I have a very good relationship with my bank manager. I don’t know how this has come about, since my late-night spend-ups in Auckland bars hardly make me a model of personal fiscal prudence. I’ve even stopped using my bank’s credit and debit cards, and resorted to using cash to pay for my beverage bills. There’s something particularly sobering about having to count out the notes, rather than yelling out my PIN number to the barman when my inebriated eyesight is preventing me from reading the numbers on the EFTPOS keypad.
Despite that, my bank manager and I catch up for lunch every couple of months, whereby he tells me about some of the more dubious financial products on offering, we trade advice on the property market, interest rates, and capital markets generally, and discuss cricket. Somebody in the Bank has made it one of his key performance indicators to keep his customers happy.
In November 2006, Helen Clark was in a spot of bother. So much bother that she called the Government's bank manager.
It happened like this. After weeks of mud-slinging from Labour MPs against National leader Don Brash, in which Labour ministers Trevor Mallard, Pete Hodgson and David Benson-Pope had been spreading rumours of an extra-marital affair among the Press Gallery and in the House, Labour was approaching polling free-fall. Rather than turn on Brash, the public was rightfully blaming Clark for sanctioning bringing MPs private lives into the public debate.
Clark was under intense pressure. Her subsequent allegations—that the National Party was behind rumours surrounding her husband’s sexuality—rumours purportedly spread within law firms, accountancy firms, business groups and golf clubs (!!!), were met with public derision. The PM's public claims that National caucus members were spreading the rumours in the Press Gallery were outright rejected by the very Gallery members who were supposed to have received them.
It all got very heated when a staffer in Helen Clark’s private office received a forwarded email from a friend working at Westpac Bank. The email contained a mock National Party billboard, of the kind the Nats had used during the election campaign. One side of the billboard featured Helen Clark , stating: “My husband thinks I’m sexy!” On the other side was Don Brash, claiming: “Her husband thinks I’m sexy!”.
The staffer printed out the email and showed it to the PM. She went ballistic.
Westpac has a special relationship with the New Zealand Government. Westpac is the Government’s official banker. Every government department, every state owned enterprise, and every government agency banks with Westpac. That represents a very large proportion of the economy.
Ann Sherry chairs the Government’s Growth and Innovation Advisory Board—effectively the PM’s personal ear to the private sector. Helen Clark appointed Sherry to be Chairperson of the Peter Blake Trust. Mark Burton appointed Sherry to the board of the Tourism Research Council. Westpac is the only bank that consistently makes donations to political parties.
None of this is particularly unusual or even slightly surprising. A person of Sherry’s status, with her close relationship to Government, will be appointed to Government boards. It is reasonable to say that nobody outside of Government has as close a relationship to the Prime Minister as Westpac’s CEO.
What was unusual was the Prime Minister’s response to the email forwarded from a Westpac employee to a member of the PM’s private office. Clark didn't get the gag. She called Ann Sherry immediately, and complained. Clark stated that she was deeply offended by it, and she did not think it was appropriate for a person working in the bank to be forwarding such outrageous allegations about her husband.
Sherry responded by saying that she would conduct an investigation, and ensure that the staff member was disciplined.
Westpac’s Chief Information Officer was called in to verify the source of the email, with a clear understanding that the employee would face disciplinary action for forwarding the email on to others.
All Westpac staff received a high-level email repeating email policy to them, while an investigation into staff email use was conducted. It turned into high farce, however, when the CIO reported that not only had he discovered the source of the email that had offended the Prime Minister, but that 181 other employees had received the offending email, and forwarded it on to others both within and outside the organisation. Clearly they saw political humour where the Prime Minister had not. Sherry was asked if she wished to discipline all 182 employees. An embarrassed CEO had to report back to the Prime Minister that no action could be taken without similarly firing a key chunk of Westpac's payroll.
This isn't the first time that the Prime Minister has used her authority, and personal relationships, to bully senior executives into doing as she instructed; but to demand disciplinary action against an employee of a bank that is so entrenched in government business, simply for offending her by passing on an email, is about as outrageous as it gets.