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Muriel Newman’s The Column - March 25

All Aboard The Government Gravy Train

This week the Column looks at the suspicious allocation of the Community Employment Group’s Social Entrepreneur Fund grants – which is only a snapshot of the Government’s frivolous spending of taxpayers’ money.

Labour’s failure to adequately control its departments’ spending of taxpayers’ money has become a hallmark of this administration.

Whether it is the Corrections Department, Te Puni Kokiri, or the Health Ministry, this Government has developed a track record of failing to adequately establish robust financial management systems to safeguard taxpayer spending.

Labour’s fondness for such spending – seemingly with scant regard for common sense or prudence – has recently been highlighted through revelations surrounding the way the Labour Department’s Community Employment Group (CEG) has allocated some of the $23million in grants it distributes annually.

The Auditor-General was so concerned about the abuse of CEG’s grants process, and those of other Government agencies – exposed through investigations into the Pipi Foundation – that he issued a comprehensive report on the issue last year.

The report was scathing about the allocation and management of grants, identifying widespread systemic failure, and highlighting major concerns about the inherent worthiness of many of the projects receiving public funds.

Nowhere are those concerns more evident than in the way CEG has granted over three quarters of a million dollars for applications received under the Social Entrepreneur Fund.

According to information I obtained under the Official Information Act, those grants included projects so flaky that they, not only take political correctness to new heights of absurdity but, are blatantly unfair and smack of political cronyism.

Winning the prize for politically correct silliness has to be $26,000 awarded to a Christchurch woman so that she, and her daughter, could travel the world to record the journey of hip-hop music to New Zealand. After spending 70 days travelling between New York and Los Angeles, Hawaii, Fiji and Samoa, they later admitted: “Nothing major came out of the trip, apart from seeing it all happen”, and that the Hawaii and Fiji leg of the trip was: “basically to chill out” – they did not even bother to disclose the Paris stopover.

Asked about the veracity of her project, the woman stated “I asked them for the money, told them what I wanted to do, and if the people wanted to buy into that then that’s fine”.

She also denied that her husband and brother-in-law – who were on the staff of funding agencies that awarded the grant – had any influence over the success of her application.

Hard on hip-hop’s heels in the silliness awards must surely be the $7,000 for another two women to travel overseas – this time to look at ways of encouraging gay and lesbian Maori and Pacific Islanders to participate in sport, art and cultural events. Then there are two more women who received $14,000 to visit Jamaica and attend the world netball championships in order to lobby for the inclusion of a Maori team in future tournaments.

The list goes on and on: $30,000 for a trip to attend a UK arts festival; $30,000 for a trip to the UK, Europe, the US and Australia to investigate social venture capital funds; $16,000 to research youth programmes in Scotland; $11,000 for executive leadership courses in Canada and Finland; $11,000 for a California health conference; and $5,500 to attend a London business school.

A further $40,000 was granted to sort out the Ratana archives and create a bibliography of the spiritual makeup of Maori; $20,000 was given to a woman to research the ‘Earthsong’ project – despite liquidators blaming her for the collapse of New Zealand’s largest rammed-earth home-building company; and $10,000 to establish a network of Maori artists to work on cruise ships around New Zealand.

A number of these grants were also awarded for study purposes, raising concerns about the fundamental fairness of the government providing generous financial support to a special group of selected students on one hand, while – on the other – ordinary students struggle under the burden of student debt which has grown massively as a result of Labour’s scrapping of interest while students study. This mountain of student debt has seen the average student loan rise for $11,885 in 1999 when Labour took office, to $13,976 today, with total student debt snowballing from $2.8 billion in 1999 to a record $5.2 billion.

These grants include $20,000 for personal development, $10,000 for a media course in the US; $14,000 for a course in volunteering; $16,000 for executive management courses; $10,000 for a counselling diploma; $20,000 to learn web-page design; $13,000 for a diploma in management; and $26,000 to complete a certificate in fundraising.

Even more intriguing is that it appears that grants may have been given to Labour’s political friends. At least three recipients, who could well be Left-wing activists, have received more than $50,000 in taxpayers’ money. If this were true, then it would appear that Labour is using this fund to reward political cronies and mates.

Grant schemes like these fail to stand up to robust public scrutiny and are, not only a blatant abuse of taxpayers money but, strengthen the view that Labour – with its historical contempt of business through roots in the union movement and academia – could well be nothing more than a gravy-train government looking after its own.


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