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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - Column

Taxpayer Union just a right-wing puppet

Jordan Williams and Louis Houlbrooke with 'Porkie.'

 Below is a column I submitted to the New Zealand Herald on 15 July 2020 that was not published. No reason was given.

When pushing for more transparency and less waste in government, the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union should be more up front about who they’re really advocating for.


  On Wednesday morning in Parliament’s Legislative Chamber, the Union live-streamed its annual ‘Jonesie Awards’ to recognise waste in local and central government. Awards were given to Wellington Mayor Andy Foster, Racing Minister Winston Peters, and a lifetime achievement award to Transport and former Housing Minister Phil Twyford.


  But it was those nominations that didn’t get a mention that exposes the hypocrisy and political bias of the artificial grassroots organisation – or ‘astroturf’ in political speak.


  The event in Parliament was hosted by Chris Penk, who is National’s candidate in the ‘new’ electorate of Kaipara ki Mahurangi, which has similar boundaries to Auckland Council’s Rodney Local Board. That board is run by Act Party stalwarts, including recently demoted and former Act Deputy Leader Beth Houlbrooke.


  Handing out the ‘Jonesie Awards’ was Taxpayer Union Campaign Manager, Louis Houlbrooke, who was previously David Seymour’s press secretary. During his tenure not one mention has been made of the countless wastes of ratepayer money his mother, Beth, has been responsible for.


  Rodney has over 78 percent of Auckland’s unsealed roads. Beth asked residents whether they wanted a targeted rate to improve roading. 36 percent of responses supported the rate, 21 percent partially supported it, and 43 percent opposed it. Beth interpreted this as a majority, introduced the rate, and wasted the $4m a year collected on superfluous bus services and a carpark instead.


  This is an extra kick in the guts for Rodney motorists who pay tolls to get to Auckland and the highest petrol prices in the region due to regional fuel taxes that are wasted elsewhere.


  Former Act candidate Phelan Pirrie campaigned on less red tape and lower taxes. As current Rodney Local Board Chair, he pushed for a Business Improvement District (BID) for Northwest Auckland between Riverhead and Kaukapakapa. Without the majority of support from local businesses, all are now charged a targeted rate to fund the local business association. Phelen is the manager and receives $85,000 in addition to his $87,000 local board chair salary.


  Since Act was founded in the 1990s, it has stood for freedom of association. It rallied against compulsory membership of unions and student associations. Louis Houlbrooke was even president of Act’s youth wing.


  These nominations are just two of many Rodney scandals ignored by the Taxpayers’ Union and their off-shoot, the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.


  I worked for Act and National. National’s pollster David Farrar and former Act staffer John Bishop (National MP Chris Bishop’s father) founded the Taxpayers’ Union. I was asked to design their logo and website.


  The Union was meant to take on the role of ‘perkbuster’ – a position abandoned by Rodney Hide when he was busted. The Union, however, has become a tool to break new political ground for right-wing parties to occupy whilst ridiculing opponents.


  The ‘Jonesie Award’ is named after Regional Development Minister, Shane Jones, and the award is a golden pig – a reference to pork-barrel politics. A person wearing a Porky Pig costume makes regular appearances at publicity stunts.


  The Taxpayers’ Union is just the latest strategy of National’s 30-year battle to end Winston Peter’s political career. Despite all the countless examples of waste in central government, the Taxpayers’ Union spun a spurious argument for Winston Peters to eclipse other nominations.


  I have seen first hand how wealthy donors steer policy. Act’s anti-school-zoning policy was thwarted by Epsom property investors. The Super City was borne from landbankers. Anyone following Andy Foster or Napier City Council’s woes don’t need to connect many dots to see how they made the shortlist of Jonesie nominees.


  The Taxpayers’ Union made fun of their nine staff receiving $60,436.80 from the wage subsidy scheme. If they were serious about their task, they should take a good hard look at themselves and be clearer and more consistent in their distaste for officials with their snouts in the public trough.


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