(Lack of) transparency at the Orr Reserve Bank

Since I have to spend a large chunk of the day at the Reserve Bank –  among other things, checking out how serious the Governor is about customer focus and about remediation when customers have problems (among the things he claims the right to demand from banks and insurers) in the case of the superannuation fund the Bank (=Governor) sponsors –  it seemed fitting to have a brief post focused on a Reserve Bank issue.

Long-term readers will recall that the previous Governor was notoriously secretive, except when it suited him.   Among the things he always refused to release were any minutes of any meetings of the Governing Committee (him and his two or three most senior staff).  The Governing Committee had been set up by Graeme Wheeler, and was sold to the world as the forum in which major decisions were made –  whether monetary policy, regulatory policy or whatever.   You might suppose that the records of such meetings would be of considerable public interest, and it is common internationally for the minutes of the meetings of any body responsible for monetary policy to be published, with a (typically) quite short lag.  But Graeme Wheeler seemed to think there was no legitimate case for such material to be released –  his model was that he should be obliged to tell us only what he wanted to tell us, how he wanted to tell it, and when he wanted to tell it.  That isn’t how the Official Information Act works, but that consideration never seemed to much bother the then-Governor.

But that was then.  Wheeler has left, bearing his CNZM, and we have a new Governor.  He talks a good talk about communicating more or better with outside audiences.  We’ve even had cartoons to help illustrate official documents, and at one press conference I think the assembled journalists were greeted in four languages.

So he seeks to build an impression of a more open Governor –  including by his (ill-judged)  willingness to talk freely about all manner of things that aren’t his responsibility.  And almost simultaneously with the Governor taking office, the Minister of Finance announced reforms he plans to legislate later in the year.  Under those (inadequate) reform proposals, there will be a statutory committee to make monetary policy decisions and –  fulfilling a Labour Party campaign pledge –  the minutes of the meetings of that new Monetary Policy Committee are to be published.  I’m sure that, if the Minister sticks to plan, they will be fairly anodyne minutes, but the indication has been that the minutes will outline any differences of view (even while not putting names to views or votes).  It will be a step forward when it happens.

And so, going into last month’s Monetary Policy Statement I noted that the new Governor could perhaps show his seriousness about being different from his predecessor, and get ahead of the forthcoming legislative provisions, by beginning to publish now the minutes of the Governing Committee (for meetings relevant to that MPS).   Ideally, as I noted, he would also pledge to publish the background papers for each MPS with a suitable lag (perhaps six weeks).

Nothing was forthcoming with the release of the Monetary Policy Statement –  just the cartoons, multi-lingual greetings (and a document itself that seemed to go down well with market economists).  So I lodged a request for the minutes of the Governing Committee meetings relating to the May MPS.

And last week I got my response.

…the Reserve Bank is withholding the information for the following reasons, and under the following provisions, of the Official Information Act (the OIA):

  • section 9(2)(d) – to avoid prejudice to the substantial economic interests of New Zealand; and
  • section 9(2)(g)(i) – to maintain the effective conduct of public affairs through the free and frank expression of opinions by or between officers and employees of the Reserve Bank in the course of their duty.

As advised previously, the Reserve Bank recognises the tension between disclosure and confidentiality and has considered your request in light of that tension. Public disclosure, in summary form, is essentially what happens with monetary policy decisions in a carefully considered media release and the full text of the Monetary Policy Statement. The process of deciding what to publish in these documents recognises and balances the tension between disclosure and confidentiality.

In other words, exactly the same approach adopted by the secretive and defensive Graeme Wheeler, and nothing is released at all.  Thus:

  • the date of the meeting,
  • the place the meeting was held,
  • the attendees at the meeting,
  • confirmation of the minutes of the previous meeting,
  • any subheadings outlining the nature of material discussed at the meeting,
  • and the final OCR (itself already published in the MPS)

all, in the Governor’s view, had to be withheld to protect the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand” or to protect “free and frank expression”.  I wonder if the Governor was worried there might one day be a debate about what day of the week it was.    The claim is so absurd it is hard to believe that serious people –  required to operate according to the principles of the Official Information Act –  could make the claim.  But the Governor does.

I can barely imagine a circumstance in which disclosure of material in such minutes could undermine the “substantial economic interests of New Zealand” (NB these aren’t the same as the “economic interests” of the Bank), especially when released several weeks after the MPS to which the discussion relates.  We aren’t talking about imminent bank failures here.  But perhaps there are such circumstances, in which case specific deletions  could be made and justified under this subsection.  Officials make such specific deletions every day (although not commonly, I gather, under this particular provision of the OIA).

The same goes for “free and frank”.  In the (extremely unlikely event) that the minutes ever recorded that the Deputy Governor (say) thought the Governor’s ideas about the OCR were barking mad, there might be a case for withholding that particular detail.  But no official writes minutes like that.    And recall that the Minister of Finance has already committed to the publication of minutes of the MPC a few months hence, once the legislation is in place.  Differences of view are supposed to be highlighted (even if not attributed by name).  It will be a small step forward, and the Minister has already decided that “free and frank” isn’t a good reason to withhold such material.

But the Governor clearly disagrees.  Perhaps he just wants to enjoy his last few months as the single decisionmaker.   But then –  it suiting him to do so –  he has already told us that all his advisers were unanimous last month that the OCR shouldn’t be changed.  So what can he possibly have to hide in those Governing Committee minutes?  The short answer is likely to be “nothing at all”, but he has quickly imbibed the traditional Reserve Bank resistance to Official Information Act scrutiny.

It is not a good sign.  I’ve been concerned that the reforms the Minister announced will be too weak to make any material difference, and suspicious that they will allow a Governor so inclined to dominate the new committee, suppressing debate and the serious examination of alternative interpretations or policy approaches.  Since Orr has never been one to encourage challenge or debate, that seemed a quite real and specific risk.  Which is why I thought I’d test the waters.  Had the Governor agreed to the release of MPS Governing Committee minutes (even with odd specific deletion) I’d have lauded him, and revised up my probabilities on his governorship, and the new MPC, proceeding well.

By simply refusing to release anything, it looks as though he has once again confirmed some of the fears people held (mostly quietly) about his appointment.  If so, that is a shame.   And however many languages he greets journalists in, however many cartoons he adds, serious scrutiny of powerful independent public agencies –  particularly as at present when all power is vested in one individual –  requires access to official information that won’t always suit the Governor.  Minutes of his policy committees are a good example, one most other Governors in advanced countries have come to live with, or even champion.

I’ve appealed this decision to the Ombudsman –  I might have a response by the end of next year –  but in a sense the point has already been made.  When it comes to things he is responsible for, Adrian Orr is no more open and transparent than his predecessor, who set the benchmark in quite the wrong places.  A government committed to more-open government (as the current one says it is) would have a quiet word to the Bank’s Board, and to the Governor, encouraging the Bank to think again.

4 thoughts on “(Lack of) transparency at the Orr Reserve Bank

    • I’m not sure that a judicial review would achieve much, given the Ombudsman has been asked to exercise the statutory obligation to review the bank’s refusal to release the information.

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  1. Strange how the people who are in charge of the currency, and ‘public money’, don’t want to make anything public which might reflect on their performance. The RBNZ didn’t make their archives public until relatively recently, so secrecy and high finance are synonymous still.

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