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A question of value for taxpayer money

This morning there has been some criticism of my comments in a story on the Herald website about a trip Mojo Mathers took to Masterton from Christchurch apparently just for a short interview on a community radio station.

For clarification:

  • The Taxpayers' Union did not seek media attention on this story. There is no associated press release. The Herald called yesterday evening asking for comment, as happens often.
  • The Taxpayers' Union operate 24 hour media line for comment on taxpayer issues. Yesterday's call came through to me and I was asked whether it was value for money for an MP to fly 800km for a radio interview on a small community station. I said it was not value for money when the interview could have been done on Skype as well as the comments that are quoted in the story.
  • I've made no comment about Ms Mathers disability. In fact, if the travel was necessary I would not criticise the spending. But answering questions posed by the Herald, on matter which as far as I know are completely unrelated to her disability, is legitimate.
  • Accusations that I (or the Union) sought to go after Mathers are ridiculous. To repeat, we were asked for comment by the Herald who were running the story. The comments would have been the same whoever the MP.
  • Accusations that the Taxpayers' Union are partisan are also silly. I am proud that the Union has gone after National MPs and the current government for expenses, wasteful expenditure and corporate welfare. See http://info.scoop.co.nz/New_Zealand_Taxpayers'_Union 

On reflection, I wonder why an MP from a party that prides itself for having a low environmental footprint choose to fly to a radio interview that could have been done on Skype. Perhaps Ms Mathers had other engagements in Masterton. If so, that was not the information provided to me at the time by the Herald reporter.

Jordan Williams.

Update on Dunedin Mayor’s “Gentleman’s agreement”

We now have more details of the deal uncovered by the Taxpayers’ Union over the weekend between Dunedin’s Mayor Dave Cull and former MP, Pete Hodgson, which the Mayor described in the media as a “gentleman’s agreement”.

This morning’s Christchurch Press editorial analyses the deal:

Editorial: Gentlemen sign contracts too

...

There is no reason to believe that Cull and Hodgson are anything other than honest gentlemen, but the geographic accident that also gives them "southern man" status should not put them above the usual requirements by which local government business is conducted.

The standards that apply to council administration in the south should be no less rigorous than in Auckland city or the Whangarei district. Why should ratepayers in Dunedin tolerate a more easy-going attitude towards the spending of their money than anywhere else, just because of a romantic notion that southerners are somehow more honourable? Actually, they aren't.

 

Internal Affairs misleading public with five year passport justification

Earlier in the month, we launched Jordan McCluskey's briefing paper on the lousy deal New Zealand passport holders are getting. 

Following the briefing paper, and our presentation to the Parliamentary select committee considering a petition to reintroduce ten year passports, we've learned just how thin the justification is for the current five year passport regime.

The Department of Internal Affair's response to our request under the Official Information Act casts doubt on Internal Affairs' claim that five year passports are necessary for New Zealanders to retain visa-free status to many parts of the world.

The Department's '5 year passport' Q&A webpage still states:

What would happen if we had a ten year passport?

...

A longer validity period would mean fewer visa free arrangements with other countries (and potentially higher travel costs as New Zealand travellers need to apply for more visas. More delays would be a likely result because new features could only be introduced every ten years).

So we asked what counties expressed concern and what countries did New Zealanders gain visa free access because of the move to five year passports in 2005.

Officials could not provide a single document that supported the Department's claim that ten year passports would jeopardise New Zealand's visa-free arrangements with other countries 

In recent weeks the Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs have told media that ten year passports are necessary for security. But not a single country has expressed concern with New Zealand’s old passport regime.

It appears that passport bureaucrats are inflating justifications for the existing regime rather than reflecting genuine concerns about passport security.

The prediction that other Anglo-Saxon countries would move to five year passports was wrong

The advice that prompted the last government to cut the term of passports has proved to be wrong. The documents also show that officials were wrong in advice given to the Government in 2003 that Australia, the UK and the US intended introduce five year passports. All three countries have remained at ten years, with others moving from five to ten.

Come on Mr Dunne, do the right thing, cut the passport tax and reintroduce ten year passports.

Jordan McCluskey's briefing paper “Sky High” is available to download here.

DIA letter on passports

 

Passports Documents released under the OIA

Payments by Dunedin City Council to former MP with no documentation

This morning the Taxpayers’ Union went public with material concerning a payment (or payments) totalling $3,400 by the Dunedin City Council to former MP Pete Hogdson with no documentation or contract.

We're questioning the internal controls at the Council after the uncovering the payment following a recent media report that Mr Hodgson had been recruited by the Council for lobbying. We asked for information about the services being provided by Mr Hodgson under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act. Click "continue reading" below to view the Council's response.

According to the Council, Mr Hodgson’s work consisted of “lobbying and advocating on behalf of the Council” and there is no supporting documentation. 

The Council has told us that:

  • Everything was verbal. The Council could not provide a single report, email, or even letter of engagement.
  • All of the contracts were negotiated verbally.
  • The contracts were negotiated by the Mayor and there is no documentation to explain the deal.

We asked for copies of any work by Mr Hodgson. All we got back was two letters by the mayor on which Mr Hodgson apparently had input. It is not clear what precisely that was. For example, there is no 'tracked changes" document.

We think Dunedin ratepayers will be alarmed that their Council paid $3,400 apparently without so much as an invoice. Dunedin ratepayers should ask their Mayor:

  • What did Mr Hodgson do? Was this just expensive proof reading?
  • Why was the Mayor negotiating this in the first place?
  • Why verbally?
  • Why is there absolutely no documentation for the arrangement, not even an email?
  • Is Mr Hodgson friends with the Mayor?
  • Why doesn't Dunedin Council have the most basic internal controls, requiring amounts to be paid by invoice only?

The Council’s response raises serious questions.  We can't think of another government agency that would spend $3,400 without being able to provide as much as an invoice. 

Without an explanation from the Council, we are left wondering whether the Auditor-General should get involved."

Dunedin City Council LGOIMA response - Pete Hodgson

Fizz using Health Research Council's logo without permission

The Taxpayer’s Union has discovered that the 'Fizz' group of academics campaigning for a ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks appears to have been falsely claiming the endorsement of the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC).

A group of academics who have received a lot of publicity recently, calling themselves "Fizz" and pushing a sugar tax, appear to have been caught out. On the 'programme guide', which was available on their website, fizz.org.nz they listed the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC)'s logo. The full document is available here.

 

We wrote to the HRC asking what the nature of its support is for Fizz. We wondered why this group of academics, clearly pushing for political ends (i.e. a sugar tax) were receiving taxpayer support from the HRC.

We found that "Fizz" were fibbing - HRC are not supporting their sugar tax campaign.

The letter from the HRC's Chief Executive, Dr Robin Olds, is below. It states that Fizz is not receiving any support form the HRC and suggests that Fizz has been misleading its supporters, the public, and the media.

Subsequently, we've also learned that Dr Olds has asked that the HRC logo be removed from Fizz’s promotional material. In an email to the Taxpayers’ Union Mr Olds said,

“In a phone call to the conference organiser we pointed out that using our logo was inappropriate, given that [Fizz] did not seek our permission, and that some appeared to interpret the logo as the HRC endorsing the conference."

We've also written to the other government bodies that are apparently supporting this Fizz group. We want to know whether they are supporting Fizz's political activities or whether Fizz is also falsely claiming support. 

In the meantime, we think that one has to be sceptical about a group claiming to be 'evidence based' and about science when they use the HRC’s logo without permission. We think it potentially calls into question their academic credibility.

Wellington town hall strengthening cost blowout

Yesterday we issued a media release in response to a Dominion Post report stating that earthquake strengthening work on the Wellington Town Hall has been halted due to a $17 million budget blowout. The total cost of the work is now estimated to cost $60 million. We noted that this equals $871 per Wellington household.

Whilst the town hall is a lovely building, at this cost it seems unaffordable, and our understanding from a property expert is that it could be much cheaper to replace it with a new, fit for purpose building using the existing facade and features Wellingtonians treasure. Newstalk ZB covered our release here.

Today the Dominion Post followed up the story, reporting:

Wellington City Council has refused to reveal how much it has already spent on town hall strengthening work, which has been put on hold after a budget blowout of about $17 million.

The Dominion Post revealed yesterday that the cost to strengthen the hall had ballooned from a budgeted $43m to about $60m.

City councillors will have to go back to the debating chamber later this year to decide if it is worth spending that much.

They could look at cheaper alternatives, or at replacing the town hall on the same or a new site.

The council intended to use a base isolation system to bring the strengthened hall up to 140 per cent of the new building standards (NBS).

Engineers have assessed the building as meeting just 20 per cent to 25 per cent of the NBS. Anything under 33 per cent is deemed earthquake-prone.

Work has now stopped, just three months into the three-year programme, as the council considers its options.

Given that ratepayers are paying for the work, we think they should know how much has already been spent on the building, even if work has now been halted due to an overspend. We're requesting the information under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.

The Council faces the same problems as many Wellington property owners. In some cases it has declined resource consents to demolish dangerous buildings that have been uneconomic to upgrade. It will be interesting to see what the costs (and solution) are.

Minister wrong on claim he's returned passport tax to New Zealanders

TV One’s Breakfast this morning had the Minister of Internal Affairs, Peter Dunne, interviewed about the figures provided in the briefing paper we released yesterday.

Mr Dunne told Rawdon Christie that the profits the Government has made from passports have “been returned to people via a lower fee” (click here to watch the interview).

Mr Dunne is wrong. Our paper shows that New Zealanders are getting the worst deal in the world for a passport. In fact, Mr Dunne’s is sitting on $20.8 million dollars of passport fee profits which are, in effect, a tax on getting a New Zealand passport. That isn't 'cost recovery', it's a 'cost plus' model.

Come on Mr Dunne, stop taxing Kiwis for a passport and bring us into line with the rest of the world by lowering the fees and reintroducing ten year passports.

John Key open to change on passport tax

Following yesterday's submission to the Government Administration Select Committee looking at the issue of ten year passports, and release of Jordan McCluskey's briefing paper showing that a New Zealand passport is the most expensive in the world on a per year basis, the PM isn't ruling out change.

TVNZ's reported John Key's comments that the Government is 'constantly having a look at' the passport term and position and 'the arguments for keep it at five years are about security'.

We don't accept that.  Canada and the Netherlands, countries which have very similar visa-free requirements around the world have both recently introduced 10 year passports. Is their passport security less than ours?? 

Click here to watch the One News report.

What do you think? Click here to comment via our Facebook page.

Sky High: Briefing paper on passport affordablity

This morning the Taxpayers' Union is appearing before the Government Administration Select Committee, in support of a petition to reintroduce ten year passports for New Zealanders.

We will also be presenting a briefing paper by Jordan McCluskey, 'Sky High: Briefing paper on passport affordability'.

Our research shows that New Zealand is out of line with the rest of the world

Contrary to statements made by the Government, most of our trading partners issue ten, not five year passports.

 

The per year cost of a New Zealand passport is more than any other country we examined.

In addition, the Government is sitting on a whopping surplus of $20.8 million because of excessive passports charges.

Click here to read the full briefing paper on passport affordability.

In 2005 the Government introduced biometric technology to passports, made them more expensive and reduced their validity from ten to five years.

Our research shows that the New Zealand passport is now the most expensive in the world on a per year basis. Even if the New Zealand government issued ten year passports, at current prices, New Zealanders would still be paying more than citizens in most countries with whom we traditionally compare ourselves.

Contrary to the Government’s claims that five year passports are necessary for security, New Zealand is swimming against the tide, with Canada, China and the Netherlands all recently increasing their passport validities to ten years.

Kiwi travellers are paying more and getting less. We’re calling on the new Minister of Internal Affairs, Peter Dunne to do the sensible thing and reintroduce ten-year passports. 

The research suggests that current regime isn’t about security, it’s about raising money for the Government.

Click here to download the report.

Update on Napier omnishambles museum

The Hawke's Bay Today has picked up the story on the omnishambles that is the Napier Museum.

The New Zealand Taxpayers' Union has labelled the MTG Hawke's Bay museum's problems an "omnishambles", while Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule has denied Napier Mayor Bill Dalton's claim they knew about storage issues with the facility as early as last year.

At Wednesday's City Development Committee meeting, Mr Dalton said the previous council and Mr Yule were made aware last year that there were issues relating to storage at the museum. That was refuted yesterday by Mr Yule who said he would have taken steps to remedy the situation, had he known about it.

"Firstly, I would have told my council straight away, because we are governors of half that collection, and two, we'd have worked out - what is the plan and how can we fix this?" he said.

"There was a conversation a number of years ago about whether we should have off-site storage. It was decided not to do that, effectively because the operating costs of having two facilities would be high.

"Until a week ago, that was my understanding of what was happening."

Mr Dalton declined to respond to Mr Yule's denial.

This week it was revealed there were storage issues at the new museum, with only as much as 40 per cent of the collection able to be housed - a figure Mr Dalton said was inaccurate.

Furthermore, at Wednesday's meeting projected visitor targets were found to be grossly erroneous with this year's target of 690,000 visitors reduced to a more realistic 120,000.

At the meeting tourism services manager Neil Fergus said the targets were based on the old building, which allowed for a free public flow through the Century Foyer "which is no longer relevant to the redeveloped site".

Mr Dalton said yesterday he would not get involved in a debate with the New Zealand Taxpayers' Union.

"We've built a magnificent new building.

"We do require some fine tuning and we're going to undergo a review to get it fine tuned. End of story."

He was unsure when the planned review of the MTG issues would be completed as Napier City Council chief executive Wayne Jack was away on the Hawke's Bay Regional Council's dam fact-finding trip to the South Island.

"I'm not going to make any comment until we've done the review," Mr Dalton said.

"Let us get the review done and see what the facts are."

Meanwhile, Jordan Williams of the Taxpayers' Union said: "A three-children family doesn't build a two-bedroom house, but Napier has built a museum forgetting 40 per cent of its collection. It is a complete omnishambles."

Lawrence Yule contacted me this morning and said that not only did he not know of the situation in Napier, neither did Hastings District Council officials. I know Lawrence and accept his word. It appears that he's been dropped in it by Dalton.

Nevertheless Hastings ratepayers helped fund this museum and deserve answers (presumably from Napier!).


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