Alfred Ngaro appears to think the Government can stop its critics taking part in government programmes. That's not just wrong from a political morality standpoint, it's flat out illegal.

Given the speeches at the National Party's Auckland regional conference, New Zealand's housing situation/challenge/imbroglio/anything-but-a-crisis appears to be the number one problem on the Government's radar this election year.

That's probably not so surprising. Stories about people living in cars not just in Auckland but in our provinces, too, do not reflect the New Zealand we fondly like to imagine we inhabit. And then there's the rage of the renters-for-life who find the promise of clambering up the property ladder no longer applies to them.

With nine years in power behind them, these housing matters really are National's problem (no matter how much Nick Smith might try to spin the line that "it was worse under Labour"). With the benefit of hindsight, they allowed the issue to fester until it burst out over the media in ways they can no longer control. In part, that's because housing probably is something that National is ideologically and tempermentally unsuited to dealing with. After all, the market knows best how to deal with issues of supply and demand; while individuals make their own life choices that then are reflected in their material circumstances. Right?

Not that National has been totally laissez faire on the issue; indeed, every second week seems to bring a new announcement of action. However, housing issues are like a fully laden supertanker; once they get moving, it takes a lot of time to alter course. While the captain may assure you he's turning just as fast as he can, if you're bobbing about in his path you aren't going to be overly happy with the state of affairs.

So it's quite understandable why National is both annoyed that it isn't getting the respect and credit it thinks it deserves on the housing front and anxious that the perception it isn't doing enough may cost it come September. That annoyance seemed to bubble over in the relatively recently appointed associate housing minister Alfred Ngaro's speech to National Party faithful in the weekend  

In it, Ngaro noted that (now Labour Party candidate) Willie Jackson:

has put another application for another Kura that is a Charter School. Their [Manukau Urban Māori Authority] has taken a contract with Whānau Ora.

Fair enough - Jackson's apparent comfortableness with policies that are anathema to his now Labour Party is a point that begs to be hammered again and again by National.

However, Ngaro then went on to say:

We are not happy about people taking with one hand and throwing with the other. Do not play politics with us. If you get up on the campaign trail and start bagging us, then all the things you are doing are off the table. They will not happen.

There is a generous interpretation that could be given to this statement. Ngaro might have clumsily been trying to remind those participating in government initiatives whilst knocking the Government that if National isn't in power after September, the initiatives they are a part of may not be either.

But that's not the natural interpretation of the words used, which appear to explicitly link a future denial of access to government programmes with "play[ing] politics with us". Nor is it the spin being given to Ngaro's speech by professional journalists.

Vernon Small called it a "suggestion that providers will be gagged or that their funding is contingent on them toeing the governing party line". Tim Murphy described the speech as "a presentation laced with political menace against those who question National's performance on housing".

[Update: And now according to RNZ News:

In a statement, Mr Ngaro said his remarks were a bit naive, poorly worded and he regrets them.

And:

The finance minister, Steven Joyce, said Mr Ngaro, had apologised to him, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister and Mr Jackson's charter school wasn't under threat.

So ... that's a bit of an oopsie! on the associate minister's part.]

What no-one seems to have noted, however, is that Ngaro's apparent threat isn't just terrible from a political morality standpoint. It would be flat out illegal to do what he is suggesting.

Like all actions of the executive branch of government, the decision to grant charter school status or distribute Whānau Ora contracts is subject to the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. And that legislation includes the following guaranteed right:

19: Freedom from discrimination

(1) Everyone has the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of discrimination in the Human Rights Act 1993.

The "grounds of discrimination" included in this right then includes:

political opinion, which includes the lack of a particular political opinion or any political opinion:

So if the Government ever were to retaliate against some critical individual or group by refusing it access to a government programme, or blackballing it from future contracts, it would be acting not just wrongly but unlawfully too. Which rather saps the venom from Ngaro's threat, because I think that there's no way it could be carried out in the open way needed to send the necessary message.

Furthermore, I can't help but wonder if Ngaro has actually all but guaranteed the Manukau Urban Māori Authority's success in its future applications to participate in government programmes. Because if it does get turned down, there's a good chance that it would head off to court to challenge that refusal on the basis that it was motivated by unlawful discrimination. 

And as Donald Trump currently is discovering in the United States, tough words spoken on the campaign trail do not sound quite so good when government lawyers have to defend them before judges. 

Comments (13)

by Wayne Mapp on May 15, 2017
Wayne Mapp

Yes, Alfred was stupid, and had, at a minimum, to apologise.

From what I saw it primarily seemed to be related to what Alan Johnstone of the Salavation Army was saying and that Alfred wanted to see Alan and set out his view of the policy initiatives more directly rather than Alan reading about the initiatives in the media. I don't think it was really an attempt to gag Alan, since Alfred would know that would not be possible. The Salvation Army is always going to comment . I think Alfred's comment were more borne of frustration than anything more sinister.

Anyway a rather sharp poltical lesson for Alfred, who is actually a decent person with a guenuie sense of social justice. Not surprising given his role as a Pastor in a relatively poor community.

 

by Andrew Geddis on May 15, 2017
Andrew Geddis

Agreed, Wayne ... but all in all it's a good thing if, should politicians' frustrations boil over into (perceived) unlawful threats, they receive a solid, public clip about the ears.

 

by Wayne Mapp on May 15, 2017
Wayne Mapp

Yes, I agree. And the fact that "clip on the ear" came from all sides, including senior cabinet menbers was a good thing. A lesson for all.

by Ian MacKay on May 15, 2017
Ian MacKay

...National is both annoyed that it isn't getting the respect and credit it thinks it deserves on the housing front and anxious that the perception it isn't doing enough may cost it come September.

This cannot be right. The well thought of guru Mike's Minute, is quite adamant that housing woes will not hurt National. So Andrew Geddis, you better withdraw and apologise!

by Katharine Moody on May 15, 2017
Katharine Moody

A bit stupid is putting it mildly. He clearly has no clue about the separation of powers in our system of governance. That this is the quality of knowledge brought to governance by a senior member of the National Party is to my mind revealing. An Executive Branch with a mindset of threats and bullying tactics. And that's before mentioning his derogatory comments on one-third of those seeking refuge at Te Puea Marae recently.

He ought to be turfed out.

by william blake on May 15, 2017
william blake

Isn't Ngaro just giving voice to the current m.o. of this governments funding of N.G.O.'s?

The (failed) attempt to remove charitable status to organisations involved in political advocacy, stopping community law from doing the same. Removal of funding from anti tobacco lobbyists, remember ASH.? Gagging clauses in contracts with NGO's, direct interference from Ministers, such as fish and game and the problem gambling foundation.

This is one of the most pernicious areas of National party politics, the sinking lid on social spending and the gagging of political activism to raise awareness of it. Most people working in the area will be receiving Ngaro message loud and clear and will understand that the rebukes are bullshit.

by Tim Watkin on May 15, 2017
Tim Watkin

If there are questions of illegality, where's the line between "stupid" and "sackable"? On one hand, we all make mistakes. On the other, there seems to be nothing a cabinet minister can do these days that warrant any punishment (Judith Collins and the Oravida visit "on the way to the airport" come to mind).

Is such a misguided threat (which if enacted would be very serious indeed) better or worse than misusing a ministerial credit card on two bottles of wine or shouting at a waiter? And is naivety a defence when it comes to cabinet?

Also Andrew, Matthew Hooton today suggested that he may have broken other laws; I think he mentioned the Public Finance Act. Could that be right?

by Anne on May 15, 2017
Anne

According to a TV3 journalist, Ngaro's threat to Willie Jackson "was worse than just a brain fart or a case of misspeaking". He bases his claim on an interview with Ngaro following his speech and believes he was forced into the apology.

http://www.newshub.co.nz/home/politics/2017/05/lloyd-burr-alfred-ngaro-s...

Katherine Moody is right when she talks about: "An Executive Branch with a mindset of threats and bullying tactics." We have seen numerous instances of it from some National ministers over the past 8 years, only this time a minister actually voiced the mindset for all to see and hear.

by Andrew Geddis on May 15, 2017
Andrew Geddis

Also Andrew, Matthew Hooton today suggested that he may have broken other laws; I think he mentioned the Public Finance Act. Could that be right?

Could Matthew Hooton be right? Surely you jest?

Seriously, but ... I'm guessing he had this in mind:

5: Public money must not be spent unless in accordance with statutory authority

The Crown or an Office of Parliament must not spend public money, except as expressly authorised by or under an Act (including this Act).

We also might note that Ngaro's suggestion clearly would breach the Cabinet Manual, cl. 3.16(c):

It would clearly be improper for Ministers to instruct their departments to act in an unlawful manner. Ministers should also take care to ensure that their actions could not be construed as improper intervention in administrative, financial, operational, or contractual decisions that are the responsibility of the chief executive.

by Tim Watkin on May 15, 2017
Tim Watkin

I thought you'd like the chance to agree with Matthew for a change!

Yeah, Guyon referred to another part of the cabinet manual with English this morning and English shrugged it off. It seemed an apology (to the boss) is enough.

by Andrew Geddis on May 16, 2017
Andrew Geddis

@Tim,

Always happy when Matthew says things that I say are right.

Speaking of which, I see Audrey Young also thinks Ngaro should have at least offered a resignation.

by Moz on May 17, 2017
Moz

Is it just me, or did he fail to apologise to Willie Jackson? The apology I've seen is all crawling to his bosses, absolutely nothing for the person and school that he actually threatened.

by Chuck Bird on May 19, 2017
Chuck Bird

Andrew, my main concern is what Ngaro foolishly said actually happens.  The case against Family First is extremely biased.  Organizations with views opposing Family First do not get their charitable status challenged. What say you?

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.