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A year of living shamefully: New Zealand's dirty secrets

New Zealand trades heavily on its reputation as a clean, green and progressive small nation. The news is spreading globally that a lot of that reputation is pure spin. We can only hope that even more unfortunate facts don’t emerge – including news about our overpaid elites – that would finally destroy our reputation as an egalitarian society.

If New Zealand’s inherent dottiness and glaring contradictions were ever a local secret, this year they have been paraded for all the world to see.

We often made the overseas news – whether it was because of the poor living in cars and garages in a supposedly egalitarian society, our heavily polluted rivers (and drinking water) in a land we tout as being environmentally 100% Pure, or our high domestic violence rates in a country we like to think of as family friendly.

There were the Panama Papers, reported extensively around the world, that suggested we are a tax haven – an unfortunate impression that is at odds with our longstanding reputation for honesty, transparency and incorruptibility. John Key firmly rejected the “tax haven” tag but we were exposed in the Australian Financial Review, for one, as having been involved in questionable transactions – including setting up accounts for Maltese politicians that some of the world’s dodgiest banks (in Miami, the Caribbean and Panama) wouldn’t touch because of strict disclosure laws for money-laundering politicians.

 In August, we made the news repeatedly in Britain when a former High Court judge threw in the towel on a child sex abuse inquiry. And that was just a month before Key was widely quoted in overseas media – including London’s influential Daily Telegraph – claiming that we need to import 200,000 migrants each year on temporary work visas because many New Zealanders have problems with drugs or their work ethic that means they won’t stick at hard tasks.

Photo / Getty Images

This was an extraordinary public attack by a leader on his countrymen. In fact, like our reputation for incorruptibility, New Zealanders have long prided themselves on their No 8 wire ingenuity, level-headedness and ability to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into a hard job. They enjoy a reputation for exactly that, earned in large part by generations of young Kiwis on their OEs in London and elsewhere.

The PM’s public bad-mouthing of his subjects must have created unsettling cognitive dissonance for those overseas who have employed Kiwis and found their work ethic, reliability and friendliness outstanding. It will also seem strange to those who know that New Zealanders work some of the longest hours in the OECD for relatively low wages to find the country is apparently larded with hundreds of thousands of slackers, many of whom are too drug-addled to work.

But desperate times call for desperate measures. Key was no doubt stung by the public finally working out that the economy’s apparently stellar returns were mainly due to the performance-enhancing drug of mass immigration. In fact, once population increases had been deducted from the blistering 3.6 per cent annual GDP growth announced in September, things weren’t looking so rosy, with per capita GDP growth a measly 0.7 per cent. It calls to mind the statement by Emilio Médici, Brazil’s head of state, in 1971: “The economy is doing well but not the people.”

Backed into a corner by increasing criticism that New Zealand is run as a giant Ponzi scheme that relies on rising house prices and the most expansive immigration programme in the Western world apart from Israel, Key lashed out.

But perhaps the most damaging story to be aired overseas – and one that has run for months in the British media – is that of Dame Lowell Goddard, whose star turn on the world stage as the head of the UK government’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse ended abruptly with her resignation in August. Andrew Lavery, spokesman for the survivors group White Flowers Alba, was reported in the Guardian as saying: “[Goddard] was paid a lot of money, she buggered off and we’ve been let down.”

Lowell Goddard's remuneration made her the UK's highest-paid civil servant. But it was nothing out of the ordinary for top jobs in New Zealand's public service.

This was only one example of a litany of complaints that canvassed her competence, collegiality and staff management. A prominent article about her in The Times in mid-October was headed “Disaster from Down Under”.

Goddard, unfortunately touted as one of our “top judges”, was given a salary and benefits package that made her the UK’s highest-paid civil servant. That immediately ensured close scrutiny from British news media – something she may not have expected given the deference with which the media in New Zealand so often show to the rich and powerful.

She resigned abruptly hours after the media pilloried her for being out of Britain for 74 working days during her first year at the inquiry’s helm, with only 30 days of that being annual leave. (She later explained her departure as being a protest against the unwieldy nature of the inquiry and nothing to do with media criticism; she has also said she was working remotely for the inquiry while absent from Britain. More recently, allegations have been made in The Times that she used racially derogatory language and treated staff badly, which she strenuously denies.)

The details of Goddard’s pay package were reported in the Guardian as a salary of £360,000 a year with a rental allowance of £110,000 a year and a £12,000 utility allowance on top, as well as a government car and driver. She was also entitled to four return flights a year to New Zealand for her and her husband, plus two return flights a year for her family.

The total remuneration came to almost £500,000 ($870,000). It is a package that would count as a king’s ransom by most anyone’s standards, except perhaps New Zealanders’. Unlike the Brits, New Zealanders are so used to our public servants receiving nose-bleed salaries few here would have even remarked on it.

In fact, when Guardians of New Zealand Superannuation boss Adrian Orr was declared in early October to be our first million-dollar public servant, the story made the local news but wasn’t met by the sense of disbelief with which the British press greeted Goddard’s extravagant pay package.

Goddard was reported in overseas news media in October saying: “I was not motivated to commit to this difficult inquiry for money or perks. I was already in receipt of an equivalent salary package in New Zealand, where I had tenure of judicial office until December 2018 and a lifestyle I enjoyed.”

She was candid about how her British salary was set to match the superior conditions she enjoyed in New Zealand: “The discussions about my remuneration began at a starting point of my New Zealand judicial salary and benefits, as I would be relinquishing these in order to take the role. Further tax and cost of living differentials were applied. Deloitte advised me that my gross salary was $NZ604,000 per annum, which amounts in round figures to £350,000 per annum. Judges in New Zealand are paid at significantly higher rates than judges in the UK. I sought from the Home Office an equivalent sum to compensate me in my role as chair of the IICSA plus an allowance for renting in London.”

If British media follow up these statements, they will discover how well paid our elites are. Brief research will show a High Court judge in Britain gets a base salary of £183,328 (equivalent to $NZ311,000 after sterling’s sharp drop following the Brexit vote), while our High Court judges earn $431,000.

The British press made much of the fact that Goddard’s salary was more than twice the British PM’s. Theresa May, who heads a nuclear-armed world power of 64 million people, with GDP of $US2.6 trillion, is paid £143,462 – the equivalent of $NZ244,432. Our PM is paid $459,739 for governing a nation of 4.5 million, with GDP of $US235 billion and a skeletal air force and navy.

Our Deputy PM is also paid substantially more than his British counterpart. And according to a State Services Commission breakdown in late 2015, there are 11 state sector and public service chief executives in New Zealand earning more than $600,000 a year – including Accident Compensation Corporation chief executive Scott Pickering, who earns $760,000 to $769,999; University of Auckland vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon, $680,000 to $689,999; New Zealand Transport Agency chief executive Geoff Dangerfield $660,000 to $669,000; and Police Commissioner Mike Bush $680,000 to $689,999.

All these outlandish salaries are paid, of course, by a nation with a relatively low average wage and per capita GDP. If news about our overpaid public servants and politicians gets out to the world following stories of families living in cars, the demolition of our reputation for being egalitarian will be complete.

Clean green New Zealand? A farm near Tukituki, central Hawke's Bay.
The appalling living conditions of some of our poorest citizens has been extensively documented by Al Jazeera, the Guardian and others. They haven’t gone unnoticed by the UN either. In May, it blasted the government for allowing children to live in cars, as a breach of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child, to which we are a signatory. It requires, strangely enough, that children should be able to live in houses.

In October, UNICEF said it was deeply concerned about New Zealand’s persistently high rates of child poverty.

To add to this slew of poor publicity, Auckland’s grotesquely overvalued real estate has repeatedly made the international news, which is another blow to our image as egalitarian.

And then there is the reporting of our high suicide rates and the disproportionate representation of Maori in our prisons.

A clean, green, family-friendly, hard-working, incorruptible, egalitarian Godzone?… We’re taking a beating out there, folks.

But the international news is not all bad. The All Blacks are (for the most part) in their best form in living memory and Hunt for the Wilderpeople — a nostalgic look at a New Zealand that no longer exists – was praised in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Which proves we can still punch above our weight on the international stage. But possibly not in many areas that really matter.