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New report: The Bitter Truth

The Taxpayers' Union's new report The Bitter Truth: Why don't sugar taxes work?  focuses on the regressive economic effects of sugar taxes and responds to the central claim from public health lobbyists that sugar taxes will improve health outcomes. 

Whatever the good intentions the evidence shows that unfortunately sugar taxes haven’t actually worked to curb obesity where they have been tried. They fail to deliver meaningful health outcomes, but consumers still get hurt by the tax – especially low-income households who are disproportionately punished. Promoters of these taxes claim that the small health benefits are progressive, but the evidence for this is at best mixed.

There is also no evidence for the existence of a market failure that would justify intervention. Just because you might find someone else’s behaviour distasteful does not mean the market has failed. Many people simply enjoy drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and are fully aware of any health consequences.

The health lobbyists that campaign for sugar taxes have good intentions but they need to pay attention to the evidence. Good public policy requires a sound evidence-based approach and we hope this report goes some way to promote that.

Summary

  • Many sugar tax studies fail to take into account the effects of quality substitution and storability. Each of these effects markedly reduce the effectiveness of sugar taxes in achieving health outcomes. 
  • When quality substitution is taken into account, a 12-14% percent tax applied to SSBs could elicit an average weight loss of between just 200 and 300 grams per person. This is too small to provide meaningful health benefits.
  • Economic evidence unequivocally finds that sugar taxes are regressive. Backholer et al. (2016) "reinforces the regressive financial nature of an SSB tax". 

Shadbolt knocked off perch: new winner in race to buy most expensive vehicle in local government

Infographic

The Taxpayers’ Union can reveal that Horizons Regional Council Chairman Bruce Gordon cost ratepayers $97,000 with the most expensive vehicle for a local government elected representative – a swanky BMW X4.

The Union asked every council in the country for expenses associated with their vehicles. The full spreadsheet of expenses is available here.

A week ago, we identified the most expensive mayoral vehicle in the country, that of Invercargill Mayor, Tim Shadbolt. But we have now looked at vehicles for chairs of regional councils, and discovered that Horizons Regional Council Chairman Bruce Gordon manages to make Mayor Shadbolt look frugal.

Bruce Gordon is someone most people, even in Manawatu, probably haven’t heard of. It is a disgraceful sense of entitlement that he sees fit to have the most expensive vehicle of any elected local official in New Zealand.

Maybe, when the Council purchased the $97,000 BMW X4, they thought this kind of luxury was the norm. It’s not – the cost of Mr Gordon’s vehicle sticks out like a sore thumb, making other council chairs and even the most extravagant mayors look frugal.

Mr Gordon risks giving ratepayers in Manawatu-Wanganui the impression that their money is taken for private luxuries instead of essential services.

Revealed: The most extravagant mayoral vehicles

Chrysler 300CInvercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt drives the most expensive ratepayer-funded mayoral vehicle in the country, the New Zealand Taxpayers Union can reveal. 

The New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union has asked every council in the country for expenses associated with their mayoral vehicles. The full spreadsheet of expenses is available here.

Invercargill District Council topped the chart for mayoral vehicles, having spent $72,323 on a Chrysler 300C for Mayor Tim Shadbolt in November 2015. This is despite the Council’s budget for mayoral vehicle spending being $55,000.

The reasons the Council provided for overspending were:  

- The Chrysler 300C "best suited the Mayor’s needs".
- The Chrysler 300C has "better road handling".
- The considerable mileage undertaken in the Southland region.
- Intention to retain the vehicle for a longer period than usual, until after the 2019 Local Council elections.

Invercargill ratepayers might be surprised to know their humble town has the country’s most extravagant mayoral vehicle.

The excuses for using ratepayer money on such a flash vehicle don't add up. Why does Mayor Shadbolt need to fork out $72,000 for 'better road handling'? Roads in New Zealand don't get much straighter than Invercargill’s.

Mayor Shadbolt’s previous vehicle was bought in 2012, a Chrysler 300C purchased for $58,087. This was sold in November 2015 for $20,000, meaning his previous car only had a three-year lifetime, and lost two-thirds its value.

This raises concerning questions on the expected lifetime of a mayoral vehicle. Invercargill City Council implies a car lifetime of four years is a longer period than normal, which would surprise many ratepayers.

The car is admittedly very stylish. It’s up to Invercargill ratepayers to decide whether gleaming chrome is worth the price tag.

Taxpayers’ Union launch report at Parliament with inaugural "Jonesie Waste Awards"

Jordan, Tabitha, and Porky

Today at Parliament the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union presented the inaugural Jonesie Waste Awards, recognising the best of the worst in government waste revealed in the last 12 months.

The full details of the 2018 Jonesies are available as a report, which was launched at the awards ceremony (see below).

The Jonesies celebrate the best of the worst of government waste, greed and graft, foolishness and flagrancy, at the local and central government levels.

The sheer scale of troughing is not the only criteria for a Jonesie nomination – some smaller extravagances have earned nominations thanks to their absolute absurdity or how they encapsulate a corrosive culture of frivolous waste.

While we’ve hosted this ceremony with our tongues firmly in cheek, there is a serious point. These examples of waste make a lie of the claim that governments deserve more and more of your taxpayer money.

This is envisaged as the first event of an annual tradition. We suggest that in future, any politician or bureaucrat pondering ways to fritter away taxpayer money ought to consider whether they might end up with a Jonesie on their desk.

The awards were inspired by the Canadian ‘Teddies’, which have been hosted at the Federal Parliament in Ottawa for 19 years.

Local Government Nominees:

  • Hastings District Council spent $116,371 on catering in 2017 – more than $50,000 of which was for elected members.
  • Auckland Council spent $91,742 on a Hunua Ranges goat cull in 2016/17 that killed zero goats.
  • Christchurch City Council spent $1.25 million on a seven-metre touch screen for their new library, information that it refused to release even after intervention from the Ombudsman.
  • Auckland Council spent $260,000 on a 2.4-metrewide mirror, hung between buildings in the centre city – only to have it crack open a week after its unveiling.
  • Auckland Transport spent $4 million on a Grey Lynn cycleway, but now must spend $23-35 million fixing it, despite minimal use.

Winner: Auckland Council’s vegan-approved goat hunt.

Central Government Nominees:

  • Callaghan Innovation spent $1,141,230 on ‘entertainment’ and gifts in the four years to 2017 – including boozy dinners, drag queens, and even pedometers for staff.
  • The New Zealand Film Commission paid American producers of the children’s TV show “Power Rangers” $1.6 million to include references to New Zealand in its script, such as a plot involving a pavlova.
  • Inland Revenue paid $40,000 to The Spinoff to publish a series of articles on “Tax Heroes”, promoting the tax system and tax compliance to the point of stating “Tax is love”.
  • The Provincial Growth Fund saw Gisborne’s ‘Chardonnay Express’, a locomotive wine tour, receive a share of $60,000 given to three tourism businesses.
  • The Ministry of Social Development spent $150,000 developing a video game to teach people how to run a business.

Winner: The Film Commission’s ‘Power Rangers pavlova’.

2018 Lifetime Achievement Award Winner:

  • Hon Shane Jones, Minister for Regional Economic Development, Infrastructure, and Forestry, receives this award in recognition of the scale of pork-barrelling achieved via his $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund – of which so far only 10 per cent has been allocated.

Benefit Sanctions: Help-but-hassle welfare reduces child poverty

A new report from the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union shows the success of benefit sanctions, explains why efforts to make life on a benefit easier simply encourage a culture of welfare dependency and fraud, and exposes that more than one third of unemployment and single parent beneficiaries admit to failing on their obligation to seek employment.

Report cover

The release of the report, Benefit Sanctions, coincides with a Green Party campaign to remove sanctions for beneficiaries who don’t comply with associated obligations. The report also works as a submission to the Government’s working group tasked with providing recommendations to overhaul the welfare system.

Beneficiary advocates have good intentions, but their prescriptions – removing requirements to seek work and removing sanctions – are a social and moral failure. The Green Party’s policy to make life on a benefit will simply encourage a culture of welfare dependency and fraud.

Rates of welfare fraud are many times higher than most New Zealanders would expect or find acceptable under the current system. The report canvasses the evidence that easing up on sanctions and obligations for beneficiaries would dramatically increase fraud and dependency. That means driving up the cost of the welfare system for taxpayers and leaving less room in the Budget for other forms of social spending.

If the Government wants to reduce child poverty, it should encourage the unemployed and single parents back into work and off welfare.

Our report advocates a help-but-hassle approach that nudges beneficiaries back into work, leaving more to spare for those in genuine need.

If the Government took this approach, it could afford to be more generous, within existing budgets. The difference is that the money would be more targeted to those who most need it.

Benefit Sanctions is available at www.taxpayers.org.nz/benefit_sanctions and was written by Taxpayers’ Union research fellow Jim Rose.

Benefit Sanctions: Key Findings

  • The Green Party wants to remove sanctions on beneficiaries despite extensive evidence from data matching by MBIE of benefit fraud under the current system.
    • More than one third of unemployment and single parent beneficiaries admit to failing on their obligation to seek employment;
    • ten percent of single parent beneficiaries acknowledge living as man and wife; and
    • ten percent of unemployment beneficiaries work full-time.
  • Ministers, the Welfare Expert Advisory Group, and even the Ministry of Social Development are unaware of the extent of this fraud because MBIE failed to publish the 2012 report containing this data. The report was begrudgingly released three years later under the Official Information Act after an appeal to the Ombudsman.

  • The Government’s plan to remove sanctions for refusing to name the father will encourage many more single mothers on the benefit to not identify the father and make under-the-table arrangements.
    • Nearly 20 percent of single parent beneficiaries currently refuse to name the father and face sanctions.
    • About $186 million is currently deducted from benefits because the father is named and successfully chased for support.

  • Benefits conditional on seeking work are highly effective in moving parents into jobs that bring their children out of poverty with the support of Working for Families. A credible sanction for not looking for work increases job finding rates by 25 percent or more.

  • For the sake of taxpayers, any reforms must guard against abuse – especially in an ageing society where already-stretched budgets will only get tighter over time. No social safety net can successfully increase benefits and loosen eligibility if it fails to run a tight ship against abuse.

  • Marriage booms in Sweden, Canada and the US after sole parent benefit and widows pension reforms suggest a major fiscal risk from adopting Green Party-style relationship definition, which requires marriage, or two years living together.

  • The Greens’ fiscally-neutral costing of their policy is untenable: if the overseas experience is any guide, the number of sole parent beneficiaries will likely double under the Greens’ proposals, costing $1.1 billion.

Statement on Taxpayers' Union official information requests

Below is the statement we provided to the NZ Herald in the lead up to publication of this article.

The Taxpayers’ Union is a heavy user of the Official Information Act, comparable to media organisations such as the New Zealand Herald.

The vast majority of public sector organisations respond to Taxpayers’ Union information requests quickly and transparently. However on occasion government bodies stonewall us – treating information requests from our staff and volunteers differently than requests from other organisations, or members of the public.

Callaghan Innovation is one of the worst.  We had an insider approach us who disclosed that information requests from the Taxpayers’ Union were being deliberately sidelined as our previous investigations had led to embarrassing media coverage for the agency wasting public money.

Therefore, on rare occasions, our research staff have been forced to use personal email accounts, or have even encouraged our people to use pseudonyms, to ensure the public can have full and prompt access to information. This is one way to make it harder for officials and politicians to discriminate or play silly games with official information. The fact anyone would find it necessary to do this should disgrace these public entities.

The fact the media covered the information our requests revealed from Callaghan Innovation speaks for itself in terms of the public interest.

So, while we are not currently using the method, we do not rule it out, and if it takes this to get at the truth, we would expect the same from a good journalist.

Finally, we note that it appears many of the information requests made using the NZ Herald-sponsored website ‘fyi.org.nz’ appear to use pseudonyms – indeed, the anonymity of the system appears to be one of its key selling points.

Canterbury catering costs revealed: Christchurch City Council spends $51,000 on milk

Christchurch City Council spent $350,208 on entertainment, gifts, and catering in 2017 – including $51,572 on milk, reveals the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union.

This makes Christchurch City the council with the highest level of ‘indulgence spending’ in New Zealand (aside from Auckland Council, who say they are unable to provide equivalent figures).

The bulk of these expenses ($336,130) came from catering, with the largest source of such expenses being the Antarctic Office, which spent $54,348, followed by the all-of-council spend on milk, at $51,572, followed by catering for citizenship ceremonies, at $36,840.

Fifty grand spent on milk alone is an astounding figure, that reflects just how bloated Christchurch’s army of council bureaucrats has become. Either that, or the Mayor is taking milk baths.

Catering expenses are largely non-essential, and should be near first in line for budget cuts when ratepayers are getting squeezed. The fact that the Antarctic Office, totally tangential to core council business, managed to spend $54,000 on wining and dining should warrant an audit from councillors.

Canterbury ratepayers are also under the pump from the Regional Council, which spend $287,087 on entertainment, gifts, and catering, including $155,253 at one catering business, Pulp Kitchen Catering.

Ecan’s indulgence spending was higher than any other regional council in the country. For comparison, Wellington Regional Council’s total equivalent spend was $37,450.

Below are spending figures for all Canterbury territories, ranked from highest total to lowest.

Christchurch City Council
Entertainment: Included with gifts and catering
Gifts: $14,078.42
Catering: $336,130.00
Total: $350,208.42

Canterbury Regional Council (Ecan)
Entertainment: Included with gifts and catering
Gifts: $8,125.70
Catering: $278,962.19
Total: $287,087.89

Ashburton District Council
Entertainment: $20,370.67
Gifts: $4,036.88
Catering: $81,330.76
Total: $105,738.31 

Waimakariri District Council
Entertainment: Included with gifts and catering
Gifts: $7,989.23
Catering: $69,915.91
Total: $77,905.14

Timaru District Council
Entertainment: $1,065.93
Gifts: $2,936.65
Catering: $40,967.73
Total: $44,970.31

Waitaki District Council
Entertainment: $0.00
Gifts: $0.00
Catering: $25,958.41
Total: $25,958.41

Hurunui District Council
Entertainment: $0.00
Gifts: $3,664.62
Catering: $9,232.64
Total: $12,897.26

Mackenzie District Council
Entertainment: $0.00
Gifts: $779.46
Catering: $8,528.32
Total: $9,307.78

Selwyn District Council
Entertainment: $0.00
Gifts: $0.00
Catering: $9,060.00
Total: $9,060.00

Kaikoura District Council
Entertainment: $5,596.87
Gifts: $1,063.50
Catering: $1,795.02
Total: $8,455.39 

Waimate District Council
Entertainment: Included with gifts and catering
Gifts: $3,615.00
Catering: $3,729.13
Total: $7,344.13

All figures were obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

Breakdowns for Christchurch City Council and Ecan are available here:

Christchurch City Council catering (including milk)
Christchurch City Council gifts
Ecan catering
Ecan gifts

VIDEO: Porky protests the taxpayer-funded bonus for union members

On Tuesday, the Taxpayers' Union team visited the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment offices to see if staff are willing to take the new taxpayer-funded $500 bonus for joining the Public Service Association – a union that helps the Labour Party during election campaigns.

Sign the petition against this rort here: www.taxpayers.org.nz/psa

EXCLUSIVE: Labour-led Government give taxpayer-funded bonus to union mates

The Taxpayers’ Union can reveal the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment is using taxpayer money to bribe workers into joining the Public Service Association.
 
The following email was circulated to all MBIE staff and has been passed on to the Taxpayers’ Union. It reveals that, as a result of recent pay negotiations, MBIE will be paying a one-off $500 bonus to members of the PSA.
 


The Labour-led Government is bribing MBIE staff to join the union – meaning they’ll start paying membership dues immediately. No doubt any additional income to the PSA will be used to fund campaigns for higher taxes, more public spending, and to keep the current Government in power in 2020. It is disgraceful.

Labour Party members will be thrilled that the Government is already diverting taxpayers' money for a left-wing campaign war chest for the 2020 election, but taxpayers watching debt projections creep higher by the day will be disgusted by the brazen take-over of the country's public finances.

If the shoe was on the other foot and a National-led Government was giving subsidies for businesses to join pro-National lobby groups there would be a march to Parliament, a book by Nicky Hager, and a prime-time television exposé. Rightly so: pay-deals should not be weaponised for political purposes.

Instead, it's just another example of Union bosses claiming the moral high-ground in politics while playing by another set of rules, all at the expense of the humble taxpayer.

We have now launched a petition against this 'Union-Welfare' and handouts.  Click here to add your name.

2018 Ratepayers' Report published

The New Zealand Taxpayers' Union, in partnership with the Auckland Ratepayers Alliance, have today published this year's Ratepayers' Report  – online local government league tables – at www.ratepayersreport.nz

With these league tables, New Zealanders can easily compare their local council performance and financial position against similarly sized councils and types.

By setting out more than two thousand data points, Ratepayers' Report provides transparency, so no-one can credibly claim cherry-picking or a political agenda. The league tables set out metrics such as Council debt, assets, spending and staff costs, all on a per-ratepayer basis.

Some councils do very well in the league tables, some not so much. Every council has checked its own numbers and approved it for accuracy.

Across the country council borrowing continues to skyrocket. On average, councils have increased the share of debt for each of their ratepayers by $244 – a 5.3 percent increase in borrowing in just a year!

The data shows why Auckland Ratepayers, in particular, have cause for real concern, with Council liabilities now $19,537 per ratepayer, up more than $600 since last year. This is second only to Christchurch, and almost four times the national average of $4,876.

Every dollar spent by a Council was earned by a hard working ratepayer. Ratepayers' Report allows ratepayers to see how their money is being spent.

Notable Findings:

  • Christchurch City Council has more debt on a per ratepayer basis than any other council in the country ($21,137). Auckland Council is the second most indebted authority, with debt per ratepayer of $19,537.
  • The average debt per ratepayer of all councils is $4,876.
  • Auckland Council pays 2,250 of its staff salaries in excess of $100,000. Auckland Council also employs more staff per ratepayer than any other unitary authority (17 staff per 1,000 ratepayers). Marlborough District Council, another unitary authority, employs 10 staff per 1,000 ratepayers.
  • The highest average residential rates in New Zealand are in Western Bay of Plenty ($3,234 per year).
  • The lowest average residential rates in New Zealand are in the Mackenzie District ($1,637 per year)

Editors' notes:

Data for the report was compiled by the Taxpayers' Union and was supplied to all councils for them to review prior to publication.

Ratepayers' Report facilitates straightforward comparison of average residential rates via a formula first used by Napier City Council which allows for an 'apples to apples' comparison of average residential rates and charges. Only Westland District Council was unwilling to provide the Taxpayers' Union with the necessary rates information.


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