Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio programme each week features Playing Favourites,an opportunity for Kim to talk to someone about their life and some of their favourite music.
This morning, somewhat unusually, it featured Girol Karacaoglu, Chief Economist and Deputy Secretary, Macroeconomics at The Treasury. Girol is the one senior manager at The Treasury with a strong professional background in economics and so should be a key adviser to governments.
He has an interesting story – growing up in Turkey as the child of Armenian and Lebanese parents, studying in Hawaii and ending up in New Zealand in the early 1980s (where he was one of my lecturers at Victoria). And even the shift from hardline “monetarist” – 25 years ago he used to routinely harass the Reserve Bank for insufficiently cleaving to Milton Friedman’s approach – to now what I might characterise as “activist OECD social democrat“. But it seemed quite unusual for a very senior serving public servant to be appearing on such a show while still in office, and all the more so as the discussion turned to policy issues. Top public servants should be largely invisible, as advisers to ministers, and not making a public case for their own policies, preferences, priorities and frameworks. Not once did Girol mention that the role of public servants is to provide advice, and analysis, to help frame issues for ministers and then to implement ministers’ decisions. Instead we got commentary on the unfortunate political situation in Turkey (what must MFAT have been thinking as they listened?), his views on foreign purchasers of Auckland houses, advocacy of a particular model of policy coordination (fiscal, monetary, and prudential), and, of course, a championing of The Treasury’s Living Standards Framework, the somewhat amorphous social-democratic idea that Treasury has been toying with for the last decade.
At its best, the framework restates the obvious point that GDP isn’t everything (who ever thought it was?). More generally it articulates, not always overly well, a quite ideological (social-democratic) basis for active government policy. As one candidate vision in the contest of ideas it might be plausible, but we usually leave that role to political parties and think tanks. Girol and Treasury don’t, of course, see the framework as ideological, but it clearly reflects a view of what matters, and what should be valued, that would see Treasury being more comfortable with a Labour-Greens type of government than with, say, a National-ACT one. That is a difficult position to be in, since Treasury needs to have the confidence of whoever is in government. But it is not helped by the decision to have so senior a figure out in public advocating his own views and approaches. Perhaps fortunately for Girol, the interviewer herself is fairly leftish in her persuasions, and in her questioning, so nothing that he was saying was very aggressively challenged or questioned.