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Thomas Wynne: Public money must be treated with respect and accountability

Saturday 13 May 2023 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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Thomas Wynne: Public money must be treated with respect and accountability
Columnist Thomas Tarurongo Wynne. Photo: CI NEWS/16040843

Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, famously said, “A nation's budget is a reflection of its priorities and values.” He emphasised that government spending reveals the true intentions and concerns of a nation’s government.

And when the money used for government expenditure is earned through the hard work, sweat, and tears of the people, as well as through their tax contributions, it is crucial that the allocation and utilisation of public funds are transparent and publicly accountable.

In my previous role in a Minister’s Office, the scrutiny placed on public spending necessitated the release of all information to the public every 30 days. This practice ensured that every meeting, briefing, and expense was made available for public scrutiny. Additionally, every official trip and its associated costs were disclosed, along with the underlying rationale and benefits to the country’s priorities.

As a Ministerial Advisor working in a political office, even my own expenses, including taxi fares and meals, were made public and subject to accountability. In fact, we were provided with purchase cards for expenses, but their usage was restricted to emergencies only. I vividly remember a conversation with a staff member from the Ministerial Human Resources team where it was made clear, that even a purchase as simple as a coffee would need to be explained.

This level of public scrutiny ensures the safety of all parties involved: the public, who provides the funds through their taxes, and the government and its officials, who are entrusted with the responsibility of spending those funds. Government agencies were also held accountable for their expenditures, with their information being proactively released every 30 days for public review.

Personally, I greatly appreciated this level of accountability, as it guaranteed that every dollar spent was properly accounted for and allocated in the best interests of the public. Furthermore, it ensured that any questions or requests for accountability were met with clear, honest, and forthcoming answers. Did they get it right all the time, no, but they were the few times not the many

The existence of such accountability measures is the result of legislation put in place by acts of Parliament. Legislatures around the world, including those sitting in parliaments, have the core responsibility of refining and developing legislation. Through this process, laws are created to protect, develop, and fund our countries, as well as to hold accountable those entrusted with the task of managing our hard-earned taxes and funds.

Next week, New Zealand’s budget will be released, and later this year, the Cook Islands’ budget will follow suit. Budgets, as Obama mentioned, reflect a nation’s priorities. And why it is essential for individuals to take the time to understand these priorities and where their government has decided to allocate their hard-earned money.

Having participated in several budget processes in New Zealand, I have witnessed firsthand the complexity and negotiation involved in securing a budget for a Minister’s portfolio and the respective areas of focus. It became evident that if certain areas are not given priority, they will not receive the necessary budget or resources, and often, the process entailed determining the greatest need among numerous competing demands.

Public money is precisely that: public, and it must be treated with the appropriate level of respect and accountability. Without robust, clearly defined, and transparent checks and balances in place, public funds can easily be mishandled and treated instead as personal funds for those entrusted with it. This is where the abuse of public money arises and persists.

When Jesus stated that the love of money is the root of all evil, he was drawing attention to the harm caused by the misuse of money, but more the unhealthy and sinful heart attitude that sat behind the love of money above integrity and in this case also public scrutiny. His warning serves as a reminder that once this root takes hold of an individual, an official or leader it will eventually affect the entire tree – a tree that we all are trying to take shelter under in a time when so much is uncertain and where simply getting by, is so much is more expensive.