It's a third-term thing - why Alfred Ngaro hurt National
OPINION: Alfred Ngaro has apologised to his Cabinet colleagues for his conference blunder. But the damage has already been done. The junior minister delivered a speech at the weekend where he openly bragged about him and his colleagues having the power to punish anyone that bagged the Government by withholding their taxpayer funding.
How can it hurt National? Because it feeds the perception of third-term arrogance and bullying that are the enemy of any third-term Government.
National's campaign manager Steven Joyce was quick to slap Ngaro down and said he had crossed the line. The associate housing minister on Monday apologised to Cabinet, after previously apologising to Prime Minister Bill English and Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett.
Ngaro might be sorry now but the circumstances of his original threat - not one delivered il sotto, in a smoky room, but from the stage to a crowded National Party conference - leaves worrying questions over whether his is an isolated view, or reflective of a wider culture among his colleagues.
Ngaro is generally regarded as one of Parliament's nice guys who doesn't wear the mantle of a bully naturally. But he presumably believed he was speaking for his colleagues.
Where National has been hugely effective in power has been its collaborative approach to many in the non-government sector who have traditionally lined up on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
That has also been a strength of English as finance minister, and now as prime minister. The lessons of National's previous term in Government, when it was at war with most of the public service, the unions and NGOs, were hard earned by English.
What is said behind closed doors is another matter, however. This National Government is a machine whose reach into the public service is extraordinary.
Helen Clark and her off-sider Heather Simpson were legendary micro-managers; National picked up where the Clark administration left off and honed the art of control even further.
Stories about everything having to pass through a minister's office, and the power wielded by ministers' press secretaries over their departments, are rife.
In terms of public perceptions, there can be a fine balance between sound stewardship and heavy-handedness.
English has given an assurance that a ruler was run over decisions by Ngaro after his gaffe, and he came up clean.
But Ngaro's blunder is a timely reminder to his colleagues that third-term arrogance and complacency are the enemy of National's prospects of a fourth term.