Michael Wintringham looks the very model of the typical mandarin; the quintessential, charcoal-suited public servant who blends seamlessly into the grey landscape of the Wellington bureaucracy.

The State Services Commissioner inhabits a world where personal mannerisms are limited to the occasional raising of eyebrows, not hems.

Flamboyance is not part of the job description. That is strictly the domain of politicians, whose stars flicker briefly and wane. The public service lives forever.


Continuity demands conformity, but the drabness disguises ambition and ruthless competition between some of the country's top brains.

The battlefield is the interdepartmental committee meetings, where ministries fight for their recommendations to be rubber-stamped by that most powerful committee of all - the cabinet.

The litany of who's up and who's down is dissected at gossipy Wellington dinner parties. But it is a world where private lives are kept just that - private.

Asked yesterday to provide some personal details, Mr Wintringham would only reluctantly confirm that he is separated from his wife, to correct any misapprehension that he might be divorced.

Less well known is that this supposedly colourless bureaucrat, ensconced in the public service since 1970, is restoring a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He has a collection of 1960s and 1970s rock music; he reads detective novels.

But he remains the conventional bureaucrat, honed in the public servant's necessary arts of fudging, jargonising and euphemising - someone who remains in the background and does not allow himself or herself to become the target for Opposition politicians to exploit.

That was the rule Christine Rankin either ignored or never understood.