Late last week I suggested that Pattrick Smellie of BusinessDesk was being more than a little generous to the Reserve Bank when he suggested that, even though the Governor was now displaying some of the same bunker mentality as was on display late in the Wheeler years, more generally
The RBNZ is now more open and transparent.
There was no evidence then for that proposition. As I noted
it just isn’t so – the capital review is only the latest example, but nothing material has changed about monetary policy, we’ve had no serious speeeches from the Governor on his core responsibilities, and they play OIA games just as much as ever
And today I’ve had another couple of fresh examples illustrating my point, and a reminder of a third.
The reminder? Contact from the Ombudsman’s office about a complaint I lodged some time ago when the Bank took a grossly excessive amount of time to release material I’d requested – relevant to bank capital review – all of which, in turned out, had already been given to other people (and thus should have been able to be released almost immediately).
And the new examples? More than two months ago I asked both the Bank’s Board and the Minister of Finance for papers relevant to the appointment of members of the new Monetary Policy Committee. After a while, both parties extended my request. I wasn’t unduly bothered, although even then the notion ran around in my head that a pro-active release might have been a good idea, around the first appointments to a powerful new body. Today, the Minister of Finance did release a fair amount of material (I haven’t read it yet), but what about the Bank’s Board? Well, they just sent me a note extending the request yet again, using as their justification – after having had 2.5 months already
because of the consultations necessary to make a decision on the request such that a proper response to the request cannot be made within the original time period.
And this is what Pattrick Smellie thinks is a “more open and transparent bank” (bear in mind that the Governor sits on the Board, and the Governor’s staff will do doing all the actual work).
Quite possibly the request for information around the MPC appointments could have taken a bit of effort. But my other example of the Bank continuing on as ever, playing games outside both the letter and the spirit of the OIA, is one where they could easily have responded fully and openly within a day or two of the original request.
On 11 May, I lodged the following request
I was pretty sure he would have been speaking without notes or slides (but if there had been any they’d have been easy to send on – after all, the material had already been provided to private sector people). And since the request was made just a day after the presentation, it should have been very easy for the Governor to have jotted down a quick summary of what he had said, and how he had answered questions on two specific topics.
But 20 working days have now passed – and recall that under the law the requirement is to respond “as soon as reasonably practicable, but no later than 20 working days” – and this afternoon this request was also extended for another couple of weeks, again allegedly because the consultations necessary to make a decision could not be made within the original timeframe. Yeah right. (In fact, there shouldn’t need to be any consultations at all. I asked only for the Governor’s words, which are official information.)
Why did I frame the request around those specific points? It was easy to anticipate that the Governor would get lots of questions about his bank capital proposals, probably not (from that audience, which includes both private businesses and banks) sympathetic ones. And about the Bank’s research capability? That reflected a post here on the morning the Governor was to meet the New Zealand Initiative over lunch.
On which note, one hears that the Reserve Bank’s research function has been substantially gutted, with several recent resignations in recent months from among their best-regarded and most productive researchers (and the manager of the team left this week and is reportedly not being replaced). The Bank’s research function once played a very influential part in policy and related thinking, but that is going back decades now. Even with a Chief Economist who himself had a strong research background, the research team never quite found a sustained and valuable niche in recent years, even as some individual researchers have generated some interesting papers, often on topics of little direct relevance to New Zealand. One of the most notable gaps is that the Bank has become increasingly focused on financial stability and financial regulation, and yet little or no serious research has been published in those areas of responsibility (a senior management choice). That weakness has been evident in the recent consultation document(s) on bank capital.
One can always question the marginal value of any individual research paper, but we should be seriously concerned if the Reserve Bank under the new wave of management is further degrading the emphasis on high quality and rigorous analysis. Apart from anything else, a good grounding in research has often been the path through which major long-term contributors to the Bank have emerged, including former chief economists (and roles more eminent still) Arthur Grimes and Grant Spencer. I see that the Governor is delivering an (off the record) talk at the New Zealand Initiative today: perhaps someone there might like to ask just what is going on, and what place the Governor sees for a research function in a strongly-performing advanced country central bank. Not even he, surely, can count on Tane Mahuta for all the answers.
So I was interested to see if anyone with the opportunity had asked the question.
(As it is, I heard on the grapevine that at this event the Governor may have attempted to fend off any criticisms of his tree god nonsense with the allegation that criticism was simply “racist”.)
I’m more amused than outraged. Because the Bank’s – the Governor’s – conduct is simply par for the course: obstructive whenever they can get away with it, as they have been for a very long time. There is no sign – none – that in this regard the Orr regime is any better than what went before. You might now get cartoons with your MPS or FSR, but what you won’t get is an open, transparent, and accountable Reserve Bank, seriously interested in substantive engagement or searching scrutiny. That’s a shame. And it is something the Board and the Minister should take a lot more seriously, including when the Minister exercises his new statutory power to appoint the chair and deputy chair of the Bank’s Board – finally making it clear that the Board work for the Minister and the public, not for the Governor or their own quiet lives.
UPDATE: A commenter points out that a second extension, made outside the initial 20 day window, is itself in breach of the OIA. Even the SSC agrees with that interpretation.
MULTIPLE EXTENSIONS You can extend the time limits for a request more than once, providing all extensions are made within the original 20 working day time period after receiving the request (see section 15A(3)).