Graeme Martin has been described as everything from a
compassionate, principled, visionary genius to an inflexible,
stubborn, demanding taskmaster. Bruce Munro examines pieces
of the puzzle that make up the influential, complex and soon
to retire chief executive of the Otago Regional Council.
"I shan't forget a very large fist waved very close to my
face" Graeme Martin says.
He is sitting in a comfortable chair in a corner office with
city, harbour and peninsula views.
Three hundred and sixty kilometres and 45 years separate him
from what happened that day in the Addington railway
But there is no denying the edge to his voice.
"A fist waved in my face because I was working too hard."
It was an important lesson for the young man, but more of
When Mr Martin closes the office door behind him on November
2, he will be six months shy of 20 years as chief executive
of the Otago Regional Council (ORC) and the second-longest
serving regional council chief executive in New Zealand.
He'll also be a week shy of 64.
Regional councils nationwide were in their infancy when he
took up the role in the first quarter of 1993. Since then,
the ORC has grown to become an organisation with assets worth
$430 million, including the $271 million Port Otago, and an
annual budget of more than $32 million.
10 elected councillors plus a chairman and 130 staff and the
chief executive oversee policies and regulations that affect
such fundamental aspects of life for Otago's 201,700
residents as air quality, water quality and allocation, land
use, coastal activities, land transport, pest management, and
natural hazards such as floods, droughts and soil erosion.
During the past two decades Mr Martin has taken a leading
role advising on ORC policy and ensuring its implementation
across the full gamut of Otago's varied and significant
natural and physical resources.
On his watch, the ORC was the second regional council to
establish a fully operative water plan and the first to have
a full suite of statutory plans covering water, air, region
Among myriad projects and programmes, Port Otago's property
holdings were established as Chalmers Property, which has
invested in Auckland and Hamilton property worth more than
$60 million; an insulation and clean-heating subsidy
programme has run in towns with air pollution problems;
databases have been created to aid the region's economic
development; public transport has begun in the Wakatipu
basin; and management of water resources is being devolved to
Ministerial appointments have seen Mr Martin reviewing
roading funding, advising on pest management and heading the
South Island high country land tenure review.
Nationwide local government roles have included developing a
management strategy for varroa mite, and being the spokesman
for the RCD (rabbit calicivirus disease) Applicant Group.
In all of this, Mr Martin has earned staunch supporters,
vehement opponents and more than one convert.
When ORC chairman Stephen Woodhead was a newbie at the
council table in 2004 he thought Mr Martin was "inflexible
and too hard at times".
But through working closely with him, particularly when Mr
Woodhead became deputy chairman in 2007 and then chairman in
2010, he gained a rather different take on his chief
"I now understand that he puts an enormous amount of time
into research and thought when dealing with issues," Mr
"He's a magnificent ... strategic thinker and innovative
problem-solver who understands the long-term drivers of
That thinking and those solutions are always strongly
expressed, Wellington-based Murray Sherwin says.
Mr Sherwin is now chairman of the New Zealand Productivity
Commission. But as the chief executive of what was then the
Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, he used to meet
quarterly with Mr Martin and other regional council chief
executives to thresh out resource management issues.
"Graeme consistently demonstrated a deep knowledge of, and
strong commitment to, issues of water and soil conservation,
and their place in the promotion of sustainable economic
growth in the region," Mr Sherwin said.
could count on him to have a view - strong-minded and
independent, forcefully and effectively expressed - but also
ready with a pragmatic solution to the problem of the day."
Farmer and long-term Maniototo Irrigation Scheme chairman
Geoff Crutchley's first contact with Mr Martin was in the
early 1980s when the latter was head of the Ministry of
Work's regional water and soil division. It did not begin
The government scheme to irrigate the Maniototo had
collapsed, abandoned 40% complete, Mr Crutchley said.
"We were pretty grumpy and he was in the hot seat. We did
have some arguments ... It was a difficult time," Mr
But then, when a truncated irrigation scheme ran into more
difficulties a couple of years later, Mr Crutchley said he
found Mr Martin "very helpful".
Their interactions continued.
The farmer now rates the chief executive "second to none" on
"He's done a hell of a good job ... I think they [the ORC]
are further down the right track than any other regional
council," he said.
It is not that the man himself has changed, former Port Otago
chairman John Gilks says.
Mr Martin always resisted pressure from councillors for him
to be appointed to the port company's board - which would
have blurred lines between council ownership and management
of Port Otago - and always had a clear appreciation of the
need for the port to be operated as a successful business, Mr
Gilks, who was Port Otago chairman for 11 years from 1999,
"In many ways he was an ideal person for the role -
intelligent, willing to work with the detail of the
legislative framework, but also a pragmatic commercial
person," Mr Gilks said.
"No. The Graeme I was introduced to was the same Graeme who
spoke at my farewell."
ORC councillor Gretchen Robertson, however, points to a
sea-change moment several years ago.
In 2005 it was reported former employees blamed Mr Martin's
authoritarian management style for the council's high staff
turnover at that time.
Mrs Robertson, who had been a council employee in 2001 and
was elected to council in 2004, said Mr Martin responded by
apologising to staff.
"Graeme spoke openly to staff in the tea room ... [and]
apologised for coming across too strongly, for being too
demanding," Mrs Robertson said.
respect anyone in a position of power who is willing to take
a close look at themselves and say 'I could do this better',
then goes on to prove they indeed can."
She also says in apparent contradiction to his "very strong
leadership style" and "intimidating" persona he has been "a
pillar of strength and support" to staff and councillors
facing personal crises.
"When health issues entered our family's life Graeme was
there, an arm around the shoulder, offering any support he
It is a congenial and reflective Mr Martin who sits in his
corner office of the ORC building in Stafford St, Dunedin one
afternoon, less than a month before his retirement.
He has been recounting growing up in beautiful rural Nelson
in the 1950s and '60s.
The second of four children, whose father was an orchard
worker, he recalls as a young "hard science" scholar being
given an appreciation of physical geography by his fifth-form
geography teacher, Mr Bulett.
At 16 he was inclined to leave school and take up an
auto-electrical apprenticeship, but his grades were good
enough to see him off to the University of Canterbury on a
New Zealand Railways scholarship to study mechanical
engineering. And so he comes to the end of his first year at
university, three weeks into a summer of work at the railway
workshops, when he was intimidated by a threatened worker.
"It was the hardest thing - to look busy while I wasn't," he
It was a defining experience.
He switched to a bachelor of science degree, majoring in
physics. Efficiency, effectiveness and efficacy became a
After graduating, he was employed by the Ministry of Works
and Development as a hydrologist.
And while many other issues have occupied him during a
15-year career with the ministry in the 1970s and 1980s,
followed by roles as chief executive of Nelson-Marlborough
Regional Council and Plunket in the early 1990s, ministerial
appointments at various times and his 19 years with ORC, it
is his work with water that repeatedly bubbles to the surface
His position with ORC has in fact been three jobs, he says.
"I wouldn't still be here, if it hadn't been."
The first was getting the fledgling organisation "seriously
established and moving ahead".
The next job was implementing the new laws, such as the
Resource Management Act, in an Otago context.
"And the third, which is the only reason for the first two,
is to enable futures".
Take, for example, water, he says.
In his opinion Otago, almost more than anywhere in the world,
had turned its back on water.
"In the goldrush era water served a utilitarian role, rather
than an aesthetic and valued role.
"A lot of water law came out of gold mining and continued
that way for almost a century"Now it is cherished ... It's
required a big mind shift to get to where we are today."
That turnaround, like all the council's achievements, has
entailed opposition and conflict, he says.
The council's Otago sesquicentennial and millennium projects
to link people to water - such as Dunedin's Customhouse Quay,
the Arrowtown walkway and Alexandra to Clyde trail - were all
opposed before becoming "runaway successes".
"That's why you have to be philosophy and values-driven. A
lot of things have been opposed which people wouldn't be
And the aim of it all is to create a better tomorrow, he
The council's water plan, and recent changes to it, are
designed to let communities manage their own water resources
in a sustainable, flexible way that facilitates economic
"It is different to where others have gone," he says.
"It is important we do what is good for Otago, and do it
"Rules and regulations normally lock people into a
straitjacket. We want the direction clear and the detail open
to allow tomorrow to happen, because we don't know the detail
of tomorrow today."
Basil Chamberlain has known Mr Martin for more than 30 years.
The chief executive of the Taranaki Regional Council since
its inception in 1989, agrees Mr Martin is a complex
character and says "he is not a simple man to get to know".
But the man he has come to know is a principled, highly
intelligent, strong advocate for Otago.
"I don't think Otago people might appreciate how staunch he
has been for Otago," Mr Chamberlain said.
"He played some pretty hard D [defence] for local
decision-making and for frameworks that best serve Otago."
In the face of opposition he had always had the courage "to
take things forward".
"Time will tell whether some of those decisions are right,"
Mr Chamberlain said.
"In a lot of things there isn't a right and wrong. But having
made a considered decision you have to make it work."
Characteristically, Mr Martin sees it a bit differently.
"There is nothing we've needed to recant or withdraw. To me
that's the success," he says.
"For staff and councillors it's not easy. The hard thing is
to do what is right for our community."
And what has it been like as chief executive walking that
"It's been an enjoyable challenge. At times it can hurt, and
it can hurt a lot."
He dismisses any talk of a legacy.
"I don't want a legacy. There are regional council
achievements of which Graeme Martin is pleased to have been a
part of the team.
"I've thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of working with this
council which is open to such a visionary, parochial
Mr Martin says he has willingly given the job 110%.
"In our marriage I am the bigamist. Velma married me, I
married her and my job. It's not necessarily the best way."
So once he hands over the reins to New Zealand Seafood
Industry Council former chief executive Peter Bodeker on
Friday, Mr Martin plans to be "110% out of here".
There is a tendency in all of us to return to our roots, he
For Mr Martin that means retiring to 5ha of land at
Earnscleugh where he has been planting an orchard.
"It's just to entertain me. There will be plenty of fruit to
give away to friends. The birds and the bees can have the
But it does not mean stagnating. He also plans to travel and
to dust off the golf clubs, kayak and fishing rod.
"I'm looking forward to retiring - to Velma and I doing a few
more things together.
"Time still has to be in short supply. Just what you do with
it is different."
A brief work history
1969 to 1986 - Ministry of Works and Development water and soil
research and management in Christchurch, Whangarei, Wellington,
1987 to 1989 - Otago Catchment Board general manager.
1989 to 1992 - Nelson-Marlborough Regional Council chief
executive 1991 to 1992 - Ministerial Review of Roading Funding
chairman 1992 to 1993 - Royal New Zealand Plunket Society chief
executive 1993 to 1994 - Ministerial Review of the
Sustainability of New Zealand's South Island High Country
1993 to 2012 - Otago Regional Council chief executive 1994 to
1996 - South Island Sustainable Land Management Research
Advisory Committee chairman.
1997 to 2003 - New Zealand Pest Management Strategy Advisory