Taxpayers Union: Teaparty wingnuts or rational economists?

Today saw the launch of the strangely named Taxpayer’s Union, a lobby group aimed at “giving taxpayers a voice in the corridors of power.”

Given the taxpayers, that’s all of us, already have a voice each three years and through various processes, the Taxpayer’s Union deserves a bit more scrutiny. Are they rational economists looking to help make government more efficient, or is it a right wing shop looking to promote the selfish interests of wealthy people?

From their Q&A page:

Our objectives and aims include:

To give taxpayers a voice in the corridors of power;
To educate New Zealanders against excessive and wasteful government spending;
To scrutinise government spending;
To publicise government waste;
To promote an efficient tax system; and
To increase transparency and accountability of government spending.

None of that sounds too bad at first read, but “excessive and wasteful government spending” could mean being smart about the details, or it could be code for “no more welfare but yes more roads”. Similarly “promote an efficient tax system” could mean reduce all taxes to rich people, or it could mean reduce the administrative burden of collecting tax. Or, as @farmgeek mentioned, it could be making sure that we are collecting our fair tax from offshore based corporations indulging in tax jurisdiction dancing.

The first initiatives of Taxpayers’ Union may give some clues:

Promote an ‘Armchair Auditors Act’, modelled on legislation enacted in some U.S. states, where all transactions over a de minimis amount are searchable on an online database;

Promote legislation strengthening the Official Information Act.

These are great. They may lead to petty chasing of ministerial expenses, but overall the more government data we can get into the public domain the better. (It seems they already have ours.)

Identify and expose the most flagrant examples of government waste;
End taxpayer funded corporate and union welfare;

The language here is problematic with “flagrant examples” and “corporate and union welfare” smelling a little inflammatory and feel-good stuff for the right, but not really adding to the overarching goal of evidence-based lawmaking. This is potentially very selfish stuff, but a lot depends on the cases they bring forward.

Expose and halt the significant public funding that lobby groups receive to campaign and lobby government for pet policy and law changes;
Promote legislation requiring local referenda for any increase in real per capita rates

These feel more selfish. I’m guessing that the money funding campaign and lobby groups is generally primarily for NZ’s social benefit, and that the TaxPayers Union has some specific targets in mind. The details matter, but just as we provide defence lawyers, so should we also give those without a voice the ability to be articulate in the halls of power. Lose the voices, and sooner or later the laws will swing in the direction of the hard right.

And local referenda are simply dumb dumb economics, as a cursory glance at the USA’s State of California will show. We elect politicians to make tough decisions on tax, and our system works as it removes the personal incentive to pay less tax in favour of ensuring that the long term benefits and public goods are delivered. This is short sighted selfish wingnuttery and is deal killer for me as it implies a lack of rigour.

A quick search found this record of requests received under the Official Information Act, from the Clutha District Council Agenda for August 2013.

What’s interesting (and credit open data from the council for this) are the other names surrounding David Farrar, Stephanie Morrison and Jordan Williams, all of whom are part of the Taxpayers Union crew. But also on that page are Matthew Beveridge, the ex VicNats Deputy Chair and executive member for Lower North Young Nationals and Aaron Letcher, a National Party aligned member of the University of Waikato Council and Waikato Student Union president. I suspect Aaron, asking about travel costs for an area well away from his purview and Matthew, who is fishing for spend on fireworks displays and flower arrangements amongst other things, are part of the wider team. Also on the page were Jamie Morton of the NZHerald, who is based in Tauranga looking for rates changes and Vanessa Forrest, a producer from Campbell live, was asking about churches. we will give them a pass, and wait for their articles to emerge. On the next page was a Rebecca Green, asking about post 1940 buildings on the heritage list, so we will see where that ends up.

I will note that the burden placed on that little council by the team is quite high, and hope they are aware of their impact. I wholeheartedly agree with the approach that all government data should be online (including our housing data that is currently sold) so that government bodies are saved from the burden of OIA data collection.

Overall I’m willing to wait and see what the Taxpayers Union comes up with, but with a core aim to “lower the tax burden on New Zealanders” and a focus on uncovering scandals it feels like a economically lightweight single cause group. It seems to lack people from parties other than National, accepts anonymous donations (giving instructions as to how) but has a $5 joining fee – which smells potentially of rich people paying for astroturfing. I really hope this is not be the case, but that’s what I’m seeing at the moment. Sorry David Farrar.

However compared to the craziness in the USA this very mild (not that it makes it right). For comparison here are the Tea Party’s 15 Non-Negotiable Beliefs. Imagine having this lot in control of parliament, and remember that they started out as an astroturf organisation that sounded almost rational.

1. Illegal aliens are here illegally.
2. Pro-domestic employment is indispensable.
3. A strong military is essential.
4. Special interests must be eliminated.
5. Gun ownership is sacred.
6. Government must be downsized.
7. The national budget must be balanced.
8. Deficit spending must end.
9. Bailout and stimulus plans are illegal.
10. Reducing personal income taxes is a must.
11. Reducing business income taxes is mandatory.
12. Political offices must be available to average citizens.
13. Intrusive government must be stopped.
14. English as our core language is required.
15. Traditional family values are encouraged.

Published by Lance Wiggs


3 replies on “Taxpayers Union: Teaparty wingnuts or rational economists?”

  1. Hi Lance, great work on this piece. Rather than go to all the trouble you have though, you should have just called me. The phone numbers is on the Taxpayers’ Union website. I would have told you that Steph is my girlfriend and Matthew and Aaron are friends of mine. You would have avoided all the trouble you’ve been to :)
    David and I have made no secret of the fact that setting up the Union has been personal project and passion of ours. Glad to see you’ve come to the same conclusion though comparasons with the Tea Party are a bit unfair given that David and I are both on the record that the Union will never become political party.
    Jordan Williams, Executive Director, New Zealand Taxayers’ Union


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