Every government relies on attracting good, capable, top-drawer people from the private sector to serve on boards overseeing the work of vital public agencies.
These people are not politicians and enticing them to work in the public sector is not easy. Transport Minister Phil Twyford has just made that task harder with a gratuitous slur on retiring members of the board of the New Zealand Transport Agency.
He'd already had difficulty finding replacements for directors whose terms had expired a while ago. Chairman Michael Stiassny resigned early, others were persuaded to stay on in the interim and a couple of temporary directors were appointed in February.
But when he finally announced a new board, it looked like a thorough clean-out and, invited to explain it in those terms, Twyford couldn't help himself.
"What we're doing is cleaning up the mess that National left after nine years of NZTA under National's leadership," he answered, accusing the agency of "not doing its regulatory job properly, not keeping New Zealanders safe on roads" and running "a completely unbalanced transport policy that spent 40 per cent of the budget on new motorways…"
The last point is to the board's credit. Those new motorways include Auckland's Waterview tunnel, its northern gateway, new motorways in the northwest and southeast of the city, the Waikato expressway, motorways into Tauranga and Christchurch and a start at last in Wellington's Transmission Gully.
The outgoing board of the NZTA has presided during five years of rapid population growth and congestion is no worse than it was before the immigration surge. That is success. Astute transport planning anticipates public demand, it doesn't fight it.
This Government might have a different philosophy but it, more than most, relies on appointed people to do its practical thinking.
It's a popular misconception that seats on appointed boards are sinecures for party hacks, "jobs for the boys". Some may be but it's not until you know someone on a board such as the NZTA that you get an idea of the time and study required.
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The reading alone would fill my week. Then there's the frequent travel to Wellington for meetings, all the while trying to continue contributing to the company or profession that provides their financial security.
As for their political allegiance, cynics might be surprised. Directors are appointed to do a careful, objective job and I doubt their personal political leanings enter the equation. I know that was true of National appointees and I think it is probably true of the new board Twyford has appointed despite his parting shot at the previous directors.
Twyford holds them responsible for regulatory failure over vehicle warrants of fitness inspections but let's get that business in perspective. The agency was guilty of trying to educate substandard issuers of warrants rather than come down hard on them. It's an approach this Government favours on other subjects, notably drugs.
In any case, the NZTA has more important things to do. Warrants of fitness were important when we had protected vehicle assembly that produced grossly overpriced cars and we kept them far beyond their natural life. These days we hardly ever need to lift the bonnet.
The agency's primary task is to decide where to invest the revenue collected through all the taxes we pay for driving motor vehicles – fuel taxes, heavy road user charges, vehicle licensing fees.
Together those charges more than pay for the national road network and it is vital to the efficient functioning of an open trading economy that the money is invested in transport infrastructure that can continue to generate a measurable return.
For that reason the agency has to be allowed to make its decisions at a healthy distance from governments of any stripe.
Politicians love transport projects because they are highly visible to their voters. Even though projects are chosen by the agency on proper cost-benefit criteria, the Transport Minister and local MPs insist on being photographed turning the first sod.
But real pork barrelling is rare. The National Party's promised bridge replacements in the Northland by-election, when Simon Bridges was Transport Minister, was a shameful exception.
These days the political threat to the economy's transport efficiency comes mainly from those who want to plunder the revenue generated by roads and put it to transport modes than cannot pay their own way.
Twyford asked the previous agency board to take on his plan to put light rail on Auckland streets. It had been taking its time on it.
The new board took its seats last Monday and next day announced work would start on a new motorway over the Manawatu Gorge. Other major roading projects may be in the pipeline but I hear the agency has been instructed to schedule no more.
If so, that will leave a real mess.