Linking Reserve Bank of New Zealand Maori heritage: A case of central bank communications gone too far?

Last week, RBNZ released this long document linking Maori heritage with the central bank and the economy:

Te Pūtea Matua is the Māori name for the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. This article presents a broad picture of Te Pūtea Matua’s heritage, role, and interdependencies both within the Bank and economy-wide.

“The Reserve Bank team want to tell our story of how we fit together, and show respect to past, present, and future New Zealanders. Understanding our origin is especially important in times of change, which we are experiencing at present – including our legislation being reviewed,” Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr says.

“The establishment of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in 1934 meant the people and government of New Zealand were better able to manage the economy independent of foreign banks’ credit cycles. In that sense, and drawing on Māori mythology, the Reserve Bank became the Tāne Mahuta of New Zealand’s financial system, allowing the sun to shine in on the New Zealand economy,” Mr Orr says.

“Te Pūtea Matua’s activities include issuing currency to the public, and maintaining price and institutional stability in New Zealand’s money exchange systems. Te Pūtea Matua’s roots are in its legislation. The money exchange systems and functions are its trunk, allowing the money – the sap – to flow throughout the system. The branches are the regulated financial institutions grafted onto the trunk, for their legitimacy and access to the Bank’s money and banking system.

“These functions are inter-related and allow Te Pūtea Matua to protect, nurture, and grow New Zealand’s wider financial ecosystem for the greater benefit of all New Zealanders.”

Mr Orr says the Reserve Bank is standing in good stead for the future, but will continue to grow and adapt to its environment. “We face challenges and changes that are driven by technology, economic development, global connectedness, and broader government, public and employee expectations. This is an exciting and challenging time for the Reserve Bank,” he says.

“We aim for this document to be a living story that evolves as people add their insights and share their knowledge and perspectives.”

Phew.

Croaking Cassandra blog has torn apart this publication:

Tomorrow will mark six months since Adrian Orr became the most powerful unelected person in New Zealand, as Governor of the Reserve Bank.  Six months on we’ve had not a single serious and substantive speech on the policy areas he is responsible for, and where he exercises a huge amount of barely-trammelled power.  No speech on monetary policy, no speech on banking regulation, and nothing either on the less prominent things the Governor is responsible for –  such as, for example, insurance prudential supervision, a New Zealand insurer having failed, regulated by the Reserve Bank just before the Governor took office.  He hasn’t substantively and openly engaged with, or responded to, the damning survey results on the Bank’s performance as a financial system regulator.

Instead, we’ve heard the Governor on almost everything else.  There was infrastructure, climate change (repeatedly), the failings of capitalism, geopolitics, women in economics, and of course bank “conduct” (playing distraction from his institution’s own failings, by trying to butt into a field for which the Bank has no statutory responsibility).    There have been lots of words, but not much sign of in-depth reflection or distinctive insights, and even less sign of doing him well, and being open about, the jobs Parliament has actually given the Bank.   Throw in some considerable complacency about monetary policy and it should be a pretty disquieting picture.

Some of it is probably just the Governor’s well-known propensity to talk.  Some of it might even be an understandable (if misguided in application) desire to lift the esprit-de-corps at the Reserve Bank after the demoralising Wheeler years.  And a lot seems to be about winning the turf battles, ensuring that in the reviews of the Reserve Bank Act that the government has underway as much as possible of the Bank’s powers are kept, in effect, under the Governor’s control, and that the existing powers and functions of the Reserve Bank are all kept in the Reserve Bank.  Part of that seems to be about openly subscribing what should be a non-partisan agency to every trendy left-wing cause that is going (and which, presumably, the Governor believes in personally.) A power play in other words –  and, with a weak government that probably doesn’t care much, quite likely to succeed,  somewhat to the detriment of New Zealand.

The latest example was the release on Monday of a rather curious 36 page document called The Journey of Te Putea Matua: our Tane Mahuta.   Te Putea Matua is the Maori name the Reserve Bank of New Zealand has taken upon itself (such being the way these days with public sector agencies).  It isn’t clear who “our” is in this context, although it seems the Governor  – himself with no apparent Maori ancestry – wants us New Zealanders to identify with some Maori tree god that –  data suggest –  no one believes in, and to think of the Reserve Bank as akin to a localised tree god.  Frankly, it seems weird.  These days, most New Zealanders don’t claim allegiance to any deity, but of those of us who do most –  Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, of European, Maori or any other ancestry – choose to worship a God with rather more all-encompassing claims.

But the Governor seems dead keen on championing Maori belief systems from centuries past.    In an official document of our central bank we read

A core pillar of the evolving Māori belief system is a tale of the earth mother (Papatūānuku) and the sky father (Ranginui) who needed separating to allow the
sun to shine in. Tāne Mahuta – the god of the forest and birds – managed this task after some false starts and help from his family. The sunlight allowed life to flourish in Tāne Mahuta’s garden.

This quote appears twice in the document.

All very interesting perhaps in some cultural studies course, but what does it have to do with macroeconomic management or financial stability?  Well, according to the Governor (in a radio interview on this yesterday) before there was a Reserve Bank “darkness was on our economy”.  The Reserve Bank was the god of the forest, and let the sun shine in.  Perhaps it is just my own culture, but the imagery that sprang to mind was that of people who walked in darkness having seen a great light.   But imagine the uproar if a Governor had been using Judeo-Christian imagery in an official publication.

Looks like a case of central bank communications and linking with history gone too far…

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