Can we do this in NZ please

September 11th, 2012 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Brisbane Times reports:

 A national public health body has slammed the Newman government’s “gag order” on community organisations, saying it will strip service providers of one of their vital roles.

Queensland Health grant contracts now included clauses preventing non-government organisations advocating for state and federal legislative change, a spokesman for Minister Lawrence Springborg confirmed last night.

“We’re making it clear that we want to fund outcomes but not advocacy,” the spokesman said.

We badly need this in NZ. I’m all for funding of public health groups that provide actual public health services. But we spend tens of millions of dollars on groups that take the money and use it to lobby MPs on what the law should be. It is quite wrong that bureaucrats hand out money to lobby groups, to try and dictate policy to MPs.

There is nothing wrong with a taxpayer funded health group doing select committee submissions and the like. But some health groups are 95% taxpayer funded and as far as I can tell spend 95% of their resources on lobbying activities.

The Newman government raised concerns about advocacy when it announced in May that it was stripping about $2.5 million from the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities, which Queensland Health had previously funded to target HIV/AIDS prevention among gay men.

The group, which has a focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender health, spoke up in favour of the former Bligh government’s civil union legislation and has recently criticised the Newman government’s plans to ban same-sex couples from having a child through surrogacy.

In an interview to mark his 100th day in office in July, Mr Newman argued the organisation had not improved HIV rates “and they had become an advocacy group [and] we’re not going to fund advocacy groups”.

That’s a good example. I personally favour same sex marriage and adoption. But I don’t think taxpayer funded NGOs should be campaigning for them. I’m not saying that has happened in NZ, just using the Queensland example.

A bill banning funding of NGOs that are greater than say 25% lobbying activity would be an excellent bill for a backbench National MP.

$300m saved

August 9th, 2012 at 7:00 am by David Farrar

David Fisher at NZ Herald reported:

John Ivil is the $300 million man – that’s the amount of money he and his team of public servants have saved the taxpayer in two years.

The former army logistics officer heads a team of negotiators who have turned the Government’s approach to spending money on its head.

Government departments have always taken an individual approach to buying goods and services, with $30 billion spent by agencies, hospitals, local councils and schools.

Public servants need cars, flights and office supplies, and each agency will head out into the market to try to strike the best deal with taxpayer money.

Now Mr Ivil and his team of 30 people at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment promote the Government as the “customer of choice”, using the combined purchasing power to drive costs down and secure discounts.

Instead of Government departments going looking for the best deal, they now have the best deal looking for them.

Mr Ivil said his team had made $293 million in savings over the life of contracts secured so far (five to seven years).

Good stuff. Some people think that you can not save money in government without cutting services, but this is a good example that you can.

CIS on think-tank funding

July 3rd, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Andrew Baker from CIS writes:

 One of government’s favourite ways to solve a problem is to throw money at it.  But what if the problem is a think tank or public policy institute?  The true value of a think tank is that they can say what they think – whether to the benefit or detriment to the government of the day.  When the government starts throwing money at think tanks, there is a real danger that they undermine their capacity to critique the government effectively and make a positive contribution to civil society.

I agree.

Unlike the CIS, many think tanks and university-aligned public policy institutes receive financial assistance from the Government.  This often takes the form of endowments, donations, corporate memberships or grants.  The latest example is the Gillard government’s $7 million contribution to refurbish the building that will house the Labor-aligned Whitlam Institute, the Whitlam Prime Ministerial Library and an art gallery.

Other examples include a $112 million contribution towards the Australian National Institute for Public Policy in 2010; the $30 million that the Brumby and Rudd governments gave to establish the Melbourne based Grattan Institute; the Centre for Social Impact’s $12.5 million endowment; the $7 million for the University of South Australia to establish the International Centre for Muslim and non-Muslim Understanding ‘under the leadership of former Prime Minister, the Hon Bob Hawke AC’; and the Howard Government’s $25 million endowment of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

That is a huge amount of money being spent.

recent report by the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK illustrated this point well when it found that thousands of politically active charities only survived because of taxpayer support.  Government intervention in the marketplace of ideas distorts public debate and the organic growth of civil society.  Allowing ‘zombie’ ideas without popular private support to live on long after they are declared dead by the marketplace is not in the public interest.

For the last 36 years the CIS has relied on philanthropy, private donations and individual memberships to fund our research and advocacy for small government and free markets. This makes the CIS more productive and efficient, and we are more able to say what we think is right than similar organisations that take taxpayer money.  Only without financial assistance from the government can a think tank be truly independent.

It is staggering how many lobby groups are effectively funded by the Government.

More taxpayer funded lobbying

June 26th, 2012 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Last month I blogged on taxpayer funded lobbying. This should be of grave concern, because what it means is effectively you have Government Departments funding NGOs to lobby MPs on what the law should be.

I had a response from the Public Health Association, which was:

Hi David, We would like to respond briefly to your 14 May post about taxpayers funding lobbying. The Public Health Association (PHA) acknowledges you have a valid concern and would like to make it clear that none of the public money we receive is spent on lobbying or advocacy. It is part of our contract with the Ministry not to do so. Any lobbying we do is funded by membership fees, individual donations and fund-raising. Money we receive from the Ministry is spent only on activities such as supporting the public health workforce.

The reality though I believe is that if the vast majority of your expenses are staff, then there is no way you can say that no public money is spent on lobbying.

Now I do not advocate that a body which receives some taxpayer funding should not be allowed to express a view on issues. That would be wrong. But when a body is both primarily funded by the taxpayer, and the bulk of its work appears to be advocacy and lobbying – that is when I think it should not be allowed.

The PHA openly states “The PHA is a voluntary association that takes a leading role in promoting public health and influencing public policy.”, and over 50% of their income is from the Ministry of Health. Most of the remainder is their conference which is I believe 90% public sector funded. Actual voluntary membership fees are only 5% of their income.

I’ve also been sent examples in the alcohol area. An OIA from the Ministry of Health reveals taxpayer funding of Alcohol Healthwatch with $3.35m, the vast majority for “alcohol health promotion”.

Have a look at their website. It is all about lobbying MPs on the Alcohol Reform Bill.

The Health Sponsorship Council has a presentation on their website from ASH. Slide 16 is about how they must “Hold the Government to account”.  ASH is 89% taxpayer funded, and was saying this at a taxpayer funded conference.

This outbreak of taxpayer funded lobbying is not unique to New Zealand. The Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK has published a report called “Sock Puppets: How the Government lobbies itself and why“. It is a compelling read. They note:

For political parties, the benefits of supporting ‘sock puppet’ organisations extend beyond the short-term utility of progressing their legislative agenda whilst in government. Once the party loses power, these groups become a ‘shadow state’ using public money to promote the same political ideology. The new government must therefore choose between withdrawing the funding (which will prompt outrage from the threatened groups) and keeping it in place (which will mean funding politically hostile organisations).

I think the Government should apply a simple litmus test. No organisation which spends say more than 25% of their time or resources or lobbying should be eligible for government funding. They should be forced to split into totally separate organisations if they provide genuinely useful services which should remain funded, but this should not be used to have the bureaucracy use sock puppets to lobby Parliament and MPs on what the laws should be.

Lobby groups should be funded by their members and supporters, not by taxpayers.

Spending transparency

June 9th, 2012 at 9:31 am by David Farrar

The Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance writes in the SMH:

It is a foundational principle of good governance that taxpayers should know how their money is being spent, and governments should be as open as possible. Taxpayers who wish to discover how their money is being used must trawl hundreds of pages of budget documents and submit time-consuming and costly freedom-of-information requests. Even then, information is scant. Ask any journalist. And these requests, as a Herald report showed on Monday, could be rejected in future as certain parliamentary departments are rendered exempt to FOI laws.

But it does not have to be this way. A transparency revolution is under way overseas, empowering citizens, opening governments to scrutiny, and transforming governance.

In 2006, in the US, the senators John McCain and Barack Obama co-sponsored the US federal funding accountability act. Its premise was simple: that taxpayer expenditure be placed online in an easily searchable database, so all taxpayers can find out how their money has been spent.

I have long advocated this for New Zealand.

Since then, the City of London, the European Union and 38 US states have enacted similar online portals – many with no thresholds, so every cent of taxpayer expenditure is publicly available. In some cases, literally every expense of government is made public after being entered into a database.

The benefits are obvious: not only are taxpayers empowered, but also savings can be easily identified, waste exposed and unethical behaviour discouraged. Those who want spending to remain hidden might argue that informing people is too costly, that it just cannot be done. But international experience proves this to be false. The website usaspending.gov, which provides the details of all US federal government expenditure of more than $US25,000 ($25,800), cost less than $1 million to set up – and the software is now available free of charge in the public domain.

This means it could be implemented in New Zealand very easily. You just need each government agency to exports its payments data into it.

Citizens have been searching these websites in record numbers. In Missouri, with a population smaller than NSW, 15 million hits were reported in the first year. Millions in savings have been identified. To use just one example, Texas reported $8.7 million in savings directly attributable to their transparency website in just the first year of operation.

Opening the government books to an army of online citizen investigators has uncovered waste and duplication, and made junkets or pork-barrel spending near impossible. Corruption and rorting cannot occur when the records are freely available – sunlight truly is the best disinfectant.

Another reason to support it.

Where your taxes go

May 31st, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Worth checking out Where are my taxes. It details and shows graphically how much money per capita is spent on various activities. Some big items:

  • Superannuation $2,328
  • Primary schools $639
  • Family Tax Credits $480
  • Secondary schools $469
  • Tertiary Education $459
  • Domestic Purpose Benefit $413
  • Land and Transport $401
  • Student Loans $373
  • Early Childhood Education $313
  • Invalid’s Benefit $300
  • Accommodation Assistance $282
  • Unemployment Beneift $200
  • Sickness Benefit $177
  • Student Allowances $137

Taxpayer funded lobbying

May 14th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

This is an issue that should be investigated by the Government or the Auditor-General. Yet again we have evidence of taxpayer-funded groups using their funding to lobby the Government for specific law and policy changes.

This is an extremely bad thing. The Government should not be effectively paying people to lobby Parliament and the Government a specific way.  Just as Ministries are forbidden to lobby, it is equally wrong for them to contract other groups to lobby.

This was first exposed in 2003. Then ACT MP Rodney Hide revealed that Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) and five other NGOs were receiving taxpayer money from the Ministry of Health to help lobby MPs on the Smoke-free Environments Amendment Bill (the one that banned smoking in bars and cafes).

The Director-General of Health then ordered a State Services Commission investigation into the matter (the Hunn/Brazier inquiry). Hunn and Brazier considered that the advocacy and lobbying clauses in six contracts were unacceptable under public service standards and in their view could compromise the political neutrality of the Ministry of Health. They recommended that future agreements with NGOs explicitly exclude lobbying activities.

The Treasury’s most recent guidelines (2009) for contracts with non-governmental organisations also make it clear: “Government agencies should also be careful to ensure that contracts do not breach public service standards of political neutrality”.

However, the Health Ministry is still funding the “advocacy” and “awareness raising” that these organisations engage in. The Ministry still funds ASH and other organisations like the Public Health Association – it is just more careful about what it puts in the contracts.

The current ASH contract allows it to “liaise with government and private health agencies, the media and any other appropriate organisations to raise public awareness of tobacco related issues and developments”. It says it will “prepare and distribute media briefings, commentary and releases on key tobacco issues. This will include maintaining relationships with key media.”

A quick look at the ASH website makes it clear it is a lobby group, but a lobby group that gets 89% of its funding from the taxpayer. I am all in favour of taxpayer funding quit smoking initiatives, but not funding a lobby group. One of its values is “A dedication to influencing public policy and social norms to tobacco related harm.” It has a page on its current campaigns, of which seven are about law changes, only one is actually about quitting smoking,

The current ASH contract provides for it to receive $578,000 p.a of taxpayer money in 2012. I’d say the vast majority of this goes on lobbying and media activities.

The Public Health Association received $311,967 from government grants in 2011, $305,843 in 2010 and $323,498 in 2009. In its financial statements it lists an item of income as “Advocacy/Healthy Public Policy”, as well as “Informed Debate/Communications”.

The PHA says that it “takes a leading role in promoting public health and influencing public policy…Our goal is to improve the health of all New Zealanders by progressively strengthening the organised efforts of society by being an informed collaborative and strong advocate for public health.”

On its website it has a letters to the editor guide.  It says: “Do you feel strongly about a public health issue? Write a letter to the editor using our simple letter writing techniques, list of email addresses and examples of sample letters (alcohol, housing, tobacco, oral health and preventing family violence).”

Smoke-free Coalition

The Smokefree Coalition (www.sfc.org.nz) says it is “committed to preventing the uptake of smoking among young people and reducing the smoking rates of all New Zealanders” and it has published a road-map for how to make NZ smoke-free by 2025. It received $167,213 in 2011 and 2010 and $179,890 in 2009 from government. This represented 98%, 96% and 95% of its funding in each of those years.

Those are just three examples where there is over a million dollars a year of government money going to NGOs for lobbying.

Another example is  the Turanga website (a government funded anti-smoking research initiative) has posted a page listing “3 ways to support a tobacco tax increase.” One of the ways is to write to MPs. The website directs readers to http://www.taxtobacco.org.nz/ in which readers can fill in their name and write a personal message to Key, Ryall, English or Turia. Readers can select from a range of sentences that they have written for them.

Now I personally support an increase in tobacco tax. But that is not the point. Government money should not be used for NGOs to campaign for what the law should be. It is the thin end of corruption.

The second way of supporting a tobacco increase is: “ASH have some tax postcards to send to John Key, Bill English, Tony Ryall and Tariana Turia. If you would like a batch please email ash via their website www.ash.org.nz with your postal address and let ASH Director Ben Youdan know how many you need.”

That is also explicitly political lobbying.

As an individual taxpayer I’d be quite happy to donate some of my money to anti-smoking groups. But the Government should only fund anti-smoking groups which actually provide stop smoking services or genuine medical research. They should not fund advocacy groups to influence public opinion on future law and policy changes. ASH and the PHA should have their public funding removed, and they should rely on donations like all the other advocacy groups out there have to.

Government Expenditure

April 17th, 2012 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

The left have been trying to push a meme that this Government has not been spending enough money. That if only we did not have the tax cuts, we would be able to have extra spending. Putting aside the fact that National’s tax packages have had less of a fiscal impact than Labour’s proposed tax cuts, I thought it would be useful to look at actual spending by term. Has National really been slashing spending? If only. First let us look at total expenditure.

The dark blue line is total government expenditure for each term of Government (from 1 July after each election). So total government expenditure increased 21% under National, from Labour’s last term. If you compare to the last term of National’s 4th Government it is a whopping 131% higher. It is also 92% higher than Labour’s first term.

Now next let us look at it in terms of real or inflation adjusted expenditure, which the red line. Ideally inflation should be 1% or so, so the impact is minimal, but that has not always been the case. Real expenditure is 11% higher than from the previous term, and 69% up from the 4th National Government.  It is 50% higher than in Labour’s first term.

Now total expenditure includes SOEs and the like. A more common measure is the core crown expenditure, which excludes this. In nominal terms this increased 19% from Labour’s last term, 83% from Labour’s first term and 105% from the last National Government. This is the green line

To take account of inflation we also have the purple line of core real expenditure.  Well this term National’s core real expenditure was 9.6% higher than the last term of Labour. It is 43% higher than Labour’s first term and 51% higher than the 4th National Government.

Finally we have also had population growth. I don’t accept that all government expenses should increase per capita, but to take account of this we have the light blue line which goes on the second axis. It shows National is spending in real terms per capita 6.2% more than the last term of Labour. It is 28% more than Labour’s first term, and 32% more than the last National Government.

It is interesting to look at the real increase per capita for the last four Governments. The 1st term of Labour saw this increase a modest 2.5%. The second term of Labour saw it increase 6.2% – the exact same increase as under National. The outlier is Labour’s third term is when it increased 13.8% as Labour was so embarrassed by the size of its surpluses it invented all sorts of new spending schemes.

So Labour trying to portray National as mean and stingy, and cutting spending to fund tax cuts is just bonkers. If anyone should be complaining, it is fiscal conservatives who think government spending shouldn’t increase in real per capita terms (something the Government has now agreed to in principle, thanks to ACT).

People may be interested in the real increases from Labour’s last term to National’s first term. They are:

  • Health +11.4%
  • Education +8.3%
  • Law & Order +7.9%
  • Defence 5.0%
  • Welfare +9.2%

Remember those when someone claims National has slashed education or health funding.

The net fiscal impact of National’s tax and spending changes

April 10th, 2012 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

I’ve blogged previously on the outrageously dishonest spin from Labour that tax revenues are down 4% of GDP over four years, and trying to assert it is all due to the one set of changes in 2010. Even some journalists who should know better have repeated such absurdities.

I’m going to blog in two parts on this issue. The first part will be today looking at what the Treasury macro-economic advice was for the impact of the tax and spending changes, and tomorrow (if I have time otherwise later in the week), I’m actually going to analyse the actual changes in tax revenues through the 2008 BEFU, the 2008 PREFU, 2008 DEFU, 2009 BEFU, 2009 HYEFU, 2010 BEFU, 2010 HYEFU, 2011 BEFU, and finally the 2011 PREFU. This looks at the changes in overall tax revenues, individual tax revenues, corporate tax revenues and GST.

It is important to understand you need both the forecasts of what a change will do, and what actually happened. Neither are the total picture, but together they give us a reasonable picture.

You see the reality is that if Treasury says (for example) hiking the top tax rate from 33c to 39c will bring in $900m/year of extra revenue, and a Government does it, and revenue only goes up $700m, then no-one really knows why the revenue gain was less than projected. It might be that it did increase revenue by $900m, but that economic growth was flatter and so taxable income was lower. Or it could be that the increase lead to greater tax avoidance, and the increase did not achieve as much extra revenue as projected.

It is easy to diss Treasury projections – even I have done so. But it is worth noting how massively complicated it is to forecast tax tax over an entire economy. Many individual companies have problems forecasting income just for that company. Now imagine having to forecast income for the aggregate of every company and person in New Zealand, without having the knowledge of what is happening in individual companies.

What we have below is the official net fiscal impact as forecast by Treasury for National’s tax and spending changes. As you will see the total effect of these tax changes is negative during the 2008 – 2010 period, which is when there was a fiscal stimulus policy to help cushion the recession, and in the first two years, providing support to the economy during the recession, and have been net positive from 2010 onwards.

Net fiscal impact of the Government’s tax changes ($million increase (decrease) in the operating balance)

 

2008/09

2009/10

2010/11

2011/12

2012/13

2013/14

Election tax package1

(133)

(238)

(37)

188

198

198

Budget 2009 cancellation of 2nd and 3rd tranches2

105

553

956

999

999

SME tax package3

(294)

(189)

214

(108)

(108)

(108)

Budget 2010 tax package4

(460)

(90)

(40)

175

Budget 2011 tax changes5

537

783

823

Total

(427)

(322)

270

1,483

1,832

2,087

 1. fiscal impact = revenue (2/3*removal of R&D tax credit + KiwiSaver changes + cancelling remaining tranches of Labour’s tax cuts) minus costs (personal tax + IETC). Source: Cabinet Paper CAB(08)585.

2. cancellation of the 2010 and 2011 tax cuts as announced in the 2009 Budget. Source: Treasury Report T2009/418.

3. SME tax package as announced in February 2009. Source: BEFU 2009, Table 1.7.

4. fiscal impact = revenue (GST increase + depreciation + LAQC + thin cap + WFF + GST base + tobacco + increased audit) minus costs (personal tax + company + PIE and savings vehicles + GST compensation). Source: Budget 2010 Executive Summary, Table 1.

5. savings from changes to KiwiSaver and WFF tax credits. Source: Budget 2011 Executive Summary, Table 2.

It is worth recalling that during this period Labour opposed every single spending cut made by National.

Over the six years of National’s first two terms, the total projected impact of National’s tax changes (and cancellation of spending commitments) has been a net improvement of $4.9b. In other words compared to the policies put in place by Labour in 2008, National’s changes were projected by Treasury to result in $4.9b more revenue over two terms.

It is worth noting these are only the direct tax (and cancelled spending commitments) changes. This is not taking into account National slashing to the contingency for new spending from over $2b a year to $800m and eventually zero. That has also had am impact in the billions.

Now as I said, we will also look tomorrow at what actually happened to tax revenues, but many factors impact tax revenues as well as policy changes. These figures for now show how preposterous Labour’s deception is about how the 2010 tax package is somehow primarily or totally responsible for a decline in tax revenue of 4% of GDP or $7b/year.

NZ Herald on Spending Cap

December 9th, 2011 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

An excellent editorial in the NZ Herald:

Sir Roger Douglas has departed the political stage again but he may have left another enduring monument in Act’s agreement with National this week. A law to cap increases in government spending could prove to be as effective as one of his great legacies of the 1980s, the Reserve Bank’s inflation target.

Like the monetary target, the spending cap will sometimes be honoured in the breach but the target is no less effective for that. When it is breached, there needs to be a good reason, and a credible path set to bring inflation back into line. So it will be for the fiscal cap.

I think many have under-estimated the political power the cap will have.

It is too easy, as the previous government proved, to take on ever larger commitments when business is booming, the workforce is fully employed and tax revenue is providing budget surpluses. The country hardly noticed that state spending was steadily becoming a greater proportion of the economy in the years that surpluses also enabled continuing reductions of public debt.

More generous medical subsidies, paid maternity leave, early education, interest-free student loans, higher public service pay rates, a “super goldcard” are not the kind of expenses that can be wound back when the business cycle turns down and revenue drops. They instantly become entitlements that a future government fears to threaten.

Exactly. And the sad reality may be that the days of debt fuelled 3%+ growth could be in the past for-ever. In a new debt-averse world, with Europe taking a decade or more to get its debt under control, we may never get growth again like we have had in the 1990s and 2000s.  We may need to get used to 2% growth being the norm. This is why we need to stop Governments from imposing costs on New Zealand we can’t pay for.

Ultimately, of course, a parliamentary majority can do whatever it wants in this country and no Parliament can bind the next. A statutory spending restriction can be breached and even repealed as readily as the Bill of Rights Act. That act requires the Attorney-General to alert Parliament to proposed legislation that would breach the rights enshrined. The public takes note, the government needs a convincing case to proceed in political safety.

Laws of such limited power should not be under-rated. The lack of any stronger sanction is a strength, it makes it harder for a future government to repeal a statute that can do more than keep governments honest.

And hopefully it will increase the financial literacy of the public. We will know how much more a Government is planning to spend over the baseline amount per capita.

National has been not much keener than Labour on a legislated spending limit but it is already living within the limit agreed with Act. The cap is a credit not only to Sir Roger who has long argued for it, but to the recently deceased director of the Business Roundtable, Roger Kerr, who maintained a lonely watch against rising public expenditure, and Don Brash whose brief leadership of Act restored its focus on economic fundamentals.

Fiscal responsibility is a prosaic, thankless contribution to public welfare but if government spending rises no faster than population growth and low inflation from here on, we should all be better off.

Absolutely. If you look at all OECD countries over the last fifty years, those who manage to have the state consume a lower proportion of GDP have on average much much higher economic growth than those with a higher proportion.

Now it is a balancing act of course. If the state only consumed 5% of GDP, then we’d probably have no publicly funded schools or hospitals. But the current level of state spending is the highest in our history, so I don’t think drawing a line at today’s spending level and saying real spending per capita should not increase beyond today’s level is if anything a little on the generous side.

The Taxpayer Relief Regulated Period

August 26th, 2011 at 1:00 pm by David Farrar

My column at the NZ Herald is about how today is the start of the Taxpayer Relief Regulated Period.

We are now officially within three months of the general election. Today is the start of what the law calls the regulated period. It restricts how much money political parties can spend of their own money on election advertising, but more popularly cuts off taxpayer funded election advertisements from MPs. …

So if from today you see anything from your MP or from a parliamentary party that has the crest of the House of Representatives on it (indicating Parliament has paid for it), and it is advocating either explicitly or implicitly for or against a party or candidate, then you should send a copy of it to the New Zealand Herald who I am sure will happily inquire to the Parliamentary Service whether the taxpayer is due any refunds.

Only 13 weeks to go until E-day!

Taxpayers Rights Bill

August 11th, 2011 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

Audrey Young at NZ Herald reports:

A bill capping core Government spending increases to the rate of inflation and population changes was introduced to Parliament yesterday as part of National’s support agreement with Act.

But it is not expected to pass a second reading after consideration by the finance and expenditure select committee.

The Spending Cap (People’s Veto) Bill was introduced by Regulatory Reform Minister and former Act leader Rodney Hide.

It was referred to in the confidence and supply agreement as the Taxpayers’ Rights Bill.

It provides that the only way the cap can be lifted is by majority vote in a referendum.

I like the principle behind the bill – that spending should be capped in real terms, and you need public permission to go higher.

There’s a few countries in Europe that could have benefited from such a law.

Herald on Labour’s attacks

May 10th, 2011 at 3:00 pm by David Farrar

The NZ Herald editorial:

Last week it was his police protection, this week Premier House. The week before, it was the Prime Minister’s use of air force travel, before that, the limousine fleet replacement. Labour seems to think the public begrudges John Key the usual trappings of office.

Not that police protection is one of the trappings. Labour’s claim that anyone would enjoy or invite the company of a security squad was silly beyond words.

I think “silly beyond words” is the polite equivalent of “fucking stupid”.

Premier House in Wellington, where Prime Ministers can live and entertain, is being repainted and recarpeted at a cost of $275,000. Mr Key says it had not been repainted for 11 years. He says he is happy to accept any scrutiny he is put under but wonders why Labour is raising such trivial issues. He is not alone.

I encourage Labour to continue with their campaign. I’m looking forward to the next installment where they reveal that the PMs Office uses 100 gsm paper in their printers and that they could save money if they went for 80 gsm paper.

The public remembers that Labour’s last Prime Minister made use of Premier House, that her police protection was accommodated in a house beside her own in Auckland and that she used the air force or chauffeured limousines when it suited her. It is odd that one of her senior Cabinet ministers, Pete Hodgson, should be leading these lame attacks on her successor.

He should be among the last to question, for example, whether a Prime Minister needs security accompanying him inside Parliament buildings sometimes. Helen Clark asked for it when members of the Exclusive Brethren sect used to try to speak to her on her walk to the chamber.

And Whale Oil produced half a dozen photos showing this.

Labour’s leader should call him off. Most of the public finds this focus on the Prime Minister’s office trite and desperate. In the days leading up to a Budget, the Opposition should be promoting its own view of the state of the economy and what it would do about it. If it needs to criticise Mr Key, his risk-aversion gives Labour plenty of grounds. He has ruled out increasing the pension age, a levy for Christchurch and capital gains tax. He needs to do more than he may find palatable if more private investment is to flow into productive ventures.

Normal expenses of state are nickels and dimes beside the decisions the country needs.

And the reality is that Key has brought in an unprecedented level of transparency over Ministerial spending, has banned taxpayer funded Ministerial travel for spouses, and also banned first class travel (which under Labour could be used for anything beyond Australia).

Ministerial House expenses

May 9th, 2011 at 11:24 am by David Farrar

Labour have gone from transport to bodyguards and now to paint in their desperate desire to splatter John Key. Maybe at some stage they will remember the public want to hear some policies from them on reducing the cost of living. At the moment their only policy is to increase power prices by 3% and petrol by 3c/litre.

Under this Government, all the ministerial houses are actually being sold, except for Premier House, Vogel House and Bolton Street as they are held in trust. But let us look at some of the house costs under Labour and see how they compare to around $200,000 on painting Premier House:

  • $1.133m on Vogel House when Jim Anderton lived there
  • $46.6m on Government House
  • $215,000 on Premier House in 2000
  • $177,000 on Matt Robson’s Wadestown Ministerial House

Flights to Vanuatu

May 4th, 2011 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

Whale Oil blogs on the McCully air force plane to Vanuatu:

I thought I was defi­nately onto a bash­ing of immense pro­por­tions here. But as I learned from a cou­ple of screw up over the past few years, fact check­ing is paramount.

I checked inter­na­tional flights into and out of Van­u­atu. This is where the story started to come un-raveled. The tim­ing of the meet­ing meant that inter­na­tional flights didn’t pro­vide use­ful con­nec­tions. I think from mem­ory that if they had used com­mer­cial flights then all the Pacific diplo­mats in atten­dence would ahve had to have stayed over 3 more days before the next com­mer­cial flight out from Vanuatu.

Although the RNZAF Boe­ing may have gone over next to empty and con­fig­ured for VIP travel at short notice, how­ever it returned with a greater num­ber of pax on the return leg to New Zealand (I didn’t receive any pas­sen­ger details, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to find out who has used the ser­vice after the fact if one was that inquis­i­tive), one can only spec­u­late at to who they may be, but as even politi­cians don’t repli­cate that fast it seems log­i­cal that for­eign dig­ni­taries were using the ser­vice and New Zealand as a trans­port hub, which is hardly unheard of, and hardly the travel rort which the first leg made it appear.

Whale has shown no hestitation putting the boot into National MPs over perks, when he thinks it is justified. In fact i doubt any blogger has been as consistent as he has, in attacking MP spending. So when he says this is no big issue, I tend to believe him.

I had a similiar issue to McCully when I was in Noumea. The lack of commercial flights meant I had to stay for six days, for a two day conference. I’m pretty sure Murray would have been happy to holiday in Vanuatu for a few days, but instead he did some diplomacy by transoporting a few of his pacific peers back with him.

I recall Helen Clark got an air force flight back from Australia when there was a problem with Ansett, so this faux outrage at use of air force is fairly tiresome.

Quote of the Day

May 1st, 2011 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Danyl at Dim-Post:

Sometimes I just want to strap the entire spectrum of left-wing politicians into dentists chairs and patiently explain to them – using chisels and barbed wire – that most the state’s wealth comes from ordinary people working hard and then giving a huge chunk of their income to the government, so spending it is a sacred trust not an endless opportunity to squander it all on gimmicks and whims and political stunts.

This is in relation to the $500,000 to be wasted on a by-election.

$230m/yr of potential savings

April 14th, 2011 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

Tracy Watkins reports:

A new Treasury report says government agencies could save more than $230 million a year from back office functions.

The report, which follows a review of costs across the public service on things including property management, human resources, finance and ICT and found that they were higher in New Zealand than international bench marks, Finance Minister Bill English said.

“For example, the average office space per person in our public service is about 21 square metres compared with best practice in some New Zealand agencies of about 15 sq m. This is one of many areas where we believe there is room for improvement.”

That would also take some of the pressure off commercial rents in Wellington.

Not pricey

April 12th, 2011 at 9:11 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

Treasury boss John Whitehead took World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials out for pricey dinners just a few months after State Service Commissioner Iain Rennie warned top public servants against doing just that.

Dr Whitehead’s credit card expenses were published this week and show that last month he spent $292 on dinner for three at Wellington waterfront eatery Foxglove with World Bank executive director Jim Hagan.

I’m sorry but this is almost embarrassing. I’m all for responsible use of credit cards, but running a story about spending $95/head at dinner entertaining the Executive Director of the World Bank is ridicolous.

Foxglove is a medium priced restaurant. Far from the most expensive. Should we take the World Bank Executive Director to Uncle Chang’s instead?

Or alternatively have him out for dinner, and then when you get to desserts, tell him “I’m sorry but NZ is so poor, we can’t pay for dessert”.

$95 doesn’t mean there were bottles of expensive wine drunk. $20 for an entree, $40 for a man and $15 for a dessert is $75 so  arguably they had one bottle of $60 wine. I doubt the World Bank executive Dinner is going to regale colleagues in Washington about the awesome night out in Wellington – yeah we had five courses, two bottles of port plus a couple of strippers – all for $95 – it was better than Vegas.

It is good to have scrutiny of public sector spending. In fact I support having all Government payments listed online. But I don’t regard $95/head for the Executive Director of the World Bank as inappropriate or even newsworthy.

The plastic waka

April 6th, 2011 at 10:15 am by David Farrar

Martin Kay at the Dom Post reports:

Labour MP Shane Jones has hit out at plans for a giant $2 million taxpayer-funded plastic waka to promote Maori during the Rugby World Cup.

Ngati Whatua o Orakei is getting $1.8m of Government funding to create the giant waka as part of Auckland’s world cup celebrations.

The canoe will be 60 metres long and almost 15 metres high.

The hapu will contribute $100,000 for the project, which was estimated to cost $1,988,000, and will then own it after it is built. The waka would be used to promote “brand Maori” during the Rugby World Cup and other international events, hapu trustee Ngarimu Blair said.

Jones said the ”blow-up waka” risked exposing Maori to ridicule and smacked of last-minute desperation to get Maori involved in the tournament’s celebrations.

Jones, who is contesting Maori Party co-leader and Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples’ Tamaki Makaurau seat this year, said the only thing Maori wanted to see from the world cup was All Blacks Piri Weepu and Hosea Gear holding the trophy aloft.

I have to say I’m with Shane Jones on this one.

Press Gallery to be charged rent

April 1st, 2011 at 9:00 am by David Farrar

Expects howls of outrage from the press gallery, when they learn that their free rent is going to end in the budget, as part of Government moves to trim the cost of Parliament.

The gallery currently enjoy free office space in the Beehive Annex, totalling around 600 square metres. With wellington office spare exceeding $300/square metre, this could reduce the cost of Parliament by $180,000 a year.

What is unusual, is that the Greens are supporting this move. Russel Norman has pointed out Fairfax made a A$165m profit last year, APN made A$103m and Mediaworks A$50m, and that it is outrageous for struggling Kiwi families to subsidise these Australian corporates.

Two good trends

March 30th, 2011 at 7:49 am by David Farrar

Tracy Watkins in the Dom Post reports:

The figures, to be issued by State Services Minister Tony Ryall, largely relate to the core public service and will show numbers have dropped to about 35,900 from about 38,800 in 2008.

But some parts of the public service are excluded because they are considered frontline. There has been a rise in some occupations, including 1400 more teachers, 1000 more nurses, 500 doctors, and police.

If those numbers are correct, I can’t see Labour getting much traction with their campaign against the changes the Government has made.

Public Service Association national secretary Brenda Pilott said there was no way the Government could cut spending further without cutting services.

The PSA might be correct (obviously at some point, services would be impacted), but the problem for them is that they have made the same claim for the last two years.

He would not say what might fall into the “nice to have” category, but the Government had already chopped things such as community education classes

Oh I had forgotten about those. Remember all the fuss the Oppoosition made about the basket weaving courses no longer being free.

Spending restraint

March 22nd, 2011 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Government has sensibly announced there will be even tighter spending restraint in this year’s budget, due to the impact of the earthquake. It’s not going to be slash and burn, just very tight fiscal discipline.

This should be no surprise. But what is interesting is that Labour still are 1000% opposed to any spending restraint. You have to wonder what could cause them to actually adopt fiscal restraint.

The 2008 recession wasn’t enough.

The global credit crisis wasn’t enough

The first earthquake wasn’t enough

The double dip recession wasn’t enough

The second earthquake wasn’t enough

I have this vision of a meteor hitting New Zealand and wiping out 90% of NZ, and still Labour’s response will be you can’t cut spending.

Even worse is Labour’s preferred coalition partner – Winston. He’s just come out promising it will cost no more than $10 to visit the doctor for oldies. National has ruled Winston out, but Labour would be forced to agree to his demands as the price of forming a Government. So you can add hundreds of millions of extra spending to the deficit.

Explaining is Losing

February 18th, 2011 at 12:00 pm by David Farrar

There’s an old saying in politics – that explaining is losing. This seems to apply to the saga of the new BMWs. It does appear that no Minister was told of this until after the contract was signed, and even that the decision saved money, but explaining this means that the story stays alive for another day. At this stage one is in a lose/lose situation. If you explain you lose, and if you don’t explain you lose.

The Government isn’t able to release the contract that Labour signed in 2008, but what they have been able to say is:

DIA had advised that the cost savings from a three-year replacement versus a five-year replacement, are considerable.

 “Based on a fleet of 35 cars, if the existing fleet is kept for five years, the total cost of ownership  over the five years would be $4,697,175. If we keep the cycle of replacing every 3 years, the total cost over five years of the existing fleet held for three years plus two years of the new fleet, would be $2,612,365. So, the savings over five years would be $2,084,810 .”

So the contract signed by Labour in 2008 had an option for a renewal in 2011. And while it was not compulsory to renew in 2011, it would cost you more over the long term if you did not renew. This is presumably why DIA decided to renew. Purely on fiscal grounds, it saves money. But they over-looked the political aspect which I’ll come to.

Next we have the issue of whether DIA were entitled to sign off the replacement cars without ministerial authority or even notification. The delegation to the Chief Executive of Internal Affairs is for capital expenditure of up to $15, so he was legally entitled to renew the fleet without ministerial approval.

However I beleive DIA made a very bad mistake by not seeking at least an opinion from their Minister or Ministers. The reason they should have done so is because the Ministers are seen to be the recepients of the benefits of having a new fleet. This should absolutely have been notified under the no surprises policy.  I hope and trust DIA have been left under no misunderstanding that in future this should occur.

It is possible of course that DIA made a deliberate decision not to tell Ministers. They possibly concluded (correctly) that if they had told Ministers in advance, the Ministers would try and delay the upgrade. And if it really was cheaper to upgrade in 2011, then DIA could well have an incentive to sign the deal before telling Ministers, in case the Ministers were not happy.

Trevor Mallard is going on about how Ministers should have known in advance because there was a reference made to it in a select committee report. That’s absurd – Mallard knows that Ministers don’t read select committee reports – hell they have several boxes of reading every night as it is.

After the contract was signed, the Internal Affairs Minister was told, and he in turn told the Finance Minister. While the contract was already signed, if I had been one of thise Ministers my first reaction would have been to ask can the contract be rescinded, and if so how much would it cost. The answer might have been that it was too late, but the Government would have possibly have had that as an option if they had moved quickly. It’s easier to cancel a contract a week after it is signed compared to three months later.

The other fair criticism of the Government is its response to the story. They were effectively given a hospital pass on this issue, but having had knowledge of the purchases before the story broke, they should have been ready with a response (stating the savings, the fact Labour signed the contract, the fact they were only told afterwards) to go out within minutes of the story breaking.

Instead the facts have only come out over a period of three to four days, ensuring it stays in the news for 3 to 4 days. So while there was always going to be some damage from a hospital pass, the damage has been compounded a bit by the way the story has been kept alive.

More on BMWs

February 16th, 2011 at 1:36 pm by David Farrar

Maggie Tait at NZPA reports:

The Internal Affairs Department is responsible for a decision to provide the Government with brand new BMWs when the old ones were only three years-old, Prime Minister John Key says.

My first response to reading this is that sure DIA made the decision, but they must have got sign off from at least their Minister – or at least notified him. So I thought this was just trying to avoid blame.

Mr Key said a six-year deal for the cars was signed by Labour with a three-year rollover clause.

“That decision to invoke that rollover and bring new cars in was made by the Department of Internal Affairs without reference either to their minister or to me,” he told reporters.

However reading on, the PM says that the decision was made without reference to the Minister or PM at all. That indicates that not only did they not approve of it, they were not even told of it.

If this is the case, then DIA should get a bit of a bollocking for this. Departments are meant to operate a no surprises policy with Ministers, and 34 new BMWs should definitely qualify as meeting the threshold for no surprises.

Mr Key found out about the new cars when one of the drivers told him.

That is not the way the Minister for Ministerial Services should find out.

“It’s not a situation where we as the Government have decided to do that, the department just made that decision.”

The department did not think it had to check as it had authority from the former Labour Government.

The Department was wrong. They should have checked.

Earlier, Finance Minister Bill English was critical of Labour’s original contract and Green Party criticism of the Government spending in tight financial times.

“It’s a bit rich from the Greens because one of the reasons the Labour Government bought the BMWs was because they were meant to reduce carbon emissions, they were meant to be the most fuel efficient cars even though their capital cost might have been higher than other options,” he told Radio New Zealand.

“I think it does show that being driven by a fad, which at the time was to have lower carbon emissions, means that you can make decisions — which were made by the previous Government — turn out more expensive than they expected.”

Mr English said when the contract came up for renewal the Government would see if there was a better deal and probably a “more mainstream model of car”.

“I don’t think a Government in the current recession would decide to pick a luxury brand car with all those extra bits…whatever the value for money.”

If no Minister was even informed of the new BMWs, then blaming them is a bit unfair. But the damage has probably already been done in terms of perceptions.

I still think DIA should be given a bollocking for not having the common sense to check with the current Government whether they wanted brand new BMWs to be turning up a few months befiore the election.

A stupid blunder

February 16th, 2011 at 7:40 am by David Farrar

Tom Hunt at Stuff reports:

The Government has splashed out on 34 new top-of-the-line BMWs that sell for more than $200,000 each.

The Green Party has called the ordering of the cars a disgrace.

But the Internal Affairs Department says it has been three years since the Government bought its last fleet, which will be sold when the new cars start to arrive later this year. …

A spokesman for Prime Minister John Key said this was the same process that had happened for years. “It is standard for a progressive upgrade of the VIP fleet to happen every three years or when the vehicle reaches 90,000 kilometres.”

What’s standard is how unpopular this is. I give the Government a big fail for this move. When Labour did the same in 2008 I put it down to advanced third termitis (when you no longer sense what may be unpopular), but this is even worse as National is in their first term.

It does not matter what the contract said about upgrades, or what level of discount the Government gets upgrading in year three – the only thing the public will remember is a Government saying times are tight having money to buy new BMWs for Ministers. An incredibly stupid blunder.

Someone should have intervened and ensured that any fleet replacement does not take place in election year. Unless one actually wants to lose votes.