The Reserve Bank has spent close to $400,000 on an art installation of Māori forest god Tāne Mahuta, now on display in its front lobby in Wellington.
To date, the cost is $373,739 "net of recovered GST" the bank said in a statement attached to the release of the figure under the Official Information Act. It said the expense may climb from here, through unspecified further "residual costs".
The main work is a floor-to-ceiling sculpture, and features a length of swamp kauri inlaid with a face and thin greenish strips illuminated by LED lights. Other materials include resin, aluminium and composite material.
The installation also includes three pillars representing "the Forest of Tāne", mosaic floor tiles that represent "the roots of Tāne Mahuta", and a redesigned reception desk area representing a double-hulled waka, the statement said.
A bank spokesman said Gisborne-based Kaeamedia provided design services and the artist is the company's owner-operator, Jimi Hills.
"The Reserve Bank was referred to Kaeamedia as a known designer and producer of Māori-inspired elements by its Te Ao Māori Advisory Panel. Prior to engaging their services, a portfolio or previous work was reviewed alongside external references and endorsements, and a decision was made that their work was in line with what we were seeking," the spokesman said.
Act Party leader David Seymour called the work an "overpriced monstrosity".
"$373,739 may not sound like much when you just printed tens of billions of dollars, but to people who still have to earn their money, it shows a culture in Wellington that has left planet earth."
Seymour was referring to the bank's "Quantitative Easing" efforts, an emergency measure taken by the central bank to lubricate spending and avoid recession in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The bank could buy up to $100 billion of New Zealand government bonds from commercial banks in exchange for electronically created money.
A spokesperson for Minister of Finance Grant Robertson said the minister "did not have any oversight or prior knowledge about the cost of the sculpture" and directed questions to the Reserve Bank.
The bank spokesman said the funding was allocated from the Bank's property budget, and was part of larger $1.2m refurbishment of the lobby space at the Reserve Bank building, 2 The Terrace.
Last year Robertson, approved a doubling of the bank's budget. In the current five-year period (from 2020/21 to 2025/26) the bank's expenditure will reach $640m, or an average $128m per year. That compares to $324m, an average $65m per year, for the previous five-year period.
At the time, a Treasury report to Robertson warned that it was impossible to judge the value for money in the Reserve Bank's spending proposal, which provided "high level" information but insufficient detail.
Independent economic commentator and former Reserve Bank staffer Michael Reddell described the sculpture as an "unnecessary use of public money, unfortunately consistent with the rather over-generous Funding Agreement the Government reached with the bank ..."
Reddell, said the bank's insistence that it is applying a "Te Ao Māori" (Māori world) strategy to responsibilities like monetary policy decision-making smacked of "Wellington feelgoodism" combined with "[Governor Adrian] Orr pursuing his personal agendas at public expense."
In 2018, Orr took the reins at the Reserve Bank. Later that year the bank took the name, Te Pūtea Matua, and, somewhat controversially, invented a story for itself based around the Māori tree god.
The narrative describes aspects of New Zealand's financial system as parts of Tāne Mahuta, including money and foreign reserves (the sap), the legislation which sets out the bank's powers and function (the roots), and the entities the bank regulates including commercial banks (the branches and leaves).
"The Journey of Te Pūtea Matua: our Tāne Mahuta", a 35-page document published by the bank, reinterprets both the history and the purpose of the central bank by employing the Māori story.
Documents on the bank's website say the Māori worldview informs its policymaking.
Reddell, however, said there can be "no substantive connection or way in which the so-called Māori perspective can meaningfully influence either monetary policy or bank regulation."
That is most evidently so for monetary policy where there is a single instrument for the whole country, where the target is set by the Government, and where its [the RBNZ's] monetary policy looks not materially different to that in any other advanced country."
The bank's key purpose - as set out in legislation - is to set New Zealand's monetary policy, regulate the commercial bank and insurance sectors and ensure financial stability, and issue currency.