Entering parliament as an MP was not how Tangi Utikere imagined 2020 would end at the beginning of that year. However circumstance conspired and Utikere is now the MP for Palmerston North and a member of the Labour Party. In this episode of MPs in Depth, Tangi and Louis discuss politics, running for office, and of course, Tax.
Taxpayers shelled out thousands of dollars transporting a dead turtle from Banks Peninsula to Wellington, storing it in a freezer for 21 months, then sending it back down to where it washed up for a high-powered and fully-catered powhiri, complete with a helicopter ride and a handmade coffin constructed by public servants. No scientific research was performed at any stage.
Based on responses to several Official Information Act requests, plus earlier media reports, the Taxpayers' Union can set out the timeline:
- In March 2019, a dead leatherback turtle is found on the shore in Banks Peninsula. He is never named though he is known at the Taxpayers' Union as Michelangelo.
- DOC advises Te Papa that the local Banks Peninsula marae, Koukourārata, has provided approval for Te Papa to receive the turtle.
- A DOC ranger uses a tractor to transfer the turtle to the back of his ute, then commissions a truck belonging to a pet food company to keep the turtle chilled. The ranger warns that transporting the turtle to Wellington will be a "logistical nightmare". The ranger's wage costs are $200.
- The turtle is collected by Te Papa from the Department of Conservation office in Christchurch and driven up to Wellington in Te Papa’s Toyota Hilux, at a reported cost of $475.75.
- The turtle arrives at Te Papa's Tory Street facility, where staff plan to perform a necropsy, check its gut for plastic, gather biological information for "the global turtle research community", and ultimately skeletonise the corpse.
- In an apparent change of heart from the local iwi, Ngāi Tahu representative Matui Payne tells media of "a sense of grief and sadness that we didn't have the opportunity to grieve for our kaitiaki, for our tipuna." Te Papa cites "issues relating to consultation and support" and enters into discussion with Koukourārata "regarding the return and repatriation of the honu [turtle]."
- The late turtle spends 21 months in Te Papa's freezer.
- No scientific research is conducted. Te Papa explains, "To enable scientific research to be undertaken, the turtle would have had to be skeletonised (i.e. processes undertaken to reduce the turtle remains to a skeleton). In conjunction with tikanga, it is usually important that all parts of the taonga or specimen (in this case, the turtle) should be buried, if possible. . .In terms of science objectives, Te Papa has not conducted any research on the turtle during its time at Te Papa so has not gained any research insights."
- At some point, Te Papa staff build a "te honu crate" or turtle coffin, with materials costing $580.85.
- On 11 December 2020, Te Papa staff are joined by a contingent from Koukourārata for a karakia (prayer) in Wellington.
- DOC transports the turtle from Wellington back to Bank Peninsula in a refrigerated truck. The three-day journey includes reported costs of $940 in mileage, $448 for the Cook Strait ferry crossing, and $500 in wage costs. A Koukourārata representative accompanies the turtle during this journey.
Eight Te Papa staff, including members of the Board and the senior leadership team, fly to Canterbury for the deceased turtle's powhiri.
- Domestic travel, car rental and accommodation: $4,327.77
- Powhiri and kai for 40 people: $880.00
- At the powhiri, the eight Te Papa staff are joined by seven DOC staff.
- Four of the DOC staff are paid by the hour, for a total cost of $600.
- DOC pays a $200 koha to Koukourārata.
- DOC spends $130 on mileage.
- The turtle arrives at its powhiri, is removed from its coffin, placed on an altar to thaw while speeches are given, and eventually strapped to a crate and flown via helicopter to its burial site: a hilltop on a nearby island. DOC pays $1600 for the helicopter service. Video and photographs from the day capture these events.
- Two DOC staff conduct an archeological survey of the burial site, and three staff dig the hole. Reported wage costs for these activities are $900.
Union spokesperson Louis Houlbrooke says, "The total cost to taxpayers for Michelangelo's eventful afterlife is difficult to quantify, but we would place it in the tens of thousands. Te Papa and DOC's total reported expenses were $11,742.31, but that excludes the time cost for high-level salaried staff."
"Te Papa was prepared to obtain this turtle for research on a rare species. That is valid. Koukourārata, who had expressed no interest when the turtle first washed up, suddenly wanted it back and intact. The result was a truly bizarre odyssey that saw a dead turtle travel by land, sea, and air, before ultimately being buried by public servants on a hilltop."
"After thousands of dollars and 21 months of fuss, the turtle ends up right back where it started, providing no scientific insights. In fact, Te Papa told us over the phone that they couldn't even verify whether the turtle was male or female. What a waste. Such a majestic creature deserved far better than to wait 21 months in a freezer while bureaucrats negotiated a protracted repatriation mission that would make the Ministry of Foreign Affairs blush."
"We have to give some credit to Te Papa and DOC for their thorough answers to our questions. We get the sense they're proud of the enormous time, attention, and staff hours they've devoted to Michelangelo's odyssey. Unfortunately, they've tarnished the turtle's legacy with this epic saga of government waste."
Primary school children in Banks Peninsula observe the turtle. One appears to be holding her nose. (Source: Stuff)
Te Papa receives the plastic-wrapped turtle.
An image of the turtle coffin, built by Te Papa staff (Source: Te Papa)
The turtle is placed on an altar upon its return to Bank Peninsula (Source: Facebook)
Mourners from Koukourārata and Te Papa eulogise the turtle while a helicopter approaches.
The turtle is flown to its hilltop burial site.
The turtle is buried high above its preferred habitat.
Brooke van Velden is the deputy leader of the ACT party and was a critical part of the End of Life Choice campaign. In this episode of MPs in Depth Max and Brooke have a ranging discussion about motivations, euthanasia, and the housing crisis.
Taxpayers' Union researcher Max Salmon is joined by Infometrics Senior Economist Brad Olsen for a discussion about the concerning prospect of rent controls under this Labour government.
After claiming that “some of our emergency housing is inhumane”, Associate Housing Minister Marama Davidson “rejected” criticism that as a responsible minister she had been “quiet” on the issue since the election. She said: “I've certainly been nothing but loud."
Taxpayers' Union spokesman Neil Miller says, “She may have been loud in the privacy of her office or amongst the faithful at Green Party meetings, but not at the Cabinet table where decisions are actually made. Figures obtained by the Taxpayers’ Union from the Cabinet Office show that since the election Minister Davidson has presented no Cabinet Papers or Cabinet Committee Papers on the issue of emergency housing.”
“In fact, she has presented no papers at all. In comparison, her colleague James Shaw, also a Minister outside of Cabinet, delivered seven papers on his portfolio of Climate Change. Damien O’Connor was in charge of one paper about Land Information, while Jan Tinetti put forward three for Internal Affairs. The bar has not been set very high.”
“To reject something simply means you do not accept it. To refute something means you have to provide evidence proving it false. All the evidence here says that while Minister Davidson may talk loud in limited circles, actual Ministerial action where it could make a difference is non-existent. When she is paid over $250,000 of taxpayers’ money, that is the epitome of quiet.”
Nanaia Mahuta has appointed a crew of foxes to guard the local government hen house
Nanaia Mahuta's wide-ranging review of the local government sector should be laser-focused on increasing value for money for ratepayers.
But having looked closely at the review panel, we're predicting it will do the opposite.
Firstly, the panelists are basically has-been local government insiders and professional bureaucrats. These appointees are the last people you'd expect to rein in the local government gravy train.
The terms of reference and the panel make up are disturbing. Instead of a focus on better infrastructure, more transparency, or accountability, it appears the Minister wants to move to a co-governance model with less democracy.
In fact, the panel is tasked to "reimagine the role and function of local government". That’s code for "growing the beast", when what ratepayers need is a return to core services and abolishing the powers that allow local councils to duplicate central government activities like public health campaigns, climate action, and corporate welfare.
Greenpeace campaigner, school striker appointed to an MBIE working group
The just-announced Battery Project Technical Reference Group is meant to provide “technical expertise and sector knowledge relating to the quantitative analysis MBIE is undertaking, including modelling” for its hydro battery project.
But the Ministry has made two very odd appointments to this group:
Amanda Larsson currently works as one of Greenpeace’s key staff. It’s hard to see MBIE appointing a Taxpayers’ Union campaigner for its reference groups – in fact, it would rightly cause controversy – but appointing a Greenpeace campaigner is no different in principle. Her contribution will inevitably be to advance an ideological agenda.
Isla Day is 20 years old and helped to start School Strike 4 Climate. Her expertise is in organising protests, nothing to do with energy or environmental science. She does, however, appear to be carving out a cosy career filling seats in taxpayer-funded working groups – she’s also a member of a Wellington City Council reference group. We can't blame her for jumping at well-paid opportunities, but you have to question the judgement of those who appointed her.
It’s one thing to have a political Minister making hare-brained and politicised appointments, but this group was appointed by public servants. How did no-one within MBIE raise red flags over such blatantly political appointments? Is public service neutrality is being eroded?
Members of the reference group are paid $560 per meeting.
Quotas for government contracts will cost taxpayers dearly
Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson has introduced a five percent quota for government contracts awarded to businesses that present themselves as Māori or Pasifika-owned.
You may recall we were first to sound the alarm back in 2019 when found this idea buried deep in a Ministerial briefing.
But some say the new quota doesn't go far enough. First it was the Productivity Commission (under the leadership of Labour's pet economist Ganesh Nana), and now the company that verifies the "Māori-owned" businesses wants the Government to combine the quota with a spending target for these companies (well they would say that, wouldn't they!).
This is what political analysts call "mission creep". Instead of focusing solely on delivering value for taxpayers, procurement policy is now being hijacked to hit politically-determined targets.
That means less competitive tenders, leading to either higher costs for taxpayers, lower quality services, or both. It’s also incredibly unfair for those businesses – many of which employ Māori – that will miss out on contracts purely because their owners don't tick the right diversity boxes.
Court rort #1: cultural reports
Taxpayers forked out $3.3 million for the cost of “cultural reports” for offenders in 2020. That’s five times as much as the year prior.
These reports argue how each offender should receive a reduced sentence due to “personal, family, whānau, community and cultural background”.
And it appears a cottage industry has emerged: anyone familiar with the courts system can charge up to $6,600 to write one, copy-pasting the standard lines they know will work to convince judges to cut sentences.
Court rort #2: interpreters
Taxpayers paid private contractors more than $13 million in just five years for interpretation services for people facing the courts.
In many cases the Ministry of Justice is paying these interpreters more than $125 per hour.
As the Herald reports:
Examples include $1700 paid to a te reo interpreter for a one-day hearing in Kaikohe; $2628 to a Māori translator at a two-day hearing in Wellington; and a $3197 bill for two sign-language interpreters for just 3.5 hours' work in January. The ministry said the cost included return flights.
Ihumātao deal found to be unlawful: here's who needs to resign
Last week we learned that the Government didn’t just capitulate to illegal Ihumātao occupiers – it joined them in their illegality!
The Auditor-General released a damning judgement that the $30 million taxpayer-funded bailout should have been approved by a vote in Parliament.
Remember, the Government doesn’t have the excuse of ignorance here. Treasury had sternly warned the Government against using KiwiBuild money in this way.
There should be serious consequences. All eyes should now be on Attorney-General David Parker. It's literally his job to ensure the Government follows the law. We say if he endorsed this illegal deal across the Cabinet Table, then he's unfit for his position.
Will Grant Robertson bail out New Zealand's own Bernie Madoff?
The Finance Minister has confirmed a new insurance scheme for collapsing banks and finance companies, funded by via levies on banks.
There are a number of reasons for alarm here:
Guaranteeing an effective bailout for banks will see those banks take greater risks with their lending. That’s exactly the kind of moral hazard that led to America’s sub-prime mortgages and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The Reserve Bank argued this very point, recommending the guarantee be capped at $50,000 per depositor, per institution. But Grant Robertson went for double that amount, $100,000.
The cost of the new levies on banks will naturally be passed on to deposit-holders. As if term deposit rates weren’t already low enough!
The inclusion of finance companies in the scheme is likely to see deposit-holders pay for bailouts of fraudulent finance companies. In fact we wrote to the Finance Minister in October warning him that the Serious Fraud Office prosecutes on average about one Ponzi scheme a year, and under the Government's proposals, those Ponzi schemes would become eligible for deposit insurance.
We asked Treasury officials if they gave the Minister any advice on this last problem. To our astonishment, they haven't.
Hamilton City Council shouldn’t throw $10 million into a pond
A private developer wants Hamilton ratepayers to pitch in $10 million to an inland lagoon resort.
That is completely unjustified, considering the Council is already proposing a nine percent rate hike.
If the lagoon proposal makes good business sense, then it shouldn’t need a ratepayer subsidy. There’s a risk the lagoon fails to pull in punters and becomes a stagnant pond. That risk should be borne by the developer, not Hamilton ratepayers.
It’s a concern in and of itself that the developer had the cheek to ask the Council for ten million bucks. Hamilton City Councillors need to eradicate any perception that they’ll hand over ratepayer money to every passing monorail salesman.
Taxpayer Talk: is this ACT MP a "nutter"?
Another two episodes of our Taxpayer Talk podcast have gone live.
Stuart Nash recently called ACT MP Nicole McKee a "nutter" for her views on firearms. I chat with her to help Taxpayer Talk listeners decide for themselves. Listen here.
The New Zealand Initiative's Oliver Hartwich and our own Jordan Williams discuss National's policy to pay councils for consenting houses. Listen here.
Satire: Government creates one new job
The Government has today appointed a “Minister for Announcements.”
This announcement was announced at an announcement hosted by the Acting Minister for the Announcement of the Minister for Announcements, Chris Hipkins, while he was IDed on his way into the Upper Hutt Cossie Club.
Hipkins said: “For too long, Ministers have had to make individual announcements about their own announcements. National’s nine years of neglect almost certainly caused this crisis. It is time to centralise announcements to improve efficiency. Centralising always works.”
Hipkins introduced journalists to the new Minister of Announcements, Georgie Dansey, a first term list MP.
Ms Dansey is an MP you think about so infrequently that you probably don’t realise that photo is not of Georgie Dansey – that is Jill Pettis, a Labour MP who left Parliament in 2008.
This is the first-term list MP, the now Hon Georgie Dansey.
Except that she isn’t an MP – because while this time it is actually Ms Dansey pictured and she was a Labour candidate last year, she was ranked 84th, last on the list. She once told The Spinoff that she would have been an MP if only 5.5 million New Zealanders voted Labour.
The actual Minister of Announcements will be Megan Woods on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and Chris Hipkins for Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Ramadan. However, for any really good news, announcements will be made by Jacinda Ardern and the country’s first man, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
When asked about the actual results of all the announcements over previous years, Hipkins snapped back: “Don’t change the subject. This has nothing to do with outcomes.”
Gallery journalists described the Minister’s aggressive response as “like being savaged by a vegan lemur.”
Editor's note: This last section of the newsletter was provided by Taxpayers' Union Analyst (and occasional in-house comedian) Neil Miller.
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Have a great week,
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Mark Cameron is one of ACT's 9 new MPs, in this episode of MPs in Depth Louis sits down with Mark for an educational and energetic conversation on the plight of farming, the urban and rural divide, and why he chose ACT.
At $50,000 per dwelling, is a big taxpayer handout to Councils the right medicine for a housing shortage? Jordan sits down with the Executive Director of the New Zealand Initiative, Oliver Hartwich for a friendly natter on the merits of National's latest housing policy.
Louis sits down with new Act MP Nicole McKee for a wide ranging discussion from her passion for firearms and hunting, to dealing with the public spotlight, and the spirit of the new ACT party.