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On the replaceability of men – Roger Kerr

  • October 31st, 2011

The claim that ‘no one is irreplaceable’ may be comforting or humbling. But it is not true. There are people whose leadership contribution is unique.

To me “great man” theories of history are a better explanation of the unpredictably differing fates of peoples, organisations and causes, than “inexorable march“ theories. ‘Tide of history’ theories seem to me to be largely fatalism dressed in smug hindsight.

Others may step into the shoes of great men and women, and perform admirably, but that does not mean that without them we would have got what they gave us. We can’t know what the world would have been like without Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates or Hitler or Napoleon or Martin Luther but there is nothing inexorable about progress or failure and decay. I was stunned to learn on an archeological tour in Turkey just how much Roman knowledge was lost completely when illiterate warriors over-ran Rome and Byzantium. The Romans had invented concrete, for example. That knowledge was lost for more than a millennium and had to be reinvented.

In Roger Kerr we’ve lost a leader who shaped public debate in New Zealand with unique persistence.

I sometimes disagreed with him, but was always grateful for his tireless work. He never ceased to press for integrity in policy, against privilege. He had genuine ambition for New Zealand to be the best. He had courage and grace under constant fire.

Many who were too timid, or too anxious about their careers to support him when he was vilified nevertheless privately acknowledged his value and honoured that courage. 

Roger Kerr gave New Zealand a “think tank”.  Leaving a prominent role at Treasury to become the Executive Director of the New Zealand Business Round Table, he made it into a privately funded public service organisation. It began as a typical peak body, representing the interests of powerful chief executives and a forum for them to network and to express their collective views on matters affecting their businesses.  

Roger Kerr made it unique in the English speaking world – for its relative indifference to the short term self interest of its members, and for a compensating dedication to the long term interests of New Zealand as he saw them.  He helped to persuade chief executives to see that they shared those collective interests. He required a discipline in their advocacy, starting by distilling first principles.  When there was no proper research he would contract for it, asking what would be most consistent with long term prosperity, resilience, and freedom for New Zealanders.  

The NZBRT became one of the few institutions in New Zealand commissioning social and economic policy research wholly independent of government, and independent of group think and academic pressures for conformity. Check the publication list on the NZBRT website. NZBRT think pieces came to define the views of intelligent and forward thinking business at critical periods of our recent history. Essential reforms in New Zealand were made immeasurably easier by the relative absence of intractable opposition from vested business interests.

 Roger Kerr’s executive leadership of the NZBRT drew from business leaders a regular contribution to public affairs that would otherwise have been sporadic. The NZBRT’s published work has often defined debate. It provided an intellectual framework for reforms that saved New Zealand from its Argentina trajectory two decades ago, including the Employment Contracts Act. Even research that did not result in desired government policy changes could make it intellectually discreditable to change in more foolish directions.

 NZBRT sponsorship of leading international speakers and Roger Kerr’s eminence in the world of ideas attracted beneficial attention to New Zealand. He lead high quality people to spend time on issues important to New Zealand despite our small size and potential irrelevance.  Roger was part of New Zealand’s clout in the world.  

Roger Kerr worked all hours given him. His prodigious output went far outside the traditional interests of a business lobby group. New Zealand could count on him insisting that we address unfashionable issues with rigour, a vital function in a small, timorous society.   

He was always courteous in debate, and plainly respectful even to those who reviled him. I’ll miss his persistence, courage, humour, optimism and irrepressibility.   

He is irreplaceable. 




  • Dave Guerin
  • October 31st, 2011
  • 10:55 pm

Excellent post Stephen. I'm planning to write something too but have to make sure it's up to Roger's standards 🙂

[…] Franks on November 1, 2011 at 2:11 pm said: Irreplaceable – Reply […]

  • Chris Milne
  • November 3rd, 2011
  • 9:53 pm

Stephen, absolutely spot on, as usual.  

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