Jordan Williams on what the Taxpayers' Union really is and who funds it

From 30 with Guyon Espiner, 3:00 pm on 22 May 2024

Jordan Williams is the head of the Taxpayers' Union. With 200,000 members, it’s one of the largest lobby groups in New Zealand. 

For the last decade he’s called out wasteful government spending and been a high profile advocate of free speech and transparency. 

Guyon Espiner spoke to Jordan Williams about what the  Taxpayers' Union is trying to achieve, where it gets its funding, and where it fits in the international movement advocating right wing economic reform.

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What is the Taxpayers' Union?

"Well, it's the same pitch as it was when we launched it just over 10 years ago."

"There are hundreds of groups of special interests out there, generally on the centre left, that argue for more money for their particular pet cause. It might be, you know, the protection of the albino snail or whatever.  We’re the ones on the other side, to argue for “Mom-and-Pop" taxpayers, the ones that pay the bill.  

Until government spending is being spent well, and you've got no government waste, why should we reach deeper into families’ back pockets to tax more?"  

"Post-election, we're taking [staffing numbers] a little bit more cautiously, to see where the new equilibrium is. At some point, I think early last year, during the Three Waters debate, I sort of looked and realised, on our payroll, we had 18 staff. This thing started with me, just part time, and then me and a mate." 

"We are now the largest, per capita, taxpayer group in the English-speaking world. We’re not quite the largest per capita in the world. The Finns have that, but they've been going, I think, 100 years, and they actually have software that do your taxes. So, it's a little bit of a different business model. They've got quarter of a million financial members."

Donations and Donors  

"It is, particularly post-COVID, grassroots fed. More than 80% of our income in 2022 and 2023 is pretty similar. It’s all small donations, online donations, averaging between about $75, $85, depending on the campaign. That’s the bulk of it."

"Sir Bob [Jones] is very generous, and cumulatively, he would be our largest donor because of the office in Wellington, which he donates [rent-free.]"

"I'm very lucky to have such a great board that are all volunteers. Hard-right’s a bit unfair. I mean, let's step back. We advocate for lower taxes. Two- thirds of New Zealanders agree with that. We advocate for more transparency; 95 percent of New Zealanders would agree with that. And we argue for more accountability. Well, nearly all New Zealanders would agree with that."

How much do alcohol and tobacco companies contribute to the Taxpayers' Union? 

"The total industry money of our total budget is less than 3% of our revenue. So that's the grog, the nicotine companies, sugar, soda; whatever that is, it's less than 3%.  

And for a taxpaying group that's the lowest I'm aware of anywhere in the world in terms of industry support. They’re businesses that joined because their product is under threat, or potentially regulated, with specific taxes."

Casey Costello, the government minister responsible for tobacco policy now, was a former chairperson of the Taxpayers Union. 

"Casey Costello donated to the Taxpayers Union, and as a lot of my day is spent contacting donors and thanking them for making the work possible, Casey was very interesting." 

"Clearly, passionate about public policy, a strong north star, particularly around democratic accountability. Obviously, she's involved with Hobson's Pledge and the like. I asked her to join my board. She's an incredible New Zealander.

She's a former detective, a great BS detector. She’s one of those people that probably speaks the least at a board meeting, but what she says is usually the wisest."  

Did the Taxpayers' Union have any role in helping her formulate the Government’s tobacco policy?  

"No, not at all. In fact, 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.  

For the quite practical reason that Casey is wonderful, but she's too humble to fundraise. She wouldn't close the deal."

The Taxpayers' Union sent a representative to Panama in February this year, to assist in opposing the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC). Why the obsession with tobacco regulation? 

"New Zealand's got a great story to tell. We have successfully, dramatically, reduced smoking rates. We’ve got people on to vaping. 

Our colleagues in the US, the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, have been particularly focused around the unaccountability of the [FCTC]."  

New Zealand has reduced smoking rates partly because of the thing the Taxpayers' Union campaigns against - placing excise tax on cigarettes to such a degree that they have become unaffordable. 

"In fairness the tax has also driven a huge, illicit market in tobacco in New Zealand, about 15%. There are four big tobacco companies in the world. The fourth largest supplier in New Zealand is the illicit market, and it's possibly going to be the second soon."  

"I mean, look, we’re a taxpayer group. We've got members that are smokers that are saying, rightly, look, I already pay, according to Treasury, four times the amount I cost the health system.  

Of course, we're going to advocate for that, we're a taxpayer group. We're going to point that out. That's the same point Treasury was making, that putting up taxes is having less and less effect."  

"It's driving people underground into an illicit market. And it's driving retail crime and ram raids." 

British American Tobacco has publicly said they are members of the Taxpayers' Union. Is Phillip Morris as well? 

"I'm not going to go there, because once I start rolling in or out members, you're going to get to people." 

Who paid for him to go over there? 

"It was actually on the way. I can't remember if it was before or after, but there was a professional training thing, around political marketing, that that staffer was going to in North America anyway, so it wasn't solely [to oppose the WHO FCTC conference]. That's the first thing."  

"But what that closed-door session was arguing, was to try to force an Australian style ban on vaping across the world. And 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."  

"And smokers do pay a disproportionate amount of tax. It is a tiny percentage of our own overall work, as is the revenue from all the industry companies. We're talking less than 3%."

So, the Taxpayers' Union gets a couple of hundred thousand dollars from the tobacco companies? 

"I'm not going to slice and dice but I'm saying it again - sugar, grog, soda, and [other] regulated industries, it's less than 3%. Our business model is New Zealanders that agree with our message around fiscal restraint, around transparency, around accountability." 

Would the Taxpayers' Union have the same policy on tobacco and vaping, and pursue it as vigorously, without the tobacco industry? 

"That is exactly what I'm saying. Because our positions on vaping absolutely match the anti-smoking groups like ASH. I've absolutely no doubt that we've been intellectually honest in that area." 

Jordan Williams, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Taxpayers' Union.

Jordan Williams, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Taxpayers' Union. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

The Atlas Network is a consortium of roughly 450 right-wing think tanks from around the world. Is the Taxpayers' Union a member of the Atlas Network?  

"Of course. I'm really open about it. I find it just totally bizarre that this is 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. One of our employees, our former investigations manager, went up and did some training in Kuala Lumpur and participated in something like, I think they call it Shark Tank, like a Dragon's Den type competition.  And he pitched a campaign, and 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." 

"The Atlas Network pulls together generally young, but entrepreneurial, people that lead or want to found free market think tanks around the world.  Most of the work is done in the developing world."  

"My first experience with Atlas [was when] I did something called the Think Tank MBA, an incredible programme. They picked me up, took me to Fairfax, Virginia, [where I] met my roommate. His name was Alex. I asked what he did. He said, 'I founded the Oslo Human Rights Foundation. We pick up dissidents, like women's rights campaigners who have escaped Iran, and we help them'.”  

"It's incredible work that these guys are doing around the world." 

"I mean you use right-wing there in a disparaging way. [Atlas advocates] free market, free trade, human rights, property rights." 

"Their pitch to donors markets, free enterprise. You know, free trade and open economies have arguably led a billion people out of poverty in my lifetime. They're in the business of selling those ideas and their pitch is, we help these groups on the ground around the world, put them together with mentorships, with training."  

"When I set up the Taxpayers Union, one of my - it remains one of my mantras - is “I'm not here to reinvent the wheel at the bottom of the world.” 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."

As a teenager, you were a Green Party member. What was the “lightbulb” moment that caused you to move into centre-right politics? 

"When I was 14, 15 years old, Genetic Engineering pulled me towards the Greens."  

"The other big issue was that I sat the last year of School Certificate in the fourth form, and then the first year of NCEA in the fifth form. It was [NCEA’s] guinea pig year. Our maths teacher gave us, as a mock exam, the School Certificate maths exam from the year that my class was born. And about a third of the pages were crossed out. And we asked, “what's been replaced?” And [nothing had been].  

And if there was one moment where I thought, hang on this isn't right, there's something wrong here, it was probably that, the dumbing down I witnessed as a 14-year-old." 

"Now, that pulled me towards the centre right. And obviously the GE issue pulled me towards the Greens. 

I graduated right as the Global Financial Crisis [2007-2008] was having an impact on accounting jobs and the big firms in New Zealand. I always thought I'd be an accountant but ended up in law."

The Taxpayers' Union accepted taxpayer money to pay wages to staff during COVID. How does that look?

"We did a report quite early on in COVID. And we argued, look, we're fiscal conservatives for a rainy day. It does look like a rainy day's coming. And well before there was any talk of a wage subsidy, we were arguing for one. 

So, it was [the first year of lockdowns] 2020. January's always a quiet month, February was very slow. In March, nothing was coming in. And even a month earlier, the idea that we would ever take government money was just unthinkable." 

"I had two options. We could either [take the government subsidy and] take bad PR, and have to answer questions about this for the rest of my career, or look staff in the eye - many of whom do not share our politics, I deliberately hire across the political spectrum - and say, “I'm sorry, I can't pay you because we're choosing to avoid the bad PR.”  

Remember it's not the organisation that takes the wage subsidy, it goes to the staff." 

"We bounced back and immediately paid it back when we could. We're reliant on donations, [and] we can't figure out how many of the left-wing unions that [are funded through] payroll deductions, how they could qualify for the wage subsidy. But none of them have paid it back. We have." 

"Look, I accept the criticism. The organisation has always been clear that we don't want to be reliant on taxpayers. [But it was] an unusual time – and, jeepers, it was the rainy day, and we are fiscally conservative for the rainy day."

Globally, New Zealand pays less than the average amount of tax. Meanwhile, Scandinavian countries pay more. Yet these highly taxed countries are consistently ranked some of the happiest in the world. Why?

"Okay, so two things. The first is yes, Scandinavians have got Big Government. They also have a very efficient and accountable delivery of services often done by the private sector."

Would the Taxpayers' Union be happy with higher taxes as long as the money's spent well? 

"If the quality is there. We've got the worst of both. We're getting big government, but it's big, dumb, unaccountable government."  

"Look, what motivates me and gets me up in the morning, is that I love New Zealand. New Zealand has so much to offer. It was the same motivation 10 years ago, but now that I've got two kids, it means even more. I don't want to have to feel guilty that I'm bringing my kids up in a country that is getting relatively poorer.  

In Australia, the GDP per capita is a third more per person. Our choices and public policy are the reason why we're poor. We shouldn't have to settle for it."  

"I want us to be the most prosperous we can be. In many ways are, but we are underperforming. We shouldn't have to sacrifice, and our public policy choices mean we choose to be poor. That's what motivates me." 

Jordan Williams in studio with Guyon Espiner

Jordan Williams in studio with Guyon Espiner Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Free speech

"I think across the western world, universities are in a real state of crisis. And it's not me saying that.  

There are multiple surveys around the world, and the Free Speech Union has replicated them in New Zealand, asking academics and students their views on free speech and whether they feel safe expressing contrarian or controversial ideas."  

"The place where you go, as a young person, to think and express the dangerous thought experiments, and things like that, has turned into a self-censoring part of society. I think it's a real problem."

The argument goes that debates on free speech can turn into hate speech, and that smaller, vulnerable groups are more fragile to the potential repercussions. 

"That's very paternal. I don't think that many minority groups would argue that they are more fragile. I understand the argument, but I totally reject it." 

"Free speech is why a lot of minority groups, or representatives from minority communities, are getting more involved in the Free Speech union, because they understand free speech is often the canary in the coal mine for the minority groups."

The Taxpayers' Union, as a collective, supported the Government’s ban on gang insignia. Do you also support the government telling people what they can wear? 

"Do I support it? I'm in two minds about it. It's a degree that pivots, I think, on the question of whether you can argue if [wearing gang patches] is intimidating or not. This is the reason I'm not in politics. If I was in politics I'd probably have to vote for [the gang patch ban,] because I'm on the centre right.  

In principle, I don't [support the ban]. 

However, I think that's more a freedom of expression question, than a freedom of speech." 

Does New Zealand need to tighten its lobbying rules and introduce legislation? 

"I think we do. I think that New Zealand, being a small society where everyone knows each other, I worry that we're just a little bit too relaxed about it.  

And we have in New Zealand, frankly, a revolving door."  

"I mean, I don't want to pick on the individual. But the person that recently springs to mind is Kris Faafoi. He's minister one week, and literally, within a matter of days [of resigning,] has a website advertising his services and his connections. So, he will be lobbying not only with the insider information that he's selling but lobbying his former officials."  

"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."

Do we need a stand-down period before politicians and political staffers can move into lobbying? 

"Yeah, well, I mean, it’s my philosophy. I'm inherently suspicious of abuses of government power. And I think that, you know, it is a worry, where you have this revolving door between industry and the regulators."

Should they have to register?

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

"[I have] talked about the disadvantage of being a small society. One of the advantages is, to be frank, any New Zealander can pay five or ten bucks to join one of the large political parties, and you'll almost certainly get some face time with the minister."

Is the Taxpayers' Union a lobby group?

"Well, we're a pressure group. Our North Star is lower taxes, less waste, more accountability.  One of the questions I would ask is, what do you say to ministers when you talk to them? We've got an agenda, but we wear it on our sleeve."

Where to next? Politics? 

"I don't think so.  I've always been able to write off that question by saying that my brand would only work at a time of fiscal challenge or crisis. 

One of the things that's great is we can stay principled. In politics you've got to sacrifice those principles and compromise, and things like that."  

"I love that the North Star for us is the mission, the vision, rather than having to sacrifice those principles."