Hard News by Russell Brown


How many children with cancer would an editor's salary cure?

When I read yesterday about the Housing New Zealand Corporation's outlay of $65,000 on a staff conference at a luxury resort near Taupo, I was not impressed. Aren't we past this corporate-styled crap in public sector? I thought. I changed my mind when I look at the actual numbers.

Indeed, my only problem with a $250 per head per night cost for accommodation, meals and conference facilities runs along the lines: how could I get a deal like that?

The inevitable comparison, the one that comes to everyone's mind first, is with the infamous WINZ retreat under Christine Rankin. It's actually not much of a comparison. The bill for a similar number of staff (107 versus 94) was nearly four times as much in 1999, and that's not allowing for inflation.

According to Ruth Dyson's answers in the house yesterday, the Taupo venue was chosen as one to which most staff could drive, rather than fly. And indeed, the cost of travel averaged out to $107 a head. For Rankin's junket, it was $1578. How are these things the same?

And how cheap would a conference have to be to avoid a huge front-page headline in the New Zealand Herald reading Luxury for state house staff?

The paper also refreshes readers' memories of the Rankin controversy under another front-page headline; 'Been there, done that'.

But it's the sub-head that's the kicker: 'Housing New Zealand stayed at this lodge for $65,000 -- enough to pay Dot's rent for seven years'.

Dot being a Housing New Zealand tenant who was understandably unimpressed at being told that her landlord had spent $65,000 at a luxury lodge:

She was emphatic when told last night of HNZ's $65,000 conference. "That sucks. They could be spending all that money on doing up these houses.

"Every week I'm ringing them to fix windows and taps, but they never come. It's coming up to winter and it's freezing here."

Dot, who did not want to give her surname, says she has been asking HNZ for years for a bigger house than her current place in Kupe St, Orakei, where she has lived for eight years.

She sleeps in the bedroom, and her 17 and 18-year-old children sleep in the lounge.

"All my family lives on the street, I'm not going anywhere."

Dot - who pays $170 a week in rent - said the $250 a night Tongariro Lodge charge would cover her grocery bill for about three weeks. The $65,000 cost of the trip would pay her rent for more than seven years.

Another Kupe St resident, 22-year-old Leanne Oneroa, pays $89 a week for the two-bedroom house she shares with her partner and their 3-year-old son.

She believed $250 would also go a long way in their household.

I'm sure it would. And if Dot and her neighbours are having trouble getting basic maintenance done, that's a story, albeit a bit unglamorous, that the Herald should be pursuing (I'm not holding my breath).

The fuss here isn't really about the cost. Even a bargain-basement conference for nearly 100 people would amount to several years' income-related rent on a small state house. The comparison -- if you can even call it that -- is utterly meaningless.

Is the National Party, which helpfully provided the Herald's reporters with their story, proposing to ban public sector employees from meeting for training or planning purposes? Or perhaps to set an example by holding its next caucus retreat at a Mt Wellington motel?

And will there be even a skerrick of embarrassment that the website of the Lake Taupo Lodge (" … undeniably the ultimate in 5 star quality accommodation, fine dining and luxury for your conference or seminar. Immaculate grounds, gardens and serene location - it is perfect") prominently carries this endorsement?

WOW!! What a great Place!! After a long day conferencing it was such a pleasure to return to this beautiful Lodge and experience legendary service. See you again next year.

The glowing endorsement, if you hadn't guessed, comes from APN News & Media.


PS Pitch Black have kindly offered us two double passes to give away for their show as part of Intersect tomorrow night at Galatos in Auckland. Just email me with "Pitch Black" in the subject line and I'll draw a winner this afternoon. Note also that you can also buy tickets for $22 from Real Groovy, and click on the ad on this site to download two free live tracks from Pitch Black.

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