There isn’t anyone I have known who could match the enthusiasm and energy that Roger Kerr brought to his work. I have had the privilege of working with quite a few highly principled individuals involved in public policy work - people who are clearly motivated to a large extent by the belief that they are contributing to the greater good of society. Roger stands out, however, as a person who always seemed to be enthusiastic and optimistic – he seemed to respond to setbacks by increasing his efforts to obtain better outcomes in future. It was obvious to everyone that he had a passion for presenting his views clearly, logically and forcefully, but it would not have been obvious to casual observers what was motivating him.
In his role as executive director of the New Zealand Business Roundtable (NZBR), for the last 25 years, Roger was perceived by some people as a free market ideologue. It is evident from various speeches he gave, however, that he was somewhat bemused (if not annoyed) by that description. In a speech he gave in 2005 he suggested that to characterize policy proposals as either ‘ideological’ or ‘pragmatic’ is at best a confusion and at worst a rhetorical trick that appeals to anti-intellectualism as a substitute for serious argument. He made the point that everyone involved in the debate about public policy argues on the basis of some set of principles or ideas, whether or not they are conscious of them or make them explicit. He also suggested that serious policy debate cannot proceed unless ideas are articulated and tested. His support for free markets was not unbounded. It was based ultimately on pragmatic grounds – evidence that free market outcomes are generally superior to the alternatives. I think Roger viewed himself as a principled empiricist.
In his eulogy to Roger, Bryce Wilkinson, who worked closely with him over many years, mentioned that Roger seldom spoke about his motivations and never wore his heart upon his sleeve. Bryce notes that at some point early in his career as a diplomat - when Britain entered the EEC - Roger decided that New Zealand's economic decline was in fact largely self-inflicted. That prompted him to transfer to the New Zealand Treasury in 1976 and to relaunch his career doing an economics degree part time. Roger’s interest in economic policy was prompted by a desire for New Zealanders to be able to enjoy more prosperous and satisfying lives. Bryce provides evidence that Roger cared particularly about the effects of bad policies on those who are most vulnerable.
Bryce argues that Roger's optimism was based on his belief that ideas actually matter in policy debates. In support, Bryce referred to an essay that Roger wrote on the subject of ideas, interests and policy advice on leaving the Treasury in 1986.
I have just re-read the version of this essay that was published in ‘World Economy’ in June 1987. In this article, Roger argued that economic policy advisors should be aware that they do not have a comparative advantage in making judgements about what courses of action might or might not be politically feasible.
Perceived political constraints are not always immutable. They can be shifted by reasoned analysis and well-constructed strategies for policy change … . Second-guessing political reactions can lead to a narrowing of policy options and does less than justice, in recent New Zealand circumstances at least, to the intelligence of a number of politicians, on both sides of the political fence, who have been more aware of the gravity of New Zealand’s economic problems and prepared to tell the story like it is than many of their advising bureaucrats’ (pp144-5).
Roger also noted the importance of institutional structures in determining policy outcomes:
‘There is an important role for public information, open government, policy transparency and public inquiry processes in order to expose to critical scrutiny the claims of special interest groups and the performance of bureaucrats (including the propensity of some of the latter to act as taxpayer funded lobbyists for some of the former)’ (p 150).
Roger also made the claim ‘that the emergence of interest groups with broad representation, which are thus forced to take more of an economy-wide view, may be a source of influence which is more coincident with the interests of the community at large’ (p 150). That claim might seem excessively modest in the light of the subsequent performance of the NZBR – but Roger played an important role himself in ensuring that the NZBR maintained an economy-wide focus. A decade ago, New Zealand Institute of Economic Research chairman Michael Walls said of Roger:
‘No single individual has done more over the last 15 years to persuade important parts of the business sector to support economic policies which, though often contrary to the interests of individual ﬁrms, were in the interests of the country as a whole.’
Roger was motivated by a desire to play a part in promoting policy reforms – to avoid further economic decline and to enable New Zealanders to enjoy greater economic opportunities. He was enthusiastic because he knew he was fighting the good fight and he was optimistic because he knew that good policy evaluation and advice can make a difference. Above all, Roger was motivated by the impulse to ensure that his life was meaningful.
I urge readers to take a look at the many personal tributes to Roger that can be found on his blog.