Public unwittingly fund pointless promotions

By Bob Jones

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Sir Bob Jones PHOTO/FILE
Sir Bob Jones PHOTO/FILE

To the extent the public took any interest in the recent local government elections (little actually, borne out by record low turnouts in many parts of the country), council debt levels were a common debating point.

Oddly enough, this didn't arise much in Auckland which has a staggeringly high debt - far in excess of most other local authorities on a per capita basis.

But it certainly got an airing in the capital, possibly because the mayoralty race there was competitive, unlike Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin.

The capital's $360 million debt is not, in itself, a concern but is potentially so through unspecified pending earthquake strengthening and leaky home liabilities. This is a salient reason for opposition to the Wellington super city proposal, other regional authorities having much lower per-capita debt and thus being reluctant to inherit the capital's disproportionate amount.

As my company contributes over $3 million to Wellington council in rates each year (plus almost as much in Auckland), unsurprisingly I take an interest in both councils' expenditure.

Now consider this. Last week the Wellington City Council, not for the first time, "invested" in an expensive and ludicrous full-page advertisement in the Dominion Post newspaper, to tell Wellingtonians how lucky they were to live there.

Eighty per cent of the advertisement comprised a photograph of a large city building. At its bottom were sketched cyclists and joggers, on its side two slices of toast, (don't ask) - this against a sea background in which, inexplicably, was shown a semi-submerged giant woman's face.

Overprinted were random statistics detailing, inter alia, the number of (respectively) boat berths in Wellington marinas, outdoor swimming events, kayaks available for hire, volunteer hours "nurturing our national heritage" and suchlike trivia.

Along the bottom lay a platitudinous gibberish message beginning: "We live in a city where work-life balance is reality, not fantasy" and finishing, "Good place to work, great place to live. Yeah, you could say that."

This nonsense is disgraceful. What was the advertisement's purpose and which halfwit in the council ranks inspired this shameful indictment on the council management?

But it's not confined to Wellington. Rare is the week when the excellent local freebie the Hutt News doesn't include several pages of similar guff paid for by the Hutt council about the Hutt Valley's wonderfulness. The newspaper reciprocates by publishing numerous photos in each issue of the mayor, who achieved office by repeatedly throwing his hat in the ring until eventually elected.

That said, these pointless advertisements - paid for by the unwitting mug ratepayers - aside, the city is well run, particularly when compared with Wellington.

Doubtless the Hutt News would deny this reciprocal arrangement, albeit tacit, but if so, then it's not borne out by the evidence. Under the previous two mayors, these multi-page expensive advertisements didn't occur. And at election time the newspaper was openly hostile to them, the opposite approach to its unofficial PR role on behalf of the current incumbent. It's their newspaper, thus they're free to do as they like, but it is ratepayers' money that is propping up this tryst.

I once offered one of those former mayors, John Terris, to purchase a painting for the City Gallery if he would allow me to sit quietly in a corner of the council office, gazing at a particularly cretinous employee "at work" for 15 minutes, this following an action by him of mindboggling stupidity.

John claimed the employee was now gone.

Local government does seem a catchment for such types and it will be one such responsible for these idiotic Wellington council advertisements.

A year ago, then local government minister Nick Smith announced an intention to legislate restraint on local government debt levels which have swollen over the last decade. The minister had the wrong target - debt is desirable so long as it's applied to intelligent investment; it's only bad when it's misspent.

What is needed, instead, is strict prescription for local government expenditure. There are just too many incidents, such as those recently exposed by the New Zealand Herald of the $23,000 spent on fancy briefcases for Auckland city councillors and $41,500 on Auckland transport's staff party. Both outlays constitute a gross abuse of public money.

So, too, with many local government rackets, such as the sister city silliness which provides an excuse for mayoral world tour jaunts at ratepayer expense while serving no sensible purpose. It's these abuses which central government should be attacking. They won't, mind you, as central government politicians are also shocking exploiters of the public purse for unnecessary global gallivanting.

The New Zealand Herald does a public service exposing council misuse of public money, but don't bet on such exposes in Wellington - not when its newspapers are in the council's pockets thanks to these costly inane advertising blitzes.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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