(A slightly shorter version of this column was first published in The Dominion Post, December 1.)
A pervasive culture of entitlement and self-indulgence seems to have taken root in some of our public institutions.
At its most egregious, it can be seen in the case of Nigel Murray, the disgraced former Waikato District Health Board CEO who treated himself to $218,000 worth of unauthorised spending on personal travel and expenses.
By comparison, the extravagant restaurant bills totted up by Peter Biggs and Chris Whelan, respectively the chairman and former CEO of the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency (Wreda), are a mere bagatelle. But it’s only a matter of scale.
Inquiries by this paper under the Official Information Act flushed out the information that Biggs and Whelan had given their Wreda credit cards a thrashing at some of Wellington’s classiest restaurants.
Is this anyone else’s business? Too right it is, because Wreda is largely funded by Wellington ratepayers.
Biggs has since paid back $4673 – this, after Wellington mayor Justin Lester blew the whistle. Biggs’ restaurant bills included $875 for dinner with New Zealand’s London Trade Commissioner and his wife, a $585 dinner with Wellington City Council chief executive Kevin Lavery and a $318 dinner with Derek Fry, also from the city council.
No restaurants were named in the Dominion Post report, but I think we can safely assume we’re not talking about Burger King.
The fact that Biggs voluntarily repaid the money suggests that after talking to Lester, he had second thoughts about whether his spending was justified. But before his own taste for fine dining became public, he was unapologetic about Whelan’s expenses (which he had approved), and defended his former CEO’s right to bury his snout in the city’s poshest troughs.
According to Biggs, Whelan’s selfless hard yakka over the fine white linen table cloths at Logan Brown, Zibibbo and Shed 5 produced measurable results. It had helped attract a call centre and Singapore Airlines to Wellington and generated business for Westpac Stadium.
When asked whether Whelan really needed to put 36 Bluff oysters on his credit card at Shed 5 (cost: $216) in order to secure that new business, Biggs rather testily rebuked the reporter for taking a “cynical” view.
The spending could be looked at as a way of showcasing Wellington’s “vibrancy and sophistication, and also building collegiality”, he said. “It depends on whether you know how the real world works.” Hmmm.
Here we get to the heart of the issue. In the “real world” that Biggs inhabits (his background is in advertising), it has become accepted wisdom that lavish lunches and dinners are an indispensable part of doing business.
This suits the participants splendidly. They all fete each other and then justify it by insisting it’s generating business or “building collegiality”.
And because everyone does it and expects it, it becomes self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. No one ever questions whether it’s necessary. Why spoil things?
Biggs gave the additional justification that Whelan’s job involved showcasing the Wellington region’s cuisine and wine. Well, of course. That’s all the excuse anyone needs to slurp some of New Zealand’s most expensive wine. “We’ll try the Martinborough Vineyard pinot noir next, waiter.” There’s $155 gone, right there.
But hang on a minute. Biggs’ explanation that it’s all about promoting Wellington unravels when you consider that an $1100 dinner for 10 at Zibibbo was for the boards of Wreda and its subsidiary agency, Creative HQ. After all, you hardly need to promote Wellington to people whose job is to, er, promote Wellington.
Presumably the dinner in this instance qualified as “building collegiality”. But to most people it just looks like an excuse to have a grand time at someone else’s expense.
In the light of Biggs’ previous comments, you also have to wonder what business he generated for Wellington by dining with Lavery and Fry. I mean, he surely didn’t need to convince them – council executives both – of Wellington’s “vibrancy and sophistication”.
Fry, incidentally, is now the interim chief executive of Wreda after Whelan stepped down earlier this year. In this role, Fry will be expected to curb the excesses of which he has previously himself been a beneficiary. It all looks decidedly clubby.
As for Lavery … well, some of us remember an era when town clerks cycled to work carrying a paper bag containing luncheon-sausage sandwiches and a granny smith apple. Now they’re called chief executives and, in Lavery’s case, pocket more than $400,000 a year. Can’t he afford to buy his own lunch?
Part of the problem is that Wreda is one of those agencies that inhabit the nebulous territory between the public and private sectors. And while Wreda has “rules” on how entertainment money is to be spent, they are loose enough to allow very liberal interpretation – which is exactly what seems to have happened on Biggs’ watch. We’re left with a clear impression of a culture where a sense of entitlement was rampant.
The traditionally frugal public-sector ethos doesn’t stand a chance when it has to compete with the temptations presented by a corporate credit card. To put it another way, what CEO with pretensions of grandeur is going to choose a sandwich in the office over lunch at Logan Brown? After all, this is the real world we’re talking about.