The Front Page podcast: Has the Government been blowing money on wasteful projects?

Several stories in recent weeks have drawn attention to some of the Government’s more controversial spending decisions.

These include $21 million spent on consultants and contractors as part of its Three Waters plan, $235,000 on social media listening reports during the pandemic, $800,000 on Zoom jobs expos attended by only 126 people and $10,000 on two large props as part of its Road to Zero campaign.

So is this spending justified? Or is it emblematic of a Government that’s a bit too loose with the purse strings?

Newstalk ZB political reporter Aaron Dahmen tells the Front Page podcast today that added focus is being placed on the Government’s spending because of the cost of living crisis.

“There are people struggling to make ends meet and the number of people struggling is growing by the day,” says Dahmen.

“Ultimately, this is a point in time where the Government is perhaps being held more to account than previously because there just is this closer lens on where it’s divvying up money when so many people barely have enough to make ends meet, to pay for grocery bills, to pay for power and to live a decent life.”

The thing with much of the recent spending criticism is that it’s aimed at issues with good intentions. The online jobs expo, for instance, made sense on the surface. It came at a time when businesses are looking to connect with young staff and more people are using Zoom, but the poor result really left many wondering whether this was a worthwhile use of money.

“I spoke to Minister Carmel Sepuloni about this initiative,” says Dahmen.

“She said, ‘we need to try things’. And throughout the entire Covid-19 pandemic, this has been unprecedented. No government knew exactly how to respond… [Given the circumstances], it was a real positive that ministries and officials were given the leeway and flexibility to be able to try new things, but there has to be accountability there too… If you’re spending almost a million dollars, that seems like an awful lot of money just to throw into the wind.”

The Labour Government is, of course, not alone in spending large amounts of money on projects that don’t necessarily amount to much.

Under John Key, the National Government infamously spent $26 million on changing a flag that didn’t ever change. In much the same way that Opposition politicians are today stoking the fires under Labour, so too did political parties take aim at National during that period.

“Being in Opposition is in many ways easier than being in Government. The Māori Party mentioned a few days ago the advantages of being in opposition because you can criticise and you can hold to account.”

Much of the criticism we do hear from Opposition politicians is often ideological and designed to draw a distinction from the current form of governance. Few voices have been louder on the Government’s spending than those coming from the National Party.

“National has been criticising all the spending. It’s all wasteful spending and we need to go line by line through every single ministry invoice and figure out where we can cut spending. Of course, it’s ideological. They will ignore some of the big spends that the previous National Government had and Labour would do the same in Opposition.”

The big question now is whether the current criticism of the Government will have any sticking power, which could potentially impact how voters see Labour in the coming months.

The only thing clear at this stage is that all eyes will be on the Budget announcement on Thursday – especially those of the Opposition.

The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald,available to listen to every weekday from 5am.

• You can follow the podcast at nzherald.co.nz, iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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