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Championing Value For Money From Every Tax Dollar

Turning a blind EY

You may recall that back in October, allegations of misspending within the commercial arm of the Te Kohanga Reo National Trust came to light as a result of an exposé by Maori TV’s Native Affairs programme. Allegations included a staff member spending Kohanga Reo funds on a wedding dress, a separate Trelise Cooper dress, a 21st birthday present and a $1000 cash withdrawal from a BP station as koha for a tangi which she did not attend.

Taxpayers were told at the time that the allegations would be subject of an urgent independent audit commissioned by the Ministry of Education.

The Minister of Education and her Associate Minister hastily called a press conference last night and released the report by accounting firm EY. The Dominion Post held their front page and led with the story this morning.

Kohanga Reo probe avoids key claims

The Government is dodging questions about allegations of misspending by a company linked to Kohanga Reo after a press conference tonight where it claimed the firm had been cleared – before admitting none of the claims sparking its inquiry were investigated.

After holding on to an audit report for a week, Education Minister Hekia Parata tonight called an urgent press conference for 8pm with just over an hour’s notice to announce the Kohanga Reo National Trust had been cleared of any wrongdoing - though the report by Ernst & Young raised questions about the processes surrounding a $50,000 koha payment to an unnamed recipient, and credit card controls.

But under questioning Parata and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples confirmed none of the original allegations surrounding spending by the trust's commercial arm Te Pataka Ohanga were investigated. Read more.

That’s right. The Ministry commissioned EY to do a report that doesn’t cover the key allegations!

So why is the Minister telling the public that the Kohanga Reo National Trust has been cleared? You’ll need to bear with us here. The National Trust receives around $90million funding per year from the Government which is transferred to the individual kohanga reo. Each kōhanga reo then contracts a company called Te Pataka Ohanga for various services such as insurance, IT and property loans.

Te Pataka Ohanga is a subsidiary of the National Trust.

Amazingly, because it is a subsidiary, and because the taxpayer money flows through the individual kohanga reo, the Ministers are saying that Te Pataka Ohanga cannot be examined and argue that it is not public money.

In the last few hours Fairfax has picked up the Taxpayers' Union press release on that point:

Kohanga Reo audit a ‘whitewash'

Parata said it was a private organisation so outside the Government's scope - although it was later confirmed TPO ultimately received its funding through the Ministry of Education.

Jordan Williams, executive director of the Taxpayers' Union, today called the late-night press conference and "mischaracterisation" of the report "shameful" as it ignored the key allegations around the personal use of company credit cards.

"The Ernst Young review did not even look at the key allegations at Te Pataka Ohanga," he said.

"It's not vindication, it's a whitewash."

Williams asked what other publicly funded entity could avoid audit scrutiny by creating a subsidiary company.

"If this attitude was the norm, the public audit process would be meaningless," he said.

"Instead of getting to the bottom of the allegations, Hekia Parata and Dr Pita Sharples have chosen to turn a blind eye to what are serious allegations."

Labour's Nanaia Mahuta said given the seriousness of the allegations it was "inadequate" for Parata to say she had no oversight of TPO.

"The reality is that public monies are transferred from the Kohanga Reo Trust to Te Pataka Ohanga and there should be a line of sight to ensure that the money is spent properly and that there's a level of transparency and accountability for that.” Read more.

What do you think? Drop us a line, or comment on our Facebook page.

Game On - 194 days

The Prime Minister has announced an election date of 20 September. 

The role of the Taxpayers' Union through the next 194 days is to make sure politicians are promising value for money - and not vote buying through pork barrel politics and government waste.

Without fear or favour, we intend to critique the various promises made with taxpayers' money as well as fight policies that will increase the overall tax burden faced by kiwi households.

If you've not already joined our campaign, you can do so here. It's going to be a lot of fun.

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.


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