was a national treasure.
At age 66, newly married, still highly productive with fire in his belly, still with a big agenda of battles to be won and still with so much more to give, fate dealt him and his loved ones a cruel blow.
He once told me that he looked forward in retirement to having the time to read Russian novels.
But that was not to be.
Yet he fought cancer with the same courage, equanimity, objectivity and utter lack of self pity that he brought to all the many battles in his career.
He took on this biggest battle and was never a coward in the fight.
Roger, your life measured up to your own high standards. You took the high road, and never deviated.
You ‘played the game’ with all your heart and mind, and you played it with dignity and honour.
You have left a marvellous legacy of top quality books, papers, speeches and articles that will continue to patiently persuade and drive the consensus forward.
I salute a great man and feel privileged and honoured to have had such a wonderful friend and colleague.
Rest in peace Roger. Your spirit lives on in the hearts of us here today, your example will always inspire.
Your battle for better outcomes for New Zealanders will endure.
(A speech delivered at the same service by Roger’s brother Alan Kerr can be found here.)