Michele Hewitson interview: Roger Sutton

By Michele Hewitson

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief Roger Sutton isn't always suited. Photo / Simon Baker
Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority chief Roger Sutton isn't always suited. Photo / Simon Baker

When former Orion power head Roger Sutton's appointment to head the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority was announced last year anyone would have thought that he was some sort of white knight, riding in (on his bicycle) to save the city.

Somebody wrote to the Press: "I could have cried tears of joy." He was described as a beam of light. What would it be like interviewing a beam of light? I wondered. "You'll like him," said his media manager. "He's funny."

The other thing that is almost always said about him is that he is quirky. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. Does he? "I didn't write it." But what does he think it means? He thinks it means that he doesn't always wear a suit and often rides a bicycle.

So it was like going to interview a god, if a god sometimes wore a very smart pin-striped Working Style suit (and didn't appreciate being asked where he got his suit), and had shaggy, longish-for-a-god-turned- bureaucrat bike helmet hair, and said f*** rather a lot.

On the way to the Cera offices, I asked the taxi driver: "Is everyone still head-over-heels in love with him?" He said: "No." That was a relief. It's an odd sort of relief to him too, and inevitable. He's an engineer and knows that things that go up inevitably come down - in this case he is that thing.

"If you're very popular, by definition, you can only ever go down from very popular." (I asked another taxi driver on the way back to the airport and he said: "He seems a reasonable egg.") Still, it must have been very strange. "It's very humbling and you knew it would be downhill from there and I accept that. I'm relaxed about that." Still, it might have been tempting, and possibly only human, to go around thinking: "Wow. I'm a big beam of light?"

"No! I would have much preferred that it hadn't been nearly as hyper as it was but there's nothing I could do about it and I'm very proud to have got this job. I feel very privileged. I really do."

I told him about the taxi driver, and a comment from the Cera website which said that he is now "wheeled out like some sort of old aunty at a wedding" , before vanishing again. You could get less hypey than that, so that might have cheered him up. He doesn't seem to mind being compared to an old aunty at a wedding; he was a bit miffed at the accusation that he's not as visible as he ought to be.

Being visible, and straight-talking and available is the reason he was such a popular choice. He is supposed to be the great communicator, I said, later, wonderingly. I was really talking to myself. He said: "You're telling the story, honey."

He phoned me the next night because he felt he hadn't answered some question I'd asked about leadership. He hadn't because I phrased it in a way which made him sigh. Most things I asked made him sigh, or swear, or say "God", and "this is so personal". Anyway he wanted to say that leadership was about giving other people confidence. Well, good.

Glad we cleared that up. I asked him during that phone call how long it took him to bike to work and he said 20 minutes, so I asked where he lived in Christchurch, and he told me but then asked that I not say where he lived because people would ring him at home, because he's in the phone book. If he's in the phone book people can already ring him at home.

He said, well, there were a number of Suttons in the phone book and I said, well, if anyone really wanted to ring him at home they'd just ring all of the Suttons until they got the right one. He gave another of his enormous Eeyorish sighs and said: "I'd forgotten what you were like."

I'm unlikely to ever forget what he's like because he nearly drove me mad. He did drive me to say that he's the most annoying person I've ever interviewed. He said, incredulously: "I'm the most annoying person you've ever met?" No, interviewed, not met, which is another thing altogether.

Our ridiculous interview was not altogether his fault. He is, as we all know, a very busy man and he has a city to rebuild. He said: "What's the topic today?" He was. "Oh God." Then he started his sighing. He had been left a list of "talking points", which I had a look at and then tossed on the floor (he's supposed to be quirky, so I thought I'd test the limits of his quirkiness.

And if I'd wanted to interview the Cera website, I'd have stayed home and done so.) None of the talking points were about him. He said, apropos of nothing that I can recollect: "You're trying to goad me into saying something inappropriate." Was I poking him with a big stick? He suddenly leapt up and said: "I've got a hooligan bar over here." He produced a great heavy metal thing used for getting into buildings, and offered it to me, but I felt he would rather liked to have used it on me.

He said: "You've got these awful questions." How would he know? His idea of being interviewed (or putting off being interviewed) was to ask questions: Where did I live, and where would I like to live, and who was the last person I interviewed and who was the person before that (he wrote this down on a piece of paper.) And did I ever go skiing? No.

"Never?" No! "I'll take that as a maybe." Yes, very funny. My "no" answers, in an attempt to get things moving, were a mistake. He decided this was a very clever way to answer questions, which might have been funny, had he not been the one who was supposed to be being interviewed.

When he ran out of "no" answers, he began putting my questions about him to the photographer. That was when he wasn't trying to go off the record, which is a real politician's trick and a waste of everyone's time. He is married to the former journalist Jo Malcolm and he says she sometimes makes observations, one being: "That I talk too much." And does he? Absolute silence. Yes, very funny.

I'd asked him about money - he famously took a $200,000 pay cut, from $700,000, when he took the Cera job - he got really twitchy and sighed some more, and said: "I'm very well paid." He wouldn't tell me what he spends money on (suits, obviously.) Was he funny about money? "No." I said: "Okay. Funny with money", which was to pay him back for the skiing jibe. I do think he is a little thin-skinned about earning so much money.

He is the son of an Anglican minister and is a Christian and believes in duty and being a good person, none of which means that a person might not aspire to, and enjoy, making a lot of money, but it might just niggle, a bit, with him. Or perhaps he just felt goaded into telling me that he'd offered to take the Cera job for half of his Orion salary.

I belatedly realised that he is a politician. How good a politician is he? He said, "I'm okay at it." Here's an example of how good he is. Does he get on with Gerry Brownlee. "Yes." Does he like him? "Yes." I thought he was a Lefty. "No." Is he a Greenie (like his sister-in-law, Robyn Malcolm)? "I've got some Green values."

So, he's Right-wing? "I'm not going to be put in a box. I've got a mixture of friends from all different sorts of backgrounds." Is Brownlee a friend? "I mean, we get on well. I don't think you call your employer a friend." You might become friends along the way. "We can be very straight and honest with each other." Does he think the minister is funny? "I enjoy his company and occasionally he tells me off for clowning around." Do they clown around together? "Off the record ..." No. Does he clown around more than the minister? Silence.

He is used to being the big boss. He now heads a government department, if a very unusual one. I wondered if he'd had to change his style, a fairly easy sort of question, I'd have thought. But no, he moaned about that one too. "I should have had someone to help me with this ..." he said, plaintively, looking about the room as though somebody might miraculously materialise to help.

He dredged up an answer which is that, in a Cabinet committee room, he's, "had to learn to that I am, you know, a minor player in the room." He is usually the boss. "One is the boss, or you're absolutely amongst peers." And how does his ego cope? "My ego copes just fine." I said I was glad to hear it and he snorted and said: "I'm sure you weren't."

Cera turned a year old last Thursday and there was cake and wine. He had a glass of orange juice because he had to get on his bike and go and do more work things. His idea of a relaxing weekend was the one he had last weekend which involved "hardcore" tramping with his mum, and family. He does sometimes have a glass of wine but, "I'm not going to talk about whether I've ever been drunk or not drunk." Sigh. That's a personal question.

He rides his bike everywhere and is rumoured to turn up at formal occasions in his bike gear. And he takes a fresh shirt so that he is "hygienic". Well, thank goodness. His media manager had threatened to make me go on a bike ride with him (no thanks) and I feared he would be in lycra and the prospect of interviewing a man in lycra is even more horrifying than the prospect of interviewing a god.

He was in his good suit, so he'd made an effort, to a point. He had his jacket off (he put it on for the pictures) and his shirt, hygienic though it undoubtedly was, didn't look as though it had seen an iron that morning. He kept coming untucked at the back. He is a busy man and he looks like a busy man who tears around the place, coming untucked, from time to time. I just wish he'd come a little more untucked with me.

Never mind. Even tucked in, he's not boring. "I enjoyed meeting you," he said, at the end of that phone call, sounding like a man who had just had all of his teeth removed with a hooligan bar. He was so annoying I certainly wasn't going to tell him that I did, actually, enjoy meeting him. And, oh all right, he is funny, but nobody encourage him.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n2 at 22 Jul 2014 19:58:36 Processing Time: 619ms