Just a couple of days after the election, Graeme Wheeler’s term as Governor of the Reserve Bank expires and Wheeler will leave office.
In the normal course of events, a new appointment of a permanent Governor would long since have been made. But as officials belatedly realised late last year, and as the Reserve Bank Board had eventually to be directed to recognise, a new permanent appointment of someone to take office in late September could not be made in the run-up to the election, without breaching the conventions that govern how the period around elections is handled.
I’d been drawing attention to the issue for 18 months or so, and had suggested that the practical solution would have been to have invited Wheeler to accept a short extension of his term, allowing whoever formed the new government after the election to make their own appointment. We don’t know whether Wheeler wasn’t willing to consider that, or whether the Minister of Finance wasn’t, but there were no legal obstacles to such an extension. And yet it didn’t happen.
Instead in early February, the Minister of Finance announced that he was appointing the existing Deputy Governor (and deputy chief executive) as acting Governor for six months after Wheeler’s departure. Spencer in turn had indicated that he would not be seeking permanent appointment and would retire at the end of the acting Governor period.
There is provision in the Reserve Bank Act for an acting Governor in some circumstances. Thus, when in 2002 Don Brash resigned in the middle of his term to enter politics, Deputy Governor Rod Carr was appointed as acting Governor for a few months.
But ever since the Spencer appointment was announced I’ve been raising questions about the legality of this appointment (I have no concerns at all about Spencer himself). There was this post on the day the Spencer appointment was announced. And then a later post outlining the argument in more detail. The gist of the argument is that the wording of the Act appears to provide for an acting Governor only when a vacancy arises in the course of a Governor’s term (as happened in the Brash/Carr case), and not when a Governor’s term expires and the Minister decides, for whatever reason, not to make a permanent appointment for a time. Not only do the words naturally lead to that interpretation, but the overall context (the way related bits of the Act are designed) suggests that that was indeed Parliament’s intention in using those words.
I lodged OIA requests with the Reserve Bank Board (responsible for recommending appointees), the Minister of Finance, and with The Treasury (principal advisers to the Minister of Finance). The Board’s response was both obstructive, and indicative of how badly they appear to be in breach of the Public Records Act. But, as usual, the response from Treasury was much more helpful. In this post, I outlined the considerable amount we learned about the process from the papers Treasury released. But The Treasury withheld the advice they had received from Crown Law on the lawfulness of various aspects of the appointment, and there was not even any report of the Crown Law reasoning in any of the policy advice documents.
The protection of legal professional privilege is grounds for withholding documents under the Official Information Act, and is widely used by officials to keep the thrust of legal advice confidential. But this ground for withholding, like several others, is subject to a caveat
unless, in the circumstances of the particular case, the withholding of that information is outweighed by other considerations which render it desirable, in the public interest, to make that information available.
The Ombudsman had relatively recently highlighted this provision, and on occasion had ordered the release of either the legal advice itself, or a full summary of that advice. And so I appealed to the Ombudsman against Treasury’s decision to withhold the legal advice. I didn’t really expect to get the advice itself, but I wanted to understand the reasoning and argumentation Crown Law had provided in support of the Minister of Finance’s decision. And since it involved an appointment to a position holding very considerable discretionary power in a number of policy areas, it seemed to me that it would be in the public interest to make at least a summary of the advice available. After all, if there were doubts about that lawfulness of the appointment, that could undermine confidence in the Bank’s action, and its capacity (during the term of a purported acting Governor) to exercise (for example) its crisis management powers.
And, somewhat to my surprise, the system worked. In a post at the time, in April, I lodged the appeal I noted
I suppose it will take some considerable time for the Ombudsman’s office to get to this request – perhaps even after the acting Governor’s term has ended – but with the possibility of reviews to the Reserve Bank Act governance provisions in the next couple of years, it would still be valuable for this advice and intepretation (in full or in summary) to be put in the public domain. This is, after all, about the appointment and accountability provisions for the most powerful unelected public office in New Zealand.
But last Friday the Ombudsman’s Office rang to inform me that after discussions between the Ombudsman and Treasury, Treasury had agreed to release a summary of the Crown Law advice. The Ombudsman’s office assured me that, having seen all the orginal opinions themselves, it was a fair and representative summary of the advice. Since I only ever really expected to obtain a summary of the advice, I agreed to discontinue my appeal for the full advice. An hour or two later, the summary of the Crown Law office arrived in my email in-box. Only five months after the original appeal was lodged, and before the (purported) acting Governor takes office. I was impressed, and grateful that Treasury did not seek to drag the matter out longer (which they could have done). I’m not sure why they changed stance, but perhaps they recognised that with the changeover only a couple of weeks away, there might well be further questions about the lawfulness of the appointment. If so, it would be desirable to have the Crown case in the public domain. Perhaps too they had noticed reports of Grant Robertson’s concerns about some of the Reserve Bank appointments this year (I’m not sure if he has concerns about lawfulness, but he might reasonably be disgruntled at not being consulted over the appointment of a very powerful public official to commence work on the third working day after the election). Spencer might be (purporting to be) acting, but in that role he would have all the discretionary policy powers of the Governor.
The document I received from The Treasury is here.
Macroeconomists often don’t have much to do with lawyers and legal opinions. But I’ve had more than more my share, both in various regulatory and markets role over the years, here and abroad, but also for the last nine years as a trustee of the (somewhat troubled) Reserve Bank staff superannuation scheme. There are good lawyers and poor ones. And even from decent lawyers there are good and persuasive opinions and poor ones too. In just the last six weeks, I’ve read a very persuasive opinion on an issue where I was initially inclined to (and would have preferred) the opposite interpretation, and an opinion – the conclusion of which I was inclined to agree with – where the reasoning left a great deal to be desired. We’ve had cases where draft legal opinions have come back and we’ve had to point out that the lawyers have simply overlooked key considerations that seem relevant, and so on.
Ours is an adversarial legal system, where in each side of any particular case, there are lawyers arguing the interests of their clients. Whatever the truth is – whatever the final judicial decision is – there is no particular reason to expect it to be captured in a single opinion from a lawyer arguing the interests of his or her client. In this case, the Minister of Finance wanted to make an acting appointment, of Grant Spencer, and Crown Law’s advice appears (see those earlier documents linked to above) to have been sought quite late in the piece, to backfill a political and bureaucratic preference. It is what in-house lawyers do – and that is the role Crown Law serves. Sometimes they will say “no you just can’t do that” but often enough they be casting around for a half-plausible interpretation to enable the client to do what they want to do anyway, perhaps especially when the risk of an actual court challenge is low.
Which is all by way of saying that I didn’t find the Crown Law reasoning persuasive. I didn’t really expect to, but I was curious to see what arguments – or precedents – they would mount. In fact, I was surprised by how thin and unconvincing their reasoning was. I’m now more worried than ever that this major public appointment will be unlawful and, therefore, that real doubts will hang over the lawfulness of any Reserve Bank actions taken by the (purported) acting Governor during the next few months.
Crown Law notes, by reference to a couple of Supreme Court cases from last decade, that under the Interpretation Act 1999
The meaning of an enactment must be ascertained from its text and in the light of its purpose
As the Supreme Court noted,
even if the meaning of the text may appear plain in isolation of purpose that meaning should always be cross checked against purpose in order to observe the dual requirements
In this case, both the text and the purpose work in the same direction, towards the same interpretation. And that interpretation isn’t the one Crown Law places on the relevant provisions of the Reserve Bank Act. In fact it highlights the limitations of legal opinions when the lawyers concerned are not intimately familiar with the legislation concerned and with the policy purposes behind the relevant provisions.
Section 48 of the Reserve Bank Act allows the Minister, on the recommendation of the Board, to appoint an acting Governor
for a period not exceeding 6 months or for the remainder of the Governor’s term, whichever is less
The plain meaning of the text “in isolation” is that an acting Governor can be appointed if a vacancy arises during a Governor’s term, but not if the Minister and Board simply don’t appoint an acting Governor. After all, on 27 September there is no “remainder” of any Governor’s term, and the relevant term limit is “whichever is less”. There is no number of days – let alone months – less than zero.
Ah, but, argues Crown Law, “the scheme of Part 3 of the RBNZ Act indicates that there is to be a Governor at all times”. This assertion governs much of the rest of their advice. If there has to be a Governor at all times and a permanent appointment hasn’t been made, a temporary (acting) appointment must be able to be made, and “whichever is less” is of no account.
Actually, I’d agree that the Act envisages there being someone with the powers of Governor at all times. But the Act’s wording appears to be designed so that there can be an acting Governor – if an unexpected vacancy arises during a Governor’s term – wielding those powers, but that in the normal course of events it is up to the Board and the Minister to get on and make a substantive appointment so that a new Governor is in place at the end of the old Governor’s term. There is no provision, express or implied, for the Minister and Governor to evade those expectations and restrictions. (It might, in some cases, be desirable for there to be such provisions – for exactly a case like this, where the election date falls near the end of the outgoing Governor’s term, but there isn’t. Laws as passed are not always written in the way that, with hindsight, we might prefer.)
The Crown Law people appear to have realised that a key aspect of the Reserve Bank Act is operational autonomy in respect of monetary policy. But they don’t seem to have appreciated – they certainly don’t mention – the explicit precautions Parliament took to prevent that autonomy being eroded through the appointments process. Thus, any new Governor must be appointed for five years. The initial appointment cannot be shorter, even if some superb candidate turned up and was only available for four years. Without a restriction of that sort, it will have been reasoned, the Minister and the (Minister-appointed) Board could get together and appoint someone for six months or a year at a time, rolling over those appointments if appropriate depending on the extent to which the Governor heeded the Minister’s preferences. It simply can’t be done, under the Act as it stands. An existing Governor (but only he) can be extended for a short period, but of course that person will already (by construction) have served at least five years in office.
Thus, for Crown Law to be correct – in claiming that the Minister and the Board are free to appoint an acting Governor for up to six months even when there is no remaining term to complete – they are effectively arguing that one of the key provisions of the Act – that specific five year initial term – can be effectively subverted by a succession of six-month acting appointments. These are extreme illustrative examples, but my point is not that this is what was intended by the Spencer appointment, but that it is what the law must allow if Crown Law is right. Since the plain words and the purpose of the relevant provisions of the Act take us in the opposite direction, Crown Law simply must be wrong on this point.
I have also argued previously that there is no statutory provision for the signing of a Policy Targets Agreement between the Minister and an acting Governor. That makes sense on my interpretation of the Act because on that interpretation, there can only be an acting Governor when an existing gubernatorial term has been unexpectedly interrupted. Thus, a Policy Targets Agreement is signed “for that person’s term of office” (section 9) before a Governor is appointed. And when Don Brash resigned his term still had another 17 months to run, and there was already a PTA in place for that term. Thus when the Minister appointed Rod Carr to be acting Governor for a few months of that remaining term, there were already policy targets in place for the Bank, signed by the person whose term Carr was partially completing. There is nothing comparable from 27 September this year, since the PTA Wheeler signed with Bill English in 2012 will have expired the previous day.
Crown Law attempts to get round this by asserting – and it is simply an assertion – that acting Governor “is the Governor”. If he is the Governor, there must be a PTA signed with him before he is appointed. But they offer no statutory support for this proposition (acting Governor “is” Governor). After all, the Act talks of an acting Governor having the powers and responsibilities of the Governor, but still maintains a distinction between the two titles. If there was no distinction, there would be no need for the acting Governor statutory provisions. But Parliament chose to make such a distinction, and must have intended something thereby. And it seems to have done so because of the emphasis Parliament placed on having all actual gubernatorial appointments be for five years. There is no provision in the Act for an acting Governor to sign a PTA, because the Act clearly envisages (literal wording and policy purpose) that an acting Governor would be appointed only during the unexpired portion of a term of a substantive Governor.
Anyway, you can read the summary of the Crown Law advice yourself. Perhaps you’ll be persuaded. I’m not. It would appear that (a) an unlawful appointment is about to be (or has already been) made, and thus the Reserve Bank will have no lawful head after Graeme Wheeler leaves office on 26 September, and (b) that the document Grant Spencer and Steven Joyce signed on 7 June, which purports to be a Policy Targets Agreement under section 9 of the Reserve Bank Act is, in fact, no such thing.
If so, not only will the Bank have no lawful head on 27 September, it will have no Policy Targets Agreement to guide and constrain any monetary policy actions it takes, or purports to take, over the period from them until the new permanent Governor takes office. Even if my interpretation were finally to be shown to be wrong in law, the fact that it is a plausible interpretation – I would argue the most natural interpretation, consistent with the provisions of the Interpretation Act – should raise serious concerns, and leaves some doubt hanging over the ability of the Bank to act effectively over the next few months.
Quite possibly, the Bank won’t need to do much in that time. Markets don’t expect the OCR to change, and it doesn’t seem likely that debt to income limits will be imposed either. But circumstances can change quickly. We might have a new government in a couple of weeks, and the Labour Party has indicated a desire to have the Bank focus on unemployment as well as inflation. A natural step in the early days of such a new government would have been to seek a change in the PTA to make that expectation explicit, pending a subsequent change in the Act. But what, formally, is the status of the existing document, let alone any new one Grant Robertson might seek to put in place? Can he override (section 12) a purported PTA which isn’t a real PTA? (In any case, shouldn’t the Opposition have been consulted about the 7 June purported PTA, given that it was an action being taken, to come into effect after the election to shape the conduct of macro policy for the first six months of any post-election government’s term).
The sad thing about this whole episode is how unnecessary it was. First, if Graeme Wheeler had been persuaded to stay for another six months, there would be no legal uncertainty whatever. If that couldn’t happen, a simple one-off amendment could have been made to the Reserve Bank Act to allow for this specific acting appointment, with a sunset clause such that the provision lapsed next March. At this point, neither option is possible – Wheeler is off to take up his directorships, and Parliament doesn’t sit before 27 September. For the time being, we – and institutions directly regulated by the Bank – will simply have to live with the uncertainty, hope that no difficult decisions arise before a substantive appointment is made. And perhaps the Minister – whoever he or she is – might need to be prepared to legislate quickly if circumstances should turn nasty and the need for greater certainty becomes apparent (one wouldn’t want the exercise of crisis management powers being tested through the courts for years to come).
It has been pointed out to me that section 51 of the Reserve Bank Act allows the Governor to delegate any of his functions and powers to the Deputy Chief Executive and
Any such delegation, until it is revoked, shall continue in force according to its tenor, notwithstanding that the Governor who made it may have ceased to hold office.
In principle, so it might be argued, since Spencer is now the Deputy Chief Executive, the outgoing Governor could delegate all his powers to Spencer as deputy chief executive, and such a delegation would continue to be valid even though the Governor who gave the delegation has ceased to hold office.
It is an interesting idea. But according to Board minutes released to me previously, the Board has already recognised that from 27 September the other Deputy Governor, Geoff Bascand, will be the deputy chief executive, replacing Spencer – who presumably would not then have those powers.
It is the sort of issue that would seem to need a good lawyer’s advice. Can a delegation remain in force not just if the Governor who gave it is no longer in office, but if there is no Governor at all (and recall that the Act puts almost all the powers of the Bank in the hands of the Governor).
It is a mess. And a quite unnecessary one, if only the process had been better managed by the Minister of Finance, the Reserve Bank Board, and The Treasury from the start.
(PS. Incidentally, were Crown Law to be correct that an acting Governor had to have a new PTA before he or she could have been appointed, Michael Cullen and Rod Carr would have been in breach of the Act in 2002. This isn’t compelling on its own – people do make inadvertent mistakes – but it is illustrative as to how the relevant provisions of the Act have previously been read.)