David Parker can't say if Waka Kotahi's 88-strong PR team justified or not

Labour minister David Parker believes it's a "proper question to ask" whether it's justified for Waka Kotahi to have 88 communications staffers.

He's also backing Transport Minister Michael Wood's move to warn the transport agency about its expenditure after it was revealed two large 'zeros' it purchased as part of its Road to Zero safety campaign cost about $10,000.

Newshub reported on Thursday night Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency has more than doubled its PR team since 2017 - when Labour took power - from 32 staffers to 88, 65 of whom are earning $100,000 or more. 

National's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown is accusing the Government of being "addicted to spending" and also pointed to Waka Kotahi's high expenditure on consultants versus actual construction.

Appearing on AM on Friday morning, Parker said it was appropriate to ask about the communication staff numbers. 

"In respect of the number of communications staff at Waka Kotahi, I think that is a proper question to ask," he said.

"These people aren't press secretaries like we employ, these people are communicating with the people who have to give warrants and things. One of the problems that Waka Kotahi [had] that we actually inherited was that they weren't doing the certificates of fitness well on heavy vehicles, in part because I think the communications between the ministry and those who were meant to do them wasn't good enough. 

"So some of them will be justified. Whether all of them are or not, I don't know."

But Parker said decisions around hiring or firing people aren't for ministers, but ministries' chief executives. However, ministers should look into things like this, Parker said, as Wood has done.

"I'm sure he will be doing what I would be doing in this situation, which is asking questions and expecting answers," Parker said.

David Parker.
David Parker. Photo credit: Newshub.

Wood told Newshub on Thursday that he has "sent Waka Kotahi a reminder recently that they need to be careful and considered with their expenditure".

National's deputy leader and finance spokesperson Nicola Willis, appearing alongside Parker on Friday, said ministers are ultimately responsible. 

"If ministers aren't responsible for ensuring discipline in Government spending then what are they doing?" she said. "This is the same agency that spent $10,000 buying two big red zeros for the minister to stand next to at a PR event. I mean, there's something going wrong, isn't there."

Parker reiterated that Wood had spoken to his ministry about the spending.

"It's not for me to defend. Those are decisions of the ministry. It is the minister who is responsible. When issues come like that, the minister has to hold the chief executive to account and have a look at them. I think that's what he's doing."

But Willis disagreed, saying the Government has to be prepared "to defend every dollar it takes from a New Zealander to spend". 

"Actually, if there's a culture of waste and extravagance in your big spending Government, then you are accountable for it."

She said Kiwis are currently "doing it really tough" with sky-high inflation so this level of spending will be frustrating. 

"This Government has become quite addicted to spending," Willis said. "It's putting billions of extra dollars in and people are saying, where are the results? And this is a classic case of that, you know, more PR, more spend, but where are the extra roads?"

If National was elected, Willis said "We would have an absolute focus on front line delivery, not the backroom office".

Parker said if wasteful expenditure is found, it's for ministers to get it under control. 

National's been hammering the Government recently over rising cost of living and is calling for some form of tax relief at next week's Budget. But the Government has disputed that it's largely responsible for the growth in prices, putting blame on global factors. 

A Newshub-Reid Research poll last week found that most Kiwis - 77 percent - do not think the Government has done enough to manage the cost of living. An overwhelming majority of Kiwis also want tax cuts

The Government says it's responded to rising prices by slashing fuel excise duties, halving public transport fares and raising benefits, the minimum wage, and tax credits.