Meritocracy and Mike

Mike Williams' departure from his government appointments leaves a bad taste and prompts questions about our supposed meritocracy

I suppose the H-bomb story did for him in the end. But Mike Williams' departure from Genesis Energy, GNS Science, and perhaps most crucially, the New Zealand Transport Agency, raises some serious questions about appointments to Crown agencies.

Williams is an intensely political creature. I interviewed him at length for the New Zealand Herald back in 2001 when I called him the Shadow Man. Boy, that changed. He came out of the shadows, but for Labour he often did it at inopportune times. There was the "deep, dark secret" he promised in the 2005 budget that caused hopes rise and, when there was little forthcoming, Labour's poll numbers to fall. Then there was this year's mad trip to Melbourne; a classic case of someone so badly wanting something to be true that he convinced himself in spite of what skeptical good sense may have told him.

That he went after Key personally makes his circumstance slightly different from most other government-appointed board representatives. But, take a step back, and it really is only slightly.

For a start, these people do not report directly to Key, but to share-holding ministers. Williams isn't on a tourist board, where he would answer to Key.

But the more important point is one of principle rather than practicality. I don't think it's naive to point out that if he was able enough to serve in such important positions under several Labour governments, he should be able enough to serve under National. His skills and experience, not his politics, should be the deciding factor. And if he's not able enough to serve under a National government, he should never have been appointed in the first place.

It seems to me that parties can't have it both ways. Either Williams was capable or he wasn't. If he wasn't, what does that say about every other Labour appointment?

However, an open display of political belief doesn't necessarily mean the end for government appointments. Other blatantly political people retain their roles on boards, despite changing governments. David Caygill remains chair of the Electricity Commission, for example. Jim Bolger was appointed to various boards by a Labour government and of course won't be asked to leave by the new government. These are both intensely political people.

Which means Williams' leaving – and his appointment – was personal. Both should be of concern. Clark shouldn't have appointed him because he was a friend and it's just as wrong for Key to remove him – or pressure him to leave – because he is an enemy. We don't have a tradition like the US system whereby the President rewards thousands of people – often financial backers – with government appointments and ambassadorships in far flung places such as, er, New Zealand. And we don't want one.

Sure, there has always been a level of patronage involved, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Just look at Williams' appointment to the board of Transit New Zealand back in 2000. National said it was "pork barrel politics". The Herald at the time quoted then-Transport minister Mark Gosche:

"We've made a lot of appointments regardless of politics ... People's politics shouldn't disqualify them from these positions," he said.
"National seems to have forgotten about the Lotteries Commission and other boards."
(The previous Government appointed its former party president Geoff Thompson as chairman of the Lotteries Commission. A party office holder and National election candidate was also on the board. They were not re-appointed by the present Government.)

So yes, there has been patronage practised by both stripes of government. Further, the immediate-past Labour government was hardly subtle in the way it stacked boards a few months ago before the election. Most notably, former Labour list MP Dianne Yates was appointed to four boards in a terrible act of cronyism. Back in July the DomPost quoted a "Labour insider" saying it was the price to pay for getting another Samoan (Su'a William Sio) into parliament. Ok, there's Real Politik, but that's disgraceful.

So I hope John Key is serious when he talks about appointing people on merit alone. He said on Agenda yesterday, "I think you can expect to see us follow through on that". I sure hope so. Perhaps an utterly independent appointment board, Prime Minister, removing it entirely from political hands?