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Keeping the Government in Check

Picture of Rhys Budge

Rhys Budge

2023 Mannkal Scholar

The conclusion of my summer internship with the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union coincides with the conclusion of my 2023 Mannkal Scholarship, and what a year it was! Allow me to take you through some of my musings and what I got up to while I was in New Zealand.

Having explored Milton Friedman’s ideas early last year while in the United States, I found his views on government spending became particularly relevant as I began interning with the Taxpayers’ Union. One quote of his “…If I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government” appropriately sums up the agency problem at the core of much of the wasteful government spending I saw while at the Union.

This agency problem arises from a natural tendency within all of us to be more generous in our spending when others are footing the bill. Politicians and government are not immune from this desire given they must resist the temptation to spend the people’s money on advancing their personal profile and in ways that pander to their voters only. To keep government accountable, the public needs the freedom to access the receipts of such spending.

At the Taxpayers’ Union I discovered one mechanism that allows the public access to these very receipts. Filing OIAs (requests for information under the New Zealand Official Information Act) allows everyday citizens the ability to judge how their government is performing in their duties. I often saw the results of our OIAs at the Taxpayers’ Union put an end to scandalous spending, as the truth made certain wasteful ventures no longer politically viable. This proved to me that sunlight often really is the best disinfectant, and that government spending needs to be transparent to ward off misappropriation.

In the final month of my internship and since writing my last scholar report, much of the longer-term projects I had been working on began to resemble something much more readable. One of my first projects of this kind was a fun, light-hearted report targeting the absurdity of issuing complex government diet guidelines that no one seems to read or follow. While I went into the project somewhat agnostic about government-issued diet guidelines, I left feeling that better outcomes could be achieved if spending was directed instead towards simpler, and more realistic diet advice for everyday Kiwis.

A later research project of mine looked at the state of New Zealand MP pay and explored possible ways this could be done better. The goal was to create a discussion document that could hopefully advance a balanced, open-minded conversation around what might be an acceptable arrangement for both politicians and the public. New Zealand should have a pay system that better rewards politicians for their work when it delivers positive outcomes for the country while not asking taxpayers to pay high salaries to MPs who contribute little.

Rhys hiking in New Zealand

Now having come to the end of my internship, I can say it has been a pleasure to work with the New Zealand Taxpayers Union. Helping fight the agency problem government faces and furthering the interests of Kiwi taxpayers has been a meaningful undertaking. Despite having now returned home to Australia, I have still committed to working on some of my unfinished projects and seeing them through to the end. I am excited to see where some of these go from here.

For hosting my stay and welcoming me on board, I would like to thank the staff at the Union. My work with you all has given me a newfound appreciation for the role organisations like yours play in keeping the government in check.

Finally, none of this would have been possible without the support of Mannkal. What a privilege it has been to be a 2023 Scholar and I am so very thankful to all the great people who seek to educate students like myself about liberal principles. Seeing how it changed my life and gave me unparalleled learning opportunities makes me excited to see what it will do for future Mannkal Scholars in 2024 and beyond. Thank you!

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