Sir Maarten Wevers

Audrey Young reports:

As head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, was the man tasked with solving problems. He did it so well he was knighted.

It was the most unlikely venue for a proposal. Prime Minister John Key offered Maarten Wevers a knighthood in the Botswana Butchery, a restaurant in Queenstown. 

Key was giving a speech and had asked Wevers along as one of his last duties as head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Wevers recalls it was probably between the oysters and the lamb that they began reflecting on Wevers’ career, its highlights and his imminent departure.Then the Prime Minister said: “I think you’ve done really well and so does the cabinet and I’ve been authorised to make you an offer which I hope you’ll accept.”

Wevers was like a “stunned mullet” with the offer, as Key described it at a subsequent farewell function. For once, the urbane and unflappable public servant was struck dumb.

I can imagine.

Some will say public servants should not get honours just for doing their job, but I think those who excel at their jobs and make a contribution which helps improve New Zealand significantly should be honoured.

Wevers headed the team of public servants who support and advise the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers – as opposed to the Prime Minister’s Office which supplies personal and political support. The department acts as the ears and eyes for the PM across the whole of Government.

“You are not there to serve their political interest,” says Wevers. “You are there to serve the public interest and to help them to be the most effective Prime Minister they can be.”

DPMC plays an incredibly important role in making Government work.

Wevers has worked for three Prime Ministers – Helen Clark, Key and David Lange.

He organised a highly successful Apec summit in Auckland in 1999 when Jenny Shipley was Prime Minister, and was Ambassador to Japan after learning fluent Japanese.

But it was his less visible leadership in the Christchurch earthquake recovery, the reform of the public service and his expertise in foreign affairs for which the Government was especially grateful, Acting Prime Minister Bill English confirmed.

“He has been a problem-solver for two Prime Ministers through an awful lot of problems, particularly in the intelligence and foreign affairs areas.”

English cited in particular Wevers’ role in “reframing” the relationship with the United States, and over the emerging threat of terrorism “where a lot of it is about judgment and not overreacting.”

Fairly important issues.

Wevers has never forgotten the advice of a former aide to Robert Muldoon and David Lange. “The job of the staff who are closest to the Prime Minister is to create ‘a pool of tranquillity’ around the Prime Minister because you can’t have fuss and flap and tension and yelling going on.”

It is something, according to those who worked with him, that he perfected. Nobody can recall him getting even remotely rattled in his time at the Beehive, and his skill in getting people and agencies to work together are now legendary, especially immediately after the earthquake last year. He could be running up to a dozen meetings a day with heads of various agencies summoned to the Beehive over different issues needing co-ordinating.

After the immediate disaster recovery, the wage subsidy policies which would normally take months to prepare was ready within three days. 

Nothing like a crisis to get things happening.