This Government has never had much time for the NZ Superannuation Fund set up by the previous Government. It suspended contributions in its first year, which was justifiable when it was facing Budget deficits. But now it is celebrating four years of projected surpluses, it is still not about to resume contributions. It considers its options to be faster debt reduction, additional social spending or tax relief, possibly all three. But not another dime, it seems, for the "Cullen" fund.

So it should be no surprise the Prime Minister has publicly attacked the increase in remuneration awarded by the board of the fund to its chief executive, Adrian Orr. This is, after all, election year and executive salaries are an easy target for parties that profess to be worried about inequality and widening income gaps. Bill English must sense the Government is vulnerable on the subject and probably calculates there could be no better way to neutralise the issue than to criticise an increase awarded in a business set up by Labour.

But he picks a poor target. The Super Fund under Adrian Orr has performed well with no additional capital for eight years. With sound investments, it survived the global financial crisis and recession and the fund has built to $33 billion, on which it earned $5.4 billion in its latest year. When set against that return, the chief executive's 23.4 per cent rise, taking his annual taxable income past $1 million, could be seen as reflecting his value to the business.

The board certainly sees it that way. Chairwoman Catherine Savage called it, "fair, competitive and appropriate given the nature and complexity of the role". She said it is not out of line with the chief executive's international peers. English accepts that point, and even accepts Orr's performance has been among the best in the world. "The discussion we've had about the pay is no reflection on the performance of the fund or the professional or managerial competence of the board," he said. So what is it about?


It is about the Government's inclination to interfere in the managerial decisions of a competent board. When he was Finance Minister, English declined a potentially higher increase the board wanted to award. The Super Fund guardians are not the only board of a Crown entity he has in his sights: he warned this week "Any board that takes a different view [to the Government] when it is a 100 per cent subsidiary, takes risk about [its] tenure ..."

As a sole shareholder, a government is within its rights to sack a board for any reason, but the usual reason it would do so would be for a poor financial result. So long as the board and management are producing good shareholder returns, their remuneration would not matter to a purely commercial shareholder.

A government is not a purely commercial shareholder but it is supposed to try to act like one for the good of a public enterprise. When it lets political considerations overrule business decisions, the enterprise is bound to suffer and the public is the ultimate loser.