Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Kerr's courageous stances kept Government honest

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Roger Kerr. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Roger Kerr. Photo / Mark Mitchell

'Roger Kerr was a brilliant and courageous New Zealander. He kept Governments honest and took stands when they mattered."

I posted that on Facebook not long after I switched on the radio on Saturday morning to hear Roger had died. His death was expected (he had been suffering from a particularly aggressive metastatic melanoma).

But I was still taken aback as I had just finished reading his latest blog and had been thinking through a couple of questions to pose to him for the Herald's annual Mood of the Boardroom survey in which he had long been an enthusiastic participant.

The fact that Roger produced "Friday Graph: The myth that New Zealand's net indebtedness is a savings story" on the day he died summed up for me that relentless intellectual focus which set him apart from other economists or business lobbyists.

I first met Roger when he was still at the Treasury (my son and his three boys went to Kelburn Normal School).

He was relatively modest about his achievements then. But his work as one of the prime architects of the Treasury's revolutionary Economic Management - the seminal work Sir Roger Douglas used as his blueprint to dismantle "Fortress New Zealand" and expose New Zealand to the free market - illustrated the extent of that influence.

Sir Ron Trotter brought him on board as the Business Roundtable's first (and only) executive director in 1986. He spearheaded business campaigns to reform the labour markets, promote privatisation, and introduce free-market thinking to most sectors of the economy. It's doubtful that the 1980s changes would have been quite so wide-ranging without the leadership of Sir Ron and Roger Kerr in the business sector.

Not all Roundtable members were on song with the organisation's thrust. Brierley Investments then-boss, Bruce Hancox, famously spat the dummy. Kerr was in the wilderness for a while during the Helen Clark big government era of big spending - which he opposed. Some shifted to alternative business lobbies as it was clear Clark would not deal with the Roundtable. But as Kerr said on The Nation this year, "She wanted me fired, but I was determined I'd stay on until she lost her job, earlier than I did."

Most times Kerr played the ball and not the man. He sought in his soft-spoken, gentlemanly manner to directly promote policies rather than denigrate politicians or others with a different point of view.

But not always. Many editors received letters from Roger (usually ending with a "Sigh") which took issue with the strength of their journalistic staff's writings. He alleged journalists who campaigned for the "Winebox Inquiry" were McCarthyist; but reversed that view in later years. Phew!

But the output was prodigious. On Saturday I took a look at my bookshelves. Roundtable publications on everything from fiscal policy, savings, health reform, education - you name, it. All of it still relevant.

Roger, you will be missed.

- NZ Herald

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