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Jordan Williams On Why The Taxpayers' Union Went To Panama To Debate Vaping

The head of the Taxpayers' Union, Jordan Williams, has confirmed a representative of its group attended a conference in Panama in February, but won't say how the trip was funded.

On the latest episode of 30 with Guyon Espiner Williams said his colleague was in Panama to oppose the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) taking place at the same time.

"What that closed-door [FCTC] session was arguing, was to try to force an Australian-style ban on vaping across the world," Williams said.

"The reason that the taxpayer groups got together across the road, [is because there is] a debate worth having, because New Zealand does have a real [vaping] success story."

Williams was less forthcoming when pressed on funding the Taxpayers' Union receives from tobacco companies and whether it helped pay for the trip. Tobacco giants Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco have stakes in the vaping industry.

"It's not my place to dox who supports us."

Williams said donations the TPU receives from industry, "the grog, the nicotine companies, sugar, soda; whatever that is, it's less than 3 percent" of the nearly $3 million it receives in donations from the public. Businesses supported the group because "their particular product is under the threat or potentially regulated or [subject to] specific taxes".

"We're a taxpayers group. We've got members that are smokers that are saying, rightly: 'Look, I already pay four times the amount I cost the health system.' Of course we're going to advocate on that. We're a taxpayer group. We're going to point that out."

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Cigarettes and tobacco have been subjected to massive tax hikes and public health campaigns in recent years, coinciding with a drop in the daily smoking rate from 16.4 percent in 2012 to 6.8 percent in 2023. The number of adults vaping daily rose to around 8.3 percent.

The National-ACT-New Zealand First coalition has scrapped plans to implement Labour government initiatives that would have reduced the number of stores legally allowed to sell cigarettes from 6000 to just 600.

Associate Health Minister Casey Costello is in charge of the reforms and is a former chair and board member of the Taxpayers' Union. Williams said the TPU played no role in helping her formulate the government's tobacco policy reversal.

"I do not think I've ever discussed tobacco matters with Casey Costello. And I can certainly say she didn't have involvement in any of that fundraising or with those industry members."

Costello was "too humble to fundraise - she wouldn't close the deal," Williams said.

* 30 with Guyon Espiner comes out every week on RNZ, YouTube, TVNZ+ and wherever you get your podcasts.

The international think tank connection

Williams was also questioned about the Taxpayers' Union connection with international group the Atlas Network.

The Atlas Network comprises over 500 think tanks across more than 100 countries, promoting policy reform, free markets and limited government. Critics argue its initiatives favour corporate interests and undermine workers' rights and environmental protections.

It has been involved in several high-profile political movements, including the rise of Brazil's populist former president Jair Bolsonaro.

When asked if the Taxpayers' Union was a member of the Atlas Network, Williams responded, "of course."

"I'm really open about it."

He went on to say that he finds it "bizarre" that association with the Atlas Network was "suddenly an issue."

"There's literally someone tweeting that, you know, 'the first rule of Atlas is not to talk about Atlas'.

"Well, I'll give you an example of our most recent support from Atlas."

Williams then recounted how a member of the Taxpayers' Union recently received an award at a think tank event in Kuala Lumpur.

"The Taxpayers' Union literally tweeted him holding, I think it was a US$10,000 three-metre long cheque. And we congratulated the staff member for winning the award."

Williams' association with Atlas goes back to 2015, two years after the TPU was founded, when he attended Atlas Network's flagship training program, Think Tank MBA (Master of Business Administration.)

He said the 10-day strategic course was "an incredible programme."

"What things like Atlas do, and other groups I'm involved with, is to share best practice, best ideas. It can be damn lonely setting up a think tank at the bottom of the world in your mid-20s."

Meet you in the lobby

Later in the interview on 30 with Guyon Espiner, Williams said he believes New Zealand's lobbying laws need to be tightened.

"We have, in New Zealand, frankly, a revolving door... between industry and regulators."

"But it's not just at the politician level. It's the staff in the minister's office."

"So, it's literally the ministerial staff, where there's no restriction on this revolving door."

"I think it's a real mischief."

Canada has a five-year standdown period for former politicians moving into the lobbying sector.

Australia has an 18-month standdown, and lobby groups are required by law to register as such.

But Williams thinks a lobby register is a step too far.

"That's a harder question, because you've got a definition problem. What is lobbying?

"To be frank, any New Zealander can pay five or 10 bucks to join one of the large political parties, and you'll almost certainly get some face time with the minister.

"One of the questions I would ask is, what do you say to ministers when you talk to them?"

When asked if he considered the Taxpayers' Union to be a lobby group, Williams said: "Well, we're a pressure group. Our North Star is lower taxes, less waste, more accountability."

"We've got an agenda, but we wear it on our sleeve."

Follow the podcast feed now to get every episode of 30 on your phone when it lands:

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