You might think David Farrar would be a little more circumspect.

After all, he's the Prime Minister's numbers man. He knows exactly what the nation thinks, and briefs John Key so reliably that the Prime Minister praised him on election night as "the best pollster in New Zealand".

And yet, Farrar has caused awkward embarrassment for more than a few National Party ministers after he helped set up the so-called Taxpayers' Union, which purports to target government waste.

"Yes," says Farrar, "there can be some relationship challenges at times if a minister has been criticised strongly by the Taxpayers' Union."


The National Party is a "significant client" of his Curia Market Research polling company, he says. "The thing I always push is it should never be personal. As long as you've got a good track record of being even-handed.

"We don't sit around at the board level and say 'target this minister, target that minister'." Co-founder and executive director Jordan Williams makes those calls, and does it on the issues, says Farrar.

You'll find few who attack the "issues" with such ferocious glee as Williams. It was bumptious Williams who was all over spending of $67,339 on a big sign outside the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's headquarters. And then a television that cost $140,474. And then $5480 on an office art consultant.

In evening wear with a huge grin, Williams boldly bowled into MBIE's publicly shared cafe with someone dressed in a pig costume ("Porky", apparently) to award the agency's staff with a "Waste Watch" certificate.

Jordan Williams and
Jordan Williams and "Porky" visit the MBIE.

Even better for Williams, MBIE sent someone along to collect it.

But what is it really after, this group that exposes hair straighteners and criticises the hiring of model sheep for kids' Christmas parties?

Farrar: "It's fair to say we want to change where the so-called centre is. There's been all these voices calling out for more spending. My hope is by having a strong voice calling out wasteful spending ... that provides a better environment. You will then get spending restraints and tax cuts."

It's two years since the launch of the Taxpayers' Union, which was the realisation of "an ambition that burned hot and hard in the minds of Jordan Williams and David Farrar", as chairman John Bishop (father of National MP Chris Bishop) said at the recent annual meeting.


Isn't calling it a "union" a bit cheeky? "Yeah," says Bishop snr. "David Farrar said he liked it because it annoyed the left. Union is not a term which is owned by the trade union movement."

The Taxpayers' Union is about reducing "waste", says Farrar. He claims there are "a thousand spending groups" calling for more taxpayer money, citing Amnesty International, the Nurses Organisation and the Post Primary Teachers' Association as examples.

There needed to be a group that would push back, he says.

And so, the Taxpayers' Union campaigns on lessening the burden on taxpayers. Its most useful tool is one available free to all taxpayers - the Official Information Act. Farrar's description of the group as "heavy users" of the Act are reflected in Auckland Council figures showing 87 Local Government and Official Information Act requests in the past two years.

The requests "have covered everything from staff costs and international travel to public art projects and council's advisory panels". "This does not include Privacy Requests," says's the council's information and privacy manager, Manoj Ragupathy

The same has happened at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. In December, the Taxpayers' Union started to focus on MBIE. It then made 10 requests in the 10 months.


Williams doesn't actually know how many OIA requests the organisation has sent, although says "whatever it is, it's not enough".

"The fact that we have exposed so many rorts, wastes of money and cost overruns more than justifies any costs to officialdom. The more information requests we put in, the more likely they are to think that a wasteful spend could be exposed."

The OIA responses received are used to generate press releases - almost one every two working days. Farrar recently published a spread-sheet of releases showing the Taxpayers' Union sent 285 press releases in the two years since it launched. By Farrar's count, 78 per cent were about the Government and of those 82 per cent were "negative".

The press releases carry Williams' name at the bottom and an invitation to call the Taxpayers' Union's 24-hour media line.

Williams is almost always at the end of the phone, able and bright with well-practised soundbites. Fairfax and NZME publications have carried about 600 articles mentioning the group since it launched.

Farrar: "It's small stuff that gets the media hits and you do need some of that. There are certain stories that are easier to explain ... that media will pick up on. Look at Tuku's underpants," he says of the infamous revelations from the 1990s that a NZ First MP had spent $61 on boxer shorts, using money paid by the Government to fund an early incarnation of Maori Television.


Though its press releases almost always focus on small spending decisions, it also conducts research (costing $45,838 last year) which reveals a deeper interest in changing the shape and structure of Government.

One of those reports is called Monopoly Money and gives greater insight into the Taxpayers' Union's definition of "waste". It has released two editions - 2014 and 2015 - of the report which calculates "corporate welfare", among which it includes the taxpayers' $100 million contribution to the Rugby World Cup 2011, ultra-fast broadband, John Key's National Cycleway, the $30m paid to Rio Tinto's Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter, film subsidies which brought New Zealand the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies and payments to state-owned businesses including KiwiRail and Solid Energy.

"If a business is losing money, they should try better, do something different or go out of business," the report states in its introduction.

So, while the Taxpayers' Union's talk of "waste" is all about efficiency in its broad public messaging, the underlying message is one of smaller government which needs lower taxes and a business world in a Darwinian fight for survival.

Though the founding documents with the Register of Incorporated Societies show a blend of Act Party and National Party people, the Taxpayers' Union really began with Farrar and Williams.

Farrar is well-known in the political scene. Aged 19 he was the Young National regional chairman who, in Robert Muldoon's day, glibly criticised the party for being too old, then pointed out most would be dead in 30 years. He was anti-homosexual law reform in his unfinished university days - a stance which has changed completely since.


For eight years in the 1990s, he worked for the National Party. Two of those years were for Prime Minister Jenny Shipley. Geeky and savvy, he was one of the midwives for the internet's entrance to New Zealand. In 2003, his love for online broadened to the creation of Kiwiblog which goes under the motto "Fomenting Happy Mischief". Now 47, Farrar has been anointed best pollster in the country by the Prime Minister.

Born in Hawke's Bay, Williams was raised by his mum and subject to early political influence. There was contact with high fliers such as Dr Don Brash, and those who shun the limelight such as the curious Simon Lusk - credited with successful campaigns by a handful of National Party MPs.

Williams went from NZ Lotteries as an "assistant accountant" to Franks & Ogilvie, the law firm at which former Act MP Stephen Franks is a partner.

Franks credits Williams with the creation of the Taxpayers' Union. He says the young lawyer flew to the United Kingdom to watch the Taxpayers' Alliance "war on waste". Whatever Williams saw must have been inspiring. He flew back and, with Farrar, set up the Taxpayers' Union. Franks was a founding member and Williams is still a "consultant" to the firm.

"We don't sit around at the board level and say 'target this minister, target that minister,'" says David Farrar.

Williams' is combatively defensive about his creation. University of Otago nutritionist Dr Lisa Te Morenga engaged with Williams on Twitter, at one stage calling him a "twat". Williams tweeted back, copying in the university, saying she was using "language not suitable for Twitter". He later tweeted at the university Twitter account saying there was "utterly vile material" in her account.

Dr Te Morenga wound up apologising online. "He used that to go at me and try and get me fired." She says Williams sent the Vice-Chancellor's office a "string of emails complaining" about her. "He's just a troublemaker"


Williams denies trying to get anyone fired over online comments but says he will go to the managers of public servants about online comments. "We have taken steps to defend reputations where public officials have lied, abused or defamed me or our staff. When officials use social media accounts to, for example, make sexually explicit abusive tweets, I make no apology whatsoever for drawing it to their employers attention.

"Here at the Taxpayers' Union, we play the ball, not the man. We expect the same of others, so on two occasions when government officials have made defamatory claims regarding our organisation or its staff we have raised concerns with the relevant government department.

"We believe it is the proper process for an employer to seek retraction where our staff where have been unduly attacked by public servants."

The publication of Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics last year revealed the Taxpayers' Union amid the machinations of Whaleoil blogger Cameron Slater. Williams is unstoppable - he has secured a short sabbatical role at what is thought to be a United States' right wing think tank. He's also set up the Auckland Ratepayers' Alliance in line with the group's desire to have a say on local government. Rates are taxes too, they say.

It's not set up as an incorporated society, like the Taxpayers' Union. Instead, it's a limited liability company with Williams as director and sole shareholder. The website is registered to the Taxpayers' Union. When you ring its 24/7 media line, Williams answers the phone.

And there's another group - Democracy Action is a pressure group that has co-ordinated with the Taxpayers' Union and the Ratepayers' Alliance on what it sees as excessive consultation with Maori. Its website is registered to businessman Lee Short in name but uses Williams' PO Box as a contact address. Last week, the three groups sent out press releases on a campaign on which they had co-ordinated in the same style, inside an hour. Short says "some of the same people work in all three organisations but each group has its own vision and views".


Williams, who campaigns for accountability and transparency, would not be interviewed for this article, saying he didn't believe he would get a fair hearing. He did respond to written questions, but left unanswered those touching on his close relationship with Whaleoil's Slater, revealed in Dirty Politics.

The group also won't talk about its membership. It won't say who has joined or where its money comes from - it raised $191,017 last year. There's no single big donor, Farrar says. Raising money is "a big part of Jordan's job," he says. It has "hundreds" of members. "I don't think it's thousands."

When the Guardian investigated the UK's Taxpayers' Alliance in 2009, it found it was largely funded by wealthy Conservative donors but drew support from across the political spectrum for its focus on "waste".

Political scientist Dr Bryce Edwards of the University of Otago says New Zealand needs ginger groups like the Taxpayers' Union. "I think it's a valuable entity for New Zealand politics and society. I think they are a legitimate part of the political scene."

But, he adds, the group's actual purpose is not one reflected by the wider society it purports to represent. "I think it's disingenuous in the way it represents itself. It has the appearance of standing for wider society when it represents the far right of politics. It's some sort of proxy for those with a neoliberal agenda."

Dr Edwards says it lost a lot of ground through its connection to Slater. "One of the great outcomes of Dirty Politics is we're all a lot more sceptical and careful. It's much more apparent now to those who are aware of the Taxpayers' Union that they are the Act Party in drag."