Don is one of New Zealand's leading economic and financial policy advisers and over the years he has provided advice to governments in many parts of the world.
In 2009, he was appointed to chair the New Zealand Government's 2025 Taskforce and remained chairman until the Taskforce was wound up in May 2011. The Taskforce was charged with investigating the reasons for the recent decline in New Zealand's productivity performance, identifying superior institutions and policies in Australia and other more successful countries, and making recommendations on the steps needed for New Zealand to achieve Australian living standards by 2025.
Earlier, Don was a Member of Parliament, having resigned as Governor of the Reserve Bank on 26 April 2002 in order to enter Parliament, with the stated motivation of reducing the gap in living standards between New Zealand and Australia. In 2003, he was elected Leader of the Opposition and used this position to move public debate forward on a number of key issues. He received considerable public support, helping to raise the National Party's share of the party vote from 20.9 % in the 2002 election to 39.1 % in the 2005 general election, the highest share of the total vote that National had obtained since the 1990 election. He also led political party ACT New Zealand in the 2011 election but did not get elected to Parliament on that occasion.
Before entering Parliament, Don was Governor of the Reserve Bank for almost 14 years. During his tenure running New Zealand's central bank, inflation in New Zealand was reduced to its lowest level for several decades. Don also led the Bank through the passage of the Reserve Bank Act 1989, a pioneering piece of legislation which both established a relationship between government and central bank which was internationally unique at that time and made the objective of monetary policy unambiguously clear – achieving and maintaining stability in the general level of prices.
Prior to his time as Governor, Don's career spanned a wide range of organisations. He spent five years in Washington working for the World Bank Group, including a year spent on the staff of the Pearson Commission on International Development, before returning to New Zealand to head up the investment bank Broadbank Corporation. In the eighties, he was managing director of the New Zealand Kiwifruit Authority and later managing director of Trust Bank. Also in the eighties, Don was appointed to chair the Advisory Panel on the Goods and Services Tax – the committee which designed New Zealand's GST – and four subsequent consultative committees set up to advise the Government on various aspects of taxation reform.
Don has also been a member of the New Zealand Monetary and Economic Council (1974 – 1978); a member of the Committee of Inquiry into Inflation Accounting (1976); and chairman of the Economic Monitoring Group (1978 – 1980). He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Planning Council (1976 – 1980).
He has been a director of a number of companies, including Westpac Merchant Finance and Cavalier Corporation in the seventies and eighties, and the ANZ Bank (in New Zealand), Transpower and Oceania Dairy more recently. He has served as an Adjunct Professor of Banking in the Business School at AUT University in Auckland and as an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Law and Management at La Trobe University in Melbourne. He became an honorary professor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing in 2012, and the first chairman of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China's New Zealand subsidiary late in 2013.
He has a PhD in Economics from the Australian National University, with his thesis on American investment in Australian industry being published in 1966 by both Harvard University Press and the ANU Press. He holds a Master of Arts degree with First Class Honours in Economics and a Bachelor of Arts with majors in Economics and History, both from the University of Canterbury.
Don won the NZIER-Qantas Economics Award in 1999 and in the same year was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Canterbury. He was inducted into the "Business Hall of Fame" in 2002 in recognition of his role in "guaranteeing the independence and integrity of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand", and in 2007 was made a distinguished fellow of the New Zealand Association of Economists "in recognition of outstanding contributions to the profession".
He began his adult life on the left of the political spectrum, opting out of school military cadets as a conscientious objector at the age of 15, and voting for the Labour party in a number of general elections. But he gradually came to recognise the benefits of the market economy – perhaps exemplifying the old adage that if you're not a socialist at 20 you have no heart; if you're not a conservative at 40 you have no head.
Don helped establish Amnesty International's Freedom Foundation in New Zealand in the early nineties. He is also a former director of one of New Zealand's largest social service agencies – Presbyterian Support Services (Northern) – and a former trustee of the Plunket Foundation. He is currently a trustee of Visual Impairment Charitable Trust Aotearoa (VICTA), a trust committed to raising awareness of the problems of those with sight loss sufficiently serious to cause major difficulties for doing normal activities (but not sufficiently serious to qualify for help from the Foundation of the Blind). He is also one of two spokespeople for the Hobson’s Pledge Trust, a group of people committed to promoting colour-blind policies in New Zealand, in line with Governor Hobson’s comment when Maori chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 that “we are now one people”.
He has three children – Ruth, Alan and Thomas – and his main recreational activity is tending the family kiwifruit orchard.
In early 2005, Penguin Books published Brash: A Biography, by Paul Goldsmith. And early in 2014, Don published Incredible Luck, a book which is in part Don's own assessment of his life – successes, partial successes, and matters for regret – and in part a thoughtful commentary on some of the big issues of the day (affirmative action, drugs policy, religion, China's relationship with New Zealand, New Zealand's persistently slow rate of productivity growth, the difficulty of making sound economic policy in a democracy, an assessment of the first five years of the Key Government, and the future of democracy).