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Stepping up for infrastructure

Earlier this year Owen Gill stepped into the position of CEO of Infrastructure NZ. He talks with Mary Searle Bell about his career thus far and the experience and skillset he will bring to the role.

Owen Gill says he is fortunate in that he is “good with both words and numbers”, understanding economics and is able to communicate well.

He graduated from Victoria University with a BA in political science and a post-grad diploma in public policy, getting a big career jump in 1992 when he landed a job working for Helen Clark as a political advisor.

“I was young – in my 20s – when I joined the office of Helen Clark. At the time, she was deputy leader of the Labour Party and deputy leader of the opposition, under Mike Moore. But not long after, in late 1993, Helen was catapulted into the top role, and I went along with her, becoming her chief press secretary.

“The following two years were pretty spectacular – it was a wild and exciting ride.

“New Zealand was in the process of transitioning to proportional representation. All political parties were in transition and new parties were forming. All the leaders were trying to adjust to the new system.

“When I left her office four years later, I was much wiser and far more worldly than when I joined.”

Owen’s next roles were as communications manager for the State Services Commission, then Watercare, then the BNZ.

In 2007, he moved to Australia.

“It was in the swing of a strong economic boom and was a big source of business growth. I, like many other Kiwis, saw the opportunities there and was drawn across by the excellent job prospects.”

While in Australia, he studied for an MBA while working in regulation, among other things.

His roles in that time vary from leading microeconomic reform programmes for ASIC (Australian Securities and Investments Commission) to that of speech writer to the chairman of ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission).

“I enjoyed seven years of a really good economy but then hit the crossroads all expat Kiwis face – do I stay or do I go? I knew that if I stayed, it would be for good.

“I could see it was a turning point in my life, and I opted to return home.”

In 2014 he joined the FMA in Auckland, leading a communications team focused on deepening understanding of the regulatory agenda and what it means for regulated professions, financial services providers, investors, and retail consumers.

From there, he has held a variety of specialist roles focusing on policy, regulation and implementation, working with the likes of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Conservation, and the Law Society.

“Over the past 10 years I’ve worked with a wide array of sectors, from financial services to consumer regulation.”

Owen believes the skills he has honed thus far will serve him well in his new role with Infrastructure New Zealand.

“I was attracted to this role because it’s a big New Zealand story. 

“Any infrastructure we build impacts the whole of the country – we’re not large enough for regional or subregional infrastructure. Something like the Auckland Harbour Bridge has an impact on the whole economy.

“The other thing I like about infrastructure is that it’s a ‘long-run’ story. The big projects are many years in the planning, design and build. 

“The strategy of infrastructure is hugely important and tremendously exciting. Big infrastructure has 30-50 year horizons. It has multi-generational payoffs so needs a robust long-range strategy to ensure the things we build will pay off years down the track.

“I’m fortunate that Steven Selwood did such a great job in setting up the organisation. I want to keep that going, but build on it; adapt it for radically-changed times.”

Owen says his experience in policy will be an advantage.

“We’re a membership body, and I am committed to our 140 members, but we have a policy and think tank attached. Infrastructure has to be built under policy to ensure it is the right structure for the job.

“The playing field has shifted recently. During Covid, social and economic life changed, and much of it forever. We know that infrastructure is going to be critical in the post-pandemic economic recovery. 

“It’s worth noting that the current finance minister is also the infrastructure minister, which reflects the importance of the sector.

“Looking at the water sector in particular, there is some $700 million of Local Government proposals for water infrastructure thanks to Te Aro Wai. I don’t believe it is widely recognised in the community just how big or extensive this is, or the impact it will have on both the public and water providers, particularly those in the regions.

“The water sector has faced some pretty tough questions in the past few years, and I give kudos to the government for bring both the money and the regulatory reforms to tackle the problems – often it’s just changes to the rules without the funds to make those changes. But we’ve got the money, and the reform itself is a bold and imaginative piece of policy.”

Owen says the need for the reform was really brought home to him at Christmas when he drove from Auckland to Coopers Beach in Northland. 

“That trip impressed on me why it was so important.

“To go from the city with its two million ratepayers and commercial and industrial economy funding a single, sophisticated water provider, to Kaipara, with its large geographical area and small rating base of just 20,000, which nearly bankrupted itself 10 years ago with the Mangawhai sewerage scheme’s massive debt blowouts really threw things into perspective. 

“Kaipara is only 80-90 kilometres from the Sky Tower, yet it’s a whole other world.

“Then further north, in Northland, they have a massive land area with a number of small centres – it has a large agricultural spread and a small rating base and many people using private bores for water. And again, it’s only a few hours from Auckland.

“I can see the strong need for national standards, however, to deliver the reforms we need good capital investment.

“I’m looking forward to getting to know the water sector better – its people and its challenges – and working together to ensure we build world-class infrastructure.  LG

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