Editorial: Two fighters for the public good

Today we recognise not one but two outstanding contributions to society in 2006 as our New Zealander of the Year. A cop-out? No, an acknowledgment of courage and achievement which our judging panel just could not separate.

The award is shared by a man and a woman who stood their ground for taxpayers and consumers in the face of power and pressure from entrenched interests: Kevin Brady, the Controller and Auditor-General, who faced unprecedented public, political and personal pressure over his findings on political parties' election spending; and Paula Rebstock, chairwoman of the Commerce Commission, who took on some of the country's biggest corporations and institutions, to the benefit of consumers.

In both cases the determination of these officials to focus on the greater public good rather than expedient or comfortable solutions sought by their antagonists had tangible benefits for New Zealand. In plain terms, they kept the buggers honest.

Paula Rebstock's Commerce Commission this year intervened in the affairs of some of our largest businesses, including Telecom, Transpower and Vector, the airlines over advertising, Carter Holt Harvey, the banks and credit card companies. At times those moves were controversial, condemned by business lobbies as heavy-handed and a disincentive to investment in this country.

Yet the reasoning of the commission under Ms Rebstock was consistently pro-market, not the reverse. Her actions helped to confront distortions or dominance which either did or could work against the interests of consumers and open markets. For many years New Zealand was a Wild West of ineffective regulation. This commission chairwoman has firmly wiped that perception from our economy.

Mr Brady's unwavering line on political parties' misspending at the last general election placed him in the equivalent of an official's nightmare - cast as an opponent of the governing parties and publicly attacked for both his thinking and for speaking out. To his everlasting credit, he stayed true to his convictions on the Labour Party's $800,000 of unlawful spending and produced a final report that did not suffer from the watering down so common in the public consultation process. The Prime Minister, her deputy, Cabinet ministers and, to their shame, the leaders of some minor parties, used all the latent menace and pressure they could muster, but Mr Brady, an officer of Parliament, continued to say what he felt to be right. His stance will have a lasting benefit for taxpayers and voters. Election spending rules will be tightened and the blurring of parliamentary funds and parties' own money must end.

Paula Rebstock and Kevin Brady head our list, but eight others who showed notable spirit or achievement for the benefit of the public are also saluted. These 10 came from a long shortlist of around 55 people who were considered by the panel of senior editors. This exercise is always subjective and, of course, open to challenge. Yet the final 10 have all achieved and/or contributed to New Zealand's year in remarkable ways. We have taken an open view on the technicality of New Zealandness: For example, Paula Rebstock is originally from North America and Anita McNaught is British and resident in London.

The panel also took an independent view from the separate judging of the Herald's sportsperson and business person of the year. As it happens, those honoured in both those categories are not in the overall final 10. This does not diminish their achievement, but others were deemed to have had a broader constituency for what they brought to 2006.

Once again, we have excluded politicians. Their omnipresence in our lives and our media means that, for good and bad, they dominate public life.

Today we look beyond that to those who inspire, with big hearts and a courageous nerve.

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