Gagging orders for community organisations not the NZ way

Alfred Ngaro has apologised for "crossing the line".
CIARA PRATT/FAIRFAX NZ

Alfred Ngaro has apologised for "crossing the line".

OPINION: Alfred Ngaro has an unusual profile for a National Party cabinet minister. As a Pasifika MP with a self-declared working class background and an interest in social justice, he wouldn't seem out of place in the Labour Party's ranks.

However, the Associate Housing Minister sounded authoritarian, perhaps menacing, even a little bit Trumpian, as he threatened that people who criticise the Government might lose taxpayer funding for the work they do in the community.

His specific target was Willie Jackson, now a Labour list candidate and chief executive of the Manukau Urban Maori Authority, which benefits from millions of dollars in government cash. Jackson is hoping the authority can open a second kura, or charter school.

Ngaro appeared to link withdrawing funding for such projects to political opposition in the election campaign, when he spoke at a National Party conference in Auckland last weekend.

"We are not happy with people taking with one hand and throwing with the other," Ngaro said. "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."

Ngaro is a second-term MP who has been in the cabinet only five months, but he ought to have enough nous and experience to know better. This is not the New Zealand way.

Ngaro was addressing the housing issue at the time. This is shaping up as a potential achilles' heel for National in the September election. It is the fly in the party's ointment of soothing election-year messages. During his speech, Ngaro urged National to "push back" against some of the negative media coverage on housing.

Arguing and debating in the political arena is one thing. Directly linking political opposition to a threat to withdraw future taxpayer funding is another. Ngaro is a New Zealand minister of the Crown, not the leader of a banana republic, nor even the 45th President of the United States.

Ngaro has since apologised to the Prime Minister and his party, admitting he was naive, that his comments were poorly worded and "I absolutely regret what I said". But there is still a lingering aftertaste here, because Ngaro's remarks at a party conference raise the suspicion that he was merely voicing in public what National Party members are happily saying to each other in private.

Just last week, the Ministry of Social Development was forced to apologise after one of its managers issued a directive to emergency housing groups not to talk to the media without prior approval. Again, rightly or wrongly, this raises a suspicion about political meddling. Is this the thin end of a wedge?

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Observers at the conference suggested that National is shifting its message from one of sound economic management to another that portrays the party as caring about the people. If so, this takes the electoral battle more firmly into Labour territory, and continued negative press on housing is an obvious obstacle to its strategy.

But to make progress on the housing issue (or crisis if you prefer), we need good, honest, open debate about it, without the threat of political retaliation. And no gagging orders. Even in an election year.

 - The Press

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