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Government waste honoured at 2021 Jonesie Awards

The fourth annual Jonesie Waste Awards were hosted at the Beehive today, celebrating the best of the worst of local and central government waste from the last 12 months.

The Taxpayers’ Union selected five nominees and a winner from each of the local and central government categories, along with one Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

Taxpayers are likely to view the wasteful spending presented today in the context of the current pandemic. How, for example, can the Government justify spending $17 million on art therapy programmes when our DHBs are crying out for more resources in intensive care?

Similarly, local councils across the country have this year implemented record rate hikes, while failing to make the budgetary sacrifices experienced by households losing income during lockdown.

While the presentation of awards is tongue-in-cheek, it does serve a serious purpose: the Jonesies remind those who squander public money that they risk squandering their public reputation, and potentially, their careers. The awards give those who fleece the taxpayer the credit they so richly deserve.

2021 Local Government Nominations

Auckland Council used a multi-million dollar cash injection from Wellington to innovate its streets. $100,000 was spent painting dots and patterns in Takapuna. In Onehunga $41,000 was spent blocking a road with plywood crates, which were promptly vandalised and moved by locals.

While planning an 8.9% rate hike, Hamilton City Council hired a "play advocate" who tasked councillors and staff with making lego ducks. The council also sent staff into school classrooms to collect submissions from children on its iwi partnership strategy.

Nelson City Council's new toilet blocks at Tahunanui and Millers Acre cost $800,000 each. This adds to a proud history of toilet-related overspends in the sunny city.

Anne Tolley is paid $1,800 a day to fix problems at Tauranga City Council. Under her watch the city has seen record rate hikes, council salary bloat, and infrastructure botch-ups.

Rotorua Lakes Mayor Steve Chadwick has overseen an "organisational realignment", giving her chief executive seven deputies, each paid more than $200,000.

2021 Local Government Waste Award Winner: Tauranga Commission Chair Anne Tolley

2021 Central Government Nominations

The Department of Conservation shipped a dead leatherback turtle from Bank's Peninsula to Wellington and stored it in a Te Papa freezer for 21 months, before trucking it back down to Canterbury for a high-powered, fully-catered funeral and a helicopter ride to a hilltop burial site.

The Speaker of the House incurred $333,000 in legal fees and settlement costs after falsely accusing a Parliamentary staffer of rape. When facing defamation action, Mallard threatened to plead truth, despite later admitting he knew he was wrong within 24 hours of the accusation.

The budget for Twyford's troubled 'Skypath' proposal blew out by 1000% when Michael Wood turned it into a stand-alone cycle bridge. The bridge has now been scrapped, but $51 million and has already been wasted, and spending on engineering reports hasn't stopped.

The Prime Minister, along with the Minister of Finance and the Minister of Justice, signed off on $2.75 million in funding from the Proceeds of Crime Fund for a Hawke's Bay meth rehab programme run by members of the Mongrel Mob – the key supplier of meth in the region.

Tourism NZ spent $918,000 to have Rod Stewart sing his hit "Sailing" for the America's Cup. Sir Rod did not appear in person, or even cross live – the performance was pre-recorded on a barge in London, lip-synched, and prefaced by an interview with Clarke Gayford.

2021 Central Government Waste Award Joint Winners: Department of Conservation and Te Papa

Lifetime Achievement in Waste Award Winner:

Hon Grant Robertson gained his political experience in student politics, even writing a dissertation on the subject, before graduating to roles at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the United Nations.

After stints advising Helen Clark and working for the University of Otago, he was elected as the MP for Wellington Central, the one seat that doesn't seem to care about private sector experience.

In 2017 he was appointed Finance Minister for the Labour Government, and maintained a fairly conservative approach to public finances until the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

He announced a $12 billion COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund and quickly topped it up by another $50 billion. This soon revealed itself to be a Provincial Growth Fund-style slush fund, only at far greater scale.

Examples of spending from the Finance Minister's "COVID response" fund include $12 million for flood protection in the Far North, $26 million for cameras on fishing boats, $50 million for "regional digital connectivity", $52 million for the horse racing industry, $55 million for "public interest" journalism, $87 million on internet modems for school kids (including Mike Hosking's child), $100 million for affordable housing projects, $155 million for "Transformative energy" projects, $200 milion on a new building for the University of Auckland, $210 million for "Climate resilience" projects, $374 million in arts grants (including $17 million for art therapy programmes), $515 million for school lunches, $761 million to support Three Waters reform, and $1.2 billion on "jobs for nature" such as paying people to shoot wallabies.

Only about a quarter of the money was spent on wage subsidies.

Inevitably, the fund ran dry upon the arrival of a second COVID outbreak. Grant Robertson simply announced he would top it up by another $7 billion.

Grant Robertson's "no new taxes" promise was also jettisoned at some point, with new taxes on housing investments and a new 39 percent tax rate for high-earners.

It is only fair that we give Grant Robertson the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in government waste – for making Shane Jones look like a symbol of lean and efficient government.

Notes to editors:

The Jonesies are named after Hon Shane Jones, the winner of the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in Government Waste. The Jonesies follow the same format as the Canadian “Teddy” Awards, which have been presented annually by the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation since 1999.

The Jonesie Waste Awards are made possible by the members and financial supporters of the New Zealand Taxpayers' Union.

Taxpayer Talk: Three Waters with Christopher Luxon

Nanaia Mahuta has announced that the government will mandate to seize Three Waters assets from councils. Jordan is joined by National's spokesperson for Local Government Christopher Luxon to discuss the implications, the flaws and what can be done about the government's plans.  

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It’s no wonder local councils are rebelling against LGNZ

The following is an opinion piece by Taxpayers’ Union Executive Director Jordan Williams.

Local Government New Zealand President Stuart Crosby resorted to name calling in a recent opinion piece, calling the thousands of New Zealanders who emailed local councillors about Three Waters “wilfully ill-informed keyboard warriors”.

This is a desperate attempt to find a scapegoat for the crumbling support for the Government’s Three Waters proposals, which LGNZ are supporting.

New Zealanders’ opposition to the Three Waters proposal has spilled over into anger at LGNZ for their support of the reform programme. Ironically LGNZ’s president accuses the reform’s opponents of playing fast and loose with the facts for political gain.

Crosby, in an opinion piece published by stuff, suggests New Zealanders are victims of deception, while refusing to explain exactly what he think that deception is.

Which ‘facts’ does he dispute? That the reform will introduce four layers of bureaucracy between ratepayers and the new water entities? That the Government’s own peer review found the touted financial benefits to be detached from reality? Or that 60 out of 67 councils have signalled either an intention to opt out or major concerns with the reforms?

LGNZ’s president returns to the tired justification trotted out by proponents of the Government scheme that greater efficiencies from economies of scale will translate to more manageable debt and more affordable water costs. The theory goes that the absolute loss of local control over water assets is simply an acceptable for tradeoff for these hypothetical financial benefits.

This theory is undermined by two simple questions. What incentive will unelected water monopolies have to keep costs low? What guarantee is there that councils will provide commensurate rates relief to offset the new water bills charged to ratepayers?

Some councillors are surprised that the president of LGNZ is supporting such fundamental reforms opposed by his member councils.

There is a very simple reason LGNZ is playing puppet for the Government on Three Waters. The organisation signed an agreement with central government which sees it receive taxpayer funding in exchange for a commitment “to build support within the local government sector for the Three Waters Reform Programme”. This sits at odds with Mr Crosby’s claim in his opinion piece that LGNZ “tends to stay on the side-lines” in this debate.

In other words, LGNZ’s support for Government’s Three Waters plan is bought and paid for.

This shady deal was signed without consultation with LGNZ’s member councils. That’s despite the reforms promising a fundamental transfer of control over billions of dollars’ worth of local assets.

It’s no wonder that a growing faction of rebel councils is denouncing LGNZ, with Timaru District Council voting to leave the body, and others set to vote on doing the same.

Blinkered by central government dollars and underestimating the strength of ratepayer pushback, Stuart Crosby has backed his organisation into a corner, pushing an absurd false dichotomy that councils must either support the reforms or perpetually endure crumbling pipes. Hawkes’ Bay councils’ independent proposal for regional amalgamation show us there are other options.

In the end ignoring your constituent members and launching ad-hominem attacks on their ratepayers isn't going to make their concerns disappear. With legislation not having yet reached Parliament, the debate over Three Waters has just begun.

REVEALED: Government’s favoured unions repaid $1.6 million in wage subsidies

The Taxpayers’ Union has today revealed that the Labour Party’s trade unions – First Union and E Tū – have repaid the full $1.6 million they received in wage subsidies. This comes after the Union called on them to do so earlier this year.

We’d like to congratulate these left wing unions on finally doing the right thing by taxpayers. As beneficiaries of steady revenue from membership dues (as opposed to donations), it was always questionable how these trade unions were ever eligible for the subsidy. The fact they could afford to spend money on campaigns to re-elect the Government last year suggests they were hardly strapped for cash.

The weird part is how secretive these unions have been about their decision to repay the subsidy. They could have announced it proudly and encouraged other unions to do the same, like we did. Instead, the repayment has only been made public thanks to an eagle-eyed Taxpayers’ Union researcher monitoring MSD records and confirming the repayment using the Official Information Act.

E Tū admitted to Stuff today that its repayment came after an audit by MSD found it didn’t qualify. First Union has not revealed whether it qualified in the first place.

Of course, the Taxpayers’ Union came forward to repay its wage subsidy, even though, unlike the left wing unions, we qualified to receive it. For us, it was a matter of principle: it’s difficult to claim you’re an independent watchdog when you’re funded by the Government.

Taxpayer Talk: David Seymour

What's the secret to ACT's success? Why after years of campaigning are they opposing housing reforms? Who does David think should win the biggest government spending blowout award? Jordan and David discuss this and more in this weeks episode of Taxpayer Talk. 

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Poll reveals what New Zealanders think of Three Waters

Main poll

Newly-released data from the Taxpayers’ Union Curia Poll reveals opposition to the Government’s Three Waters reform plans outweighs support by three to one.

The poll of 1,000 New Zealanders reveals 56% oppose the reforms, with just 19% in support. 24% are unsure. The full polling report is available here.

Opposition outweighs support among supporters of every significant political party. Labour supporters oppose the policy at a rate of 39%, versus 28% in support and 34% unsure.

Opposition outweighs support across every age group, and is especially strong among older New Zealanders who are more likely to pay rates.

Wellington has the lowest rate of opposition to the reforms, but even there opposition outweighs support, with the largest grouping being unsure. Opposition is highest in small towns and rural areas.

The Government didn’t give councils time to conduct proper consultation with their communities before submitting feedback on the reforms, but many thousands of New Zealanders made their voices heard anyway by emailing their local councillors. Now we have the hard data to back up evidence of widespread opposition.The Government’s $3.5 million ad campaign has failed to shore up support for Three Waters reform.

This poll reveals that opponents of Nanaia Mahuta’s multi-billion dollar asset grab are far more than a vocal minority. Most ratepayers are repelled by the prospect of removing control of water assets from local councils and burying it under four layers of co-governed bureaucracy.

Mahuta’s Three Waters crusade is rapidly turning into albatross around the Government’s neck. We’ve previously seen the Prime Minister acknowledge public opinion by u-turning on the capital gains tax and the Auckland cycle bridge. It’s time for a similar captain’s call over Three Waters.

The poll was taken from Sunday 3 October to Monday 11 October. The Taxpayers’ Union is running a petition against the Three Waters reforms which so far has 63,000 signatures. It can be signed at

Exclusive: New poll reveals opposition to Shaw's Glasgow trip

Shaw poll 1

The New Zealand Taxpayers' Union has today released independent Curia public polling on Climate Change Minister James Shaw's upcoming attendance at the Glasgow climate conference. 

The Minister, accompanied by 14 staff, will fly to Glasgow where daily COVID-19 cases currently exceed 400. On his return, Shaw and nine of his staff will occupy 10 MIQ spots. The Taxpayers' Union Curia Poll asked whether New Zealanders believed the Minister and his staff should be attending this conference.

The poll shows just 30% of New Zealanders support the trip, versus 55% opposing. 15% are 'unsure'.

Only Green Party supporters expressed a majority in favour of the trip. Labour supporters were split roughly in opinion; National, ACT and unaffiliated respondents showed strong opposition.

Shaw poll 2

With the current severe domestic and international COVID-19 travel restrictions, the Minister's overseas adventure flies in the face of New Zealanders' sacrifices. Given the evident lack of public support, the trip is an unwanted blow to the taxpayers footing the bill for the Minister and his entourage's flights, accommodation, and dinners.

While one already struggles to see economic justification for the trip, the environmental costs seems even more unbalanced. With an average fly time of 50 hours for a return trip from Auckland to Glasgow, the Minister and his staffers will emit more than 125 tonnes of CO2 travelling to and from the climate conference. As we've said previously, if the Minister had wanted to avoid perceptions of climate hypocrisy and wasteful travel, he should have announced the New Zealand contingent would be calling in via Zoom.

You can't beat COVID with Māori Pokemon

The New Zealand Taxpayers' Union is challenging the value of large arts grants handed out under the Ministry for Culture and Heritage's new $60 million COVID-19 "Innovation Fund"

So far, thirty two projects have received $6.2 million from the fund. The questionable taxpayer funded projects include:

•  $585,000 to develop a te Reo Māori virtual reality game.

•  $20,000 on "a digital storytelling platform using the vaka as medium for navigating and exploring Tokelauan heritage"

•  $2,110,000 for live music venues to increase diversity.

•  $290,000 to "an online game for rangatahi that imagines a Māori future".

•  $500,000 on a tool to give readers book recommendations that reflect gender diversity.

•  $328,405 to develop a Pokemon Go-style augmented reality game based on Te Ao Māori.

•  $1,323,000 on two productions of Māori performing arts.

It is hard to see how a Māori ripoff of Pokemon Go could be considered a COVID-19 response. Especially when our health system is currently crying out for more nurses and ICU beds.

We've criticised arts grants in the past, but these particular handouts are even more shocking for their sheer size. $1.3 million for two performance art productions does not represent good value for taxpayer money. In fact, that's more tax than an average worker would pay in their lifetime. It would be far fairer to split this money between all artists as a tax credit or just return it to the taxpayer for that matter.

The most incredible thing is that so far barely a tenth of the total fund has been allocated. If these are the projects first off the rank, that doesn't bode well for the remaining rounds of handouts.

This funding is an absolute lottery. We understand that even many artists are questioning handouts made under this fund based on the incredible size of certain grants, and the lack of apparent logic behind the selection of recipients.

Below is a longer list of project descriptions from successful grant applicants.

To develop 'Atuatanga', an interactive virtual reality gaming experience that will use te Reo Māori and mātauranga Māori to engage players through challenges as they navigate through an ancient world restoring the taiao for future generations.
Awarded: $585,000

Narrative Muse
To support the development of Narrative Muse, a digital platform to help Aotearoa audiences access books, movies and television content that reflects intersectionality and gender diversity.
Awarded: $500,000

To scope the development and prototyping of a digital storytelling platform using the vaka as medium for navigating and exploring Tokelauan heritage. This will enable and improve Tokelauan and Pasifika access and participation in art, culture and heritage.
Awarded: $20,000

TPW - Māori Pokemon
To develop creative assets for an augmented reality app called Pūrākau. The app embeds Te Ao Māori content into the environment around us using mixed reality technology. The project is delivered via smart phone devices to enable accessibility to a wide audience.
Awarded: $328,405

Taki Rua Productions
The development and delivery of two immersive live productions of large-scale contemporary Māori performing arts pieces. By presenting mātauranga Māori within contemporary performances the project will increase access and participation to both mātauranga and contemporary performance art.
Awarded: $1,323,000

To design a suite of tools that helps arts and culture organisations to measure, understand, increase and articulate their wellbeing impact in order to unlock the value of culture and their assets. The development of these tools is aimed at increasing the capacity to generate wellbeing for communities, helping improve access and participation.
Awarded: $150,000

Public Art Heritage Aotearoa NZ
To develop a website of Aotearoa’s remaining twentieth century public art heritage, which will enable New Zealanders to access and build awareness of our public art heritage. Funding will also support the development of a national public art forum to develop best-practice guidance and resources for those involved in public art.
Awarded: $300,000

NZ Festival
To develop a new values-driven ticketing platform, empowering audiences to choose their own ticket price, thereby increasing access and participation in the cultural sector.
Awarded: $200,000

Metia Interactive
To develop Guardian Maia, an online game for rangatahi that imagines a Māori future and uses culturally inclusive creative technology to explore mātauranga Māori traditions and new cultural concepts.
Awarded $290,000

Aotearoa Live Music Recovery Project
To support small to medium sized live music venues with artist and audience development that increases diversity. The project will increase access and participation in live music.
Awarded: $2,110,000

To develop a platform to enable artists, arts venues, arts organisations and cultural institutions to create their own hybrid and virtual events, allowing them to reach new audiences and drive new revenue streams for their work.
Awarded: $206,965

Joel Baxendale and Karin McCracken - In World
To develop a flexible and dynamic creative tool that will enable multiple sectors to apply app-technology in an interactive context, thereby creating new opportunities for the arts sector and enabling access and participation.
Awarded: $227,605

Taxpayers’ Union asks Jacinda Ardern to clarify role of electorate secretary acting as wedding planner

The Taxpayers’ Union has today written to the MP for Mt Albert asking for more details about her electorate agent’s role in managing the Gisborne wedding venue, given the staffer is based in Auckland and wouldn’t normally travel for her job.

We know of at least two visits to Gisborne by the electorate agent, and it remains unclear whether taxpayers paid for the travel and any accommodation.

MPs enjoy a privileged position. It is important for public confidence that it is made clear no taxpayer money is being used for personal benefit.

This isn’t the first time the Taxpayers’ Union has taken an investigative role in the spending of taxpayer money by MPs. Under the last Government we held to account National Party MP Claudette Hauiti after she used her budget to pay for a personal trip to Australia, and National Party Ministers who used Crown limos to travel to Northland to campaign for the 2015 by-election.

Unfortunately, MPs have a special carve-out from the Official Information Act, meaning that it is up to the Prime Minister to release this information. But given her public commitments to transparency, and her office’s assurance that everything is above board, we look forward to being furnished with the information sought.

The letter is available here.

Wilful Ignorance: disregarding the ETS will hurt us all

Jordan is joined by New Zealand Initiative Economist Matt Burgess for a detailed discussion about the ETS. They reflect on the government's long standing stance of ignoring the realities of the trading scheme, the inefficiency of climate change vanity projects and what we can do moving forward. 

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