A long time ago – 1978, to be precise – I wrote an article for The Listener that began something like this: “A funny thing happened at the Department of Maori Affairs recently. They put a Maori in charge”.
The article was about Kara Puketapu, who had the distinction of being only the second Maori to be appointed as head of the department charged with looking after Maori interests.
Today it would be unthinkable for Te Puni Kokiri, as it’s now known, to have a non-Maori in the top job. To appoint a Pakeha would be seen as an intolerable affront to Maori and a throwback to the days of patronising colonialism.
It would be argued that only a Maori could properly understand Maori needs, advise the government on policies affecting Maori and, perhaps most crucially, identify with the people he or she was supposed to represent.
You might well wonder, then, why New Zealanders continue to meekly accept the appointment of non-New Zealanders to the highest levels of both the public and corporate sectors. Surely the same arguments apply.
We haven’t had a British governor-general since the 1960s and we abandoned the right of appeal to the Privy Council 15 years ago. This suggests we feel capable of looking after ourselves. Yet we continue to see a stream of overseas appointees to powerful positions – a notable recent example being the naming of an Australian, Caralee McLiesh, as the secretary to the Treasury, a job that places her at the very heart of economic policy-making.
McLiesh replaced another outsider, the Englishman Gabriel Makhlouf, who left under a cloud after being roundly criticised by the State Services Commission for his handling of an embarrassing Budget leak earlier this year.
The appointment of a virtually unknown Australian raised eyebrows around Wellington. Blogger Michael Reddell, a former top official of the Reserve Bank, found it disturbing that twice in succession, an outsider with no knowledge or experience of New Zealand had been recruited to fill what he described as the premier position in the public service.
Reddell said he didn’t think it was appropriate to recruit foreigners, especially ones with no experience or background knowledge of New Zealand, for such critical roles.
Even more disturbing was the appointment of the British academic and left-wing activist Paul Hunt as Chief Human Rights Commissioner.
The human rights role is a particularly sensitive one because it calls for someone with an intuitive understanding of our unique heritage and values. It’s inconceivable that an English academic, and a highly politicised one at that, was the most suitable candidate.
Similarly, you’d think we might have recruited locally for the position of CEO at Te Papa, an institution that supposedly reflects what it means to be a New Zealander. Yet we’ve now had two British appointees in the job, both of whom have created disruption and resentment by pursuing their own vision of what Te Papa should be.
That leads me to another danger with overseas appointees. Many have no emotional stake in New Zealand or long-standing commitment to the country. They are free to screw things up and move on without so much as a backward glance, leaving whatever damage they have done for someone else to clean up.
This is equally true in the corporate sector, where Fonterra, the ANZ Bank and Fletcher Building have all had to mop up after high-flying but seriously flawed CEOs recruited from the Netherlands, Australia and Scotland respectively.
In academia, too, we have had to suffer the consequences of questionable appointments from overseas. I’m thinking in particular of Massey University’s vice-chancellor Jan Thomas, who deservedly copped a backlash for assuming powers of political censorship on campus. What right did an Australian veterinary scientist have to dictate what opinions New Zealanders should be exposed to?
Another intriguing phenomenon, which I suspect is related, is the high proportion of foreign-born activists at the forefront of radical politics in New Zealand. Examples include the career peace protester Valerie Morse, the abortion rights advocate Terry Bellamak, the anti-poverty campaigner Ricardo Menendez-March and the vociferous Guled Mire, who keeps complaining about our supposedly racist immigration policies.
Such people bring with them an ideological fervour that is alien to New Zealanders, who are essentially a complacent and contented lot. Because we tend to be passive and polite, we make it easy for shouty, highly motivated outsiders to push their way to the top. But they don't speak for us.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. This article was first published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz.