Productivity Commission head hits out at 'cruel' and 'thoughtless' way it has been axed

"This did not reflect well on those who decided and chose this process."
"This did not reflect well on those who decided and chose this process." Photo credit: AM.

By Gyles Beckford of RNZ

The head of the Productivity Commission has hit out at what he calls the cruel and thoughtless way it has been axed.

The commission will cease operations on Thursday to make way for the new Ministry for Regulation, with more than 20 staff losing their jobs.

Chairman Ganesh Nana said they only found out the commission's days were numbered when the coalition agreement was unveiled in mid-November.

He said the incoming government had every right to close the commission, but the way it was done rankles.

"To hear via a public announcement to media that the organisation you work for is to be closed, without even a courtesy heads-up before hand, was incredibly thoughtless and unnecessarily cruel to the commission's staff.

"This did not reflect well on those who decided and chose this process."

Nana said even after the announcement there has been no direct contact with its responsible minister, Nicola Willis, other than a letter, nor from the head of the public service, despite repeated requests.

"The outcome could have been so easily achieved with much less collateral damage - all it required was a simple phone call."

The Productivity Commission was set up in 2011 by a former National-led government at the urging of the ACT Party with the aim of researching and advising how to improve the country's economic and business productivity.

Nana was appointed by former labour finance minister Grant Robertson in 2020 with a widened mandate to look at relevant social issues and well-being, beyond narrower economic measures such as gross domestic product, and to engage with a wide range of people.

Too left wing?

Nana was seen as close to Labour, with his former firm economic consultancy BERL having costed its policy programme in 2017.

He was attacked by centre right think tanks, some former commission staff, and a few mainstream economists as being left wing, and ACT leader David Seymour called him "historically illiterate" and said the commission was working on "nebulous concepts like loneliness, inclusion and identity."

Nana has pushed back against the criticisms saying accusations of political bias were a distraction, and all previous commissioners had been appointed by the government of the day.

"Let's get past the politics, there are some in our economics and business community that don't like our perspective on economics, so let's argue the economics."

Former Reserve Bank official and centre-right commentator, Michael Reddell, said Nana and other staff were fairly vocally left-wing and not at all actually focused on or expert in productivity.

He said he supported the commission and it did some good work, but even before Nana's appointment it was looking irrelevant.

"First, it isn't obvious political parties really care about productivity anyway - beyond an occasional talking point in opposition or in the first few weeks of government. But even if they did, it isn't obvious that a small Commission just up the street from The Treasury was going to consistently have a lot to offer," he wrote in a recent blog.

Nana said he hoped some part of government would pick up the commission's work and regard productivity as the measure of making the best use of the economic, natural and social resources in the country in a sustainable way, and not just as a means of cutting costs and lifting profitability.