Concerned about the results of an official information request showing an estimated $40,000 being spent dealing with one NZ organisation’s official information demands, the Spinoff seeks comment from public spending grassroots watchdog the Taxpayers’ Union.
Not all heroes wear capes, but if there is any justice in this benighted world Jordan Williams has one in a drawer, and swoops it on from time to time in the offices of the Taxpayers’ Union, the self-described “grassroots activist group” that lobbies fearlessly and ceaselessly in the cause of efficiency in public spending.
In his crusade against public profligacy and lizard tattoos Union Boss Williams will not be cowed. Not by demands to reveal who funds the tax-slaying organisation, not by hateful websites that compare him to a “broken car alarm or a fruit fly”, and certainly not by those who have cried “dog whistle” over the grassroots activist Taxpayers’ Union’s most recent splash, which hollered “DRAG QUEENS”, in revealing that the public-owned Callaghan Innovation had a staff dinner at the Caluzzi cabaret bar a few years ago for 30 people that cost almost $2,400 – or $80 a head.
Any snowflake concern that the Taxpayers’ Union was cynically and insidiously appealing to prejudice was swiftly eviscerated by the TU, which explained that “we have nothing against drag queens” in its press release. The same press release has the URL “taxpayers.org.nz/drag_queens”, the headline “EXPOSED: Bureaucrats Party With Drag Queens On Taxpayer Dollar” and is illustrated with a stock image of a drag queen. If anything, New Zealand’s drag queen community should be grateful.
While the Spinoff is not in the same league as the tenacious grassroots activist group that has nothing against drag queens, we, too, are officially opposed to the waste of public money. And for this reason we were concerned to learn, via information obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (the local cousin of the OIA; we’re abbreviating both as OIA for neatness), that the Auckland Council has expended an estimated $39,100 over the course of a year dealing with official information requests from one organisation alone. That organisation – let me check the paperwork here – is the Taxpayers’ Union. Ratepayers, we think, deserve to know.
In response to our request, lodged last year, the Auckland Council told the Spinoff that, in the year to 30 June 2017, “64 requests [were] received by the New Zealand Taxpayers Union (including requests logged under individuals requesting on behalf of the organisation). This represents approximately 5.4% of all requests and, based on … the estimate of the cost to council of $611 per request … equates to an estimated cost of $39,100. Please note these figures do not include any requests received by Auckland Council that have been transferred to Auckland Transport or Watercare.”
A similar OIA request about use of the OIA to the Wellington City Council revealed that over the same period it received 22 requests from the Taxpayers’ Union, though the council was unable to estimate what it cost to respond.
When we requested under the OIA details of OIA requests from the TU, Callaghan Innovation told the Spinoff: “In 2017 Callaghan Innovation had 19 OIA requests from the Taxpayers’ Union and a further 14 from individuals requesting more details on information released to the Taxpayers’ Union. These 14 individual requests came after we had offered the Taxpayers’ Union a time extension or a charge for the 150 hours we estimated it would take to process one particularly detailed request.”
Alarmed by this strain on public resources and hard-earned taxpayer/ratepayer money, the Spinoff racked its brains over whom to contact for expert commentary. Some hours later it dawned upon us: the grassroots activist Taxpayers’ Union.
“Three points to that,” said union boss Jordan Williams when the Spinoff contacted him for comment on the Auckland Council information.
“One, that figure cannot be right. Because of course if it was as high as they said it was, they have an ability to charge us. The second is that there is actually a constitutional convention that government agencies don’t calculate the total cost for opposition MPs, for the cost of research for OIAs, so that’s just typical Auckland Council spin, but number three: the Auckland group [the TU-linked Ratepayers Alliance] has 17,000 members. We dwarf any other ratepayer group in Auckland and our mandate is to be the ears and eyes of taxpayers and fiscal prudence. The more questions that we ask, the more Auckland Council know that someone is watching their spending.
“So it’s a total drop in the bucket compared to the waste and efficiency we have exposed,” said Williams, pointing to its exposé around the millions that might have been spent on council chambers.
The above conversation took place over the telephone, so we cannot say whether or not Williams was wearing a cape. Not that we have anything against capes.
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