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Top civil servant has low profile


Thursday 22nd August 2002

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Alan Bollard won't say if he is an economic "dry" but left little doubt at a news conference today on his appointment as Reserve Bank governor that his personality is on the dry side.

Told that central bankers are the "rock 'n roll stars" of the finance word, Dr Bollard dryly commented: "I think you will find me pretty boring in that mode."

Economist Ganesh Nana of Berl said Dr Bollard had made a virtue of being anonymous.

"That's good for an economic system because we don't actually need somebody pulling all the levers and shifting things around."

Perhaps symbolically, Dr Bollard mostly drives his prosaic Ford Laser although occasionally takes his veteran red convertible Spartan for a spin.

Actually when it comes to levers, Dr Bollard, 51, lists as one of his interests the reassembly and operation of Bill Phillips' famous hydraulic economic model (the world's first economic computer) that is in the entrance of an earlier employer, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research.

One former colleague noted that Dr Bollard had had a number of high profile jobs but "remains incredibly self-effacing".

"He has no jumped-up ideas at all," he said.

"A lot of people who get to that level start to see themselves as important and distance themselves, but Alan is not like that at all."

The banker, currently New Zealand's top civil servant, said he wanted to swap an advisory role for an operational one.

He said he hasn't inquired about the salary, where his predecessor got half a million dollars annually, but noted he was already well paid. (Actually he will improve his salary by about $100,000.)

Although he would be shifting offices just 50 metres across the road from No 1 The Terrace to No 2, he believes it is a big change.

"You are no longer there as a civil servant. You are running an institution with a statutory role and it is an independent institution."

Dr Bollard was the first outsider to be appointed to head Treasury since World War 2. He is proud that he had not previously worked as a civil servant until working at Treasury.

But his previous jobs are not quite what everyone would call getting your hands dirty in the real economy.

He previously chaired competition watchdog the Commerce Commission and before that headed the New Zealand Institute for Economic Research.

At Treasury he is credited with leading a huge cultural change.

He was appointed under a National Government but has overseen a sea-shift away from advocating market-led solutions for everything from the phone market to healthcare.

Dr Bollard, though, says he is neither an interventionist nor a free-marketeer and most commentators say he is neutral.

"We have tried to steer the discussion away from a `don't intervene, do intervene' one, to an `understand government are intervening all the time' -- it's got to be disciplined, sensible intervening for particular purposes," he said.

One Treasury staffer said Dr Bollard had dramatically improved its morale and culture from being "male-orientated, cliquey and back-biting into a place that is much more open and pleasant to work for, not least for women".

His former colleague said that while Dr Bollard was not a workaholic, he had a strong work ethic and high ethical standards.

Dr Bollard was at pains to tell journalists today that he had, as soon as he was asked to apply for the job, distanced himself from Treasury's role in advising Finance Minister Michael Cullen on the Policy Targets Agreement.

He is no stranger from steering clear of conflicts of interest. His wife Jenny Morel is an investment banker and one of New Zealand's leading venture capitalist.

She quipped that she was very pleased he had "a secure, well paid job for the next few years so that I can invest in venture capital".

Despite his hard work, he and Ms Morel certainly have time for entertainment and are often seen round the traps in Wellington at the cinema, theatre or musical events.

Dr Bollard, the son of two scientists, admits to several nerdish pastimes including being one of the few people in the country to have read Robert Skidelsky's three volume biography of economist John Maynard Keynes -- all 1700 pages.

He helped design a game called Oikonomos, where players play at being minister of finance and governor of the Reserve Bank. The game has been a commercial flop and their are no plans for a second edition.

Dr Bollard has written a novel (unpublished) and admits to reading both quality novels and trash.

He and Ms Morel own a small forest up the Kapiti coast in the Tararua Ranges where Dr Bollard manages a mix of radiata and native trees.

He lists yachting (love it, but don't get much opportunity) and tapestry weaving (used to do a lot but had to give it up when life got too demanding) as his failed interests.

His eldest son Albert hit the news this year when the Wellington collage school leaver scored what the school believed were the highest Bursary marks in the school's history -- a cool 464 for his top five subjects.

Second son, Lewis, 15, is a year 11 student at Wellington College.

Dr Bollard rejects the notion that his job will be a sinecure because inflation has largely been beaten. He says it is vitally important because interest rates affect people's lives so much.

"I believe it will be pretty tough because it's an upfront job and it's hard decisions and it is always harder doing things than advising somebody else," he said.

It will be several weeks before he completes negotiations with Dr Cullen both on the PTA and his employment contract. No starting date has been set.

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