John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Where's a decent leader when you need one?

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Sir Wilson Whineray remains the model captain - sensible, modest, decisive, resolute. Photo / Richard Robinson
Sir Wilson Whineray remains the model captain - sensible, modest, decisive, resolute. Photo / Richard Robinson

Who would be a politician? Put an occasional personal expense on the business card and you are a front page rogue.

You will be on television that night trying to explain quite reasonably that it was a mere convenience and you subsequently settled the account.

But since John Campbell still seems morally concerned you are liable to abase yourself by cutting up the damn card on camera.

Who would be a politician? None of the people I hoped might come forward now that Auckland is to be a united city and its mayor seriously powerful.

The mayor will have the only seat representing the whole city, with its own staff and funds and power to fill the leading chairs of council committees. It will draft the city's budget. The seat was designed for a genuine leader.

Where is he, or she? Where is, say, Sir Wilson Whineray? When the business lobby that pressed for a single local body suggested it would attract a higher calibre of leadership I always imagined Whineray.

He led the All Blacks in my childhood and remains the model captain - sensible, modest, decisive, resolute. He has been a business leader for much of the rest of his life, for the same reasons I suppose.

Over the years I dare say he has rebuffed countless invitations to put his qualities to public service by standing for a political office. But who would stand when they observe the sort of thing that happened to Len Brown this week?

Public accountability is rough, and considering what tumbled out of the previous government's expenses a day or two later, it needs to be rough.

But it also needs a sense of proportion. The Mayor of Manukau used his office card rarely, Shane Jones did it habitually, and notably for a purpose that exposes his judgment to questions far more damaging than his means of payment.

Ministers, mayors and company executives are probably running up incidental expenses all day long. You don't have to be responsible for a very big organisation before you find yourself shelling out for all sorts of little things.

If you don't have means of easily charging the expense to the organisation you pay for it and, often as not, the sum is too small to bother yourself with the paperwork of reimbursement.

Small things add up and for anyone running a big organisation a charge card is only fair. Auckland Mayor John Banks can forswear a card but if he is being reimbursed for every blessed expense it is probably false economy for the ratepayers.

Any decent, self-respecting leader of business or professions, watching these newsfests on political expense accounts, must wonder why anyone volunteers for public life. That is the invisible price we pay for severe, sometimes unfair, scrutiny.

The price is visible to those who have to recruit capable managers for public utilities. They know how much more money they have to offer to compensate for exposure to aggressive public coverage.

The price of appointments to the agencies that will run the united Auckland's transport, water and other services, has undoubtedly risen as a result of select committee amendments to the Super City legislation.

Those organisations should be run openly and their leaders should be directly answerable to the council but the reporting of their work will often not accord with their view of it. Sometimes it will be impervious to reason, sometimes wilfully obtuse, always it must be sceptical and suspicious.

It is easy to say that any leader worth electing will accept the test but we are not getting very good leaders. Those whose job it is to prosecute politicians must occasionally wish their prey was not such easy meat.

Watching Campbell and Brown the other night I had the impression the inquisitor was almost willing the candidate to do better.

Where do I find a candidate with the stature to meet petty questions with indifference? If he happened to have a hotel stay and a supply of household groceries on his council card there would be a tedious circumstantial reason each time.

Leadership expresses itself in an unspoken self-confidence and sound judgment that others trust. It is hard to find that confidence in a candidate who slices a credit card on television to appease critics.

The stunt had obviously been suggested by a tactical adviser. Both Brown and Banks sound too scripted for this election.

The mayor I want would recognise advice he should ignore. Four months to the vote, is it too late for hope?

- NZ Herald

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