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Dr Bryce Edwards Analysis: New Zealand Government’s Trump-like threats against opponents
[caption id="attachment_13635" align="alignleft" width="150"] Dr Bryce Edwards.[/caption] Is it corruption for a Government to use taxpayer resources to silence its critics? This has been among the questions raised by Cabinet minister Alfred Ngaro’s threat to turn off the financial tap to NGOs that are too critical of the National Government.
Last week the State Services Commission announced a new position of “Deputy Commissioner, Integrity, Ethics and Standards”. This was in response to Transparency International New Zealand proposing such a job be established in order to promote integrity and fight off corruption in the public sector. So perhaps in light of a Cabinet minister’s threats to cut off funding to NGOs that criticise the Government, another ethical watchdog is needed to police the Executive and prevent corrupt practices arising.
But was the use of the word “corruption” really warranted? One political commentator – National-aligned Matthew Hooton – clearly thought so, tweeting that “If report is true, @pmbillenglish really should sack @AlfredNgaroMP immediately. He’s almost boasting of corruption.”
So what actually happened?
National MP Alfred Ngaro was promoted by Bill English in December to the position of Associate for Social Housing. And in the weekend he spoke at a National Party regional conference on his housing portfolio. In his speech, he spoke out about Willie Jackson and others who work in NGOs that criticise the Government. This was all reported by Tim Murphy in his Newsroom article, People in glass houses start throwing election stones.
According to Murphy, “Ngaro led the charge in a presentation laced with political menace against those who question National’s performance on housing. He even suggested Labour list candidate Willie Jackson could expect to lose Government support for his Manukau Urban Māori Authority interest in a second charter school, and its Whanau Ora contract should he ‘bag us’ on the campaign trail.”
Ngaro is reported as saying: “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.”
Such statements are very reminiscent of some of Donald Trump’s declarations of war against various domestic political enemies, often with little regard to constitutional conventions.
Murphy labelled this an “extraordinary blurring of party politics and government policy implementation”. And he reported that Ngaro also lashed out at other NGOs, as well as RNZ’s Checkpoint presenter John Campbell.
The Prime Minister chose not to sack Ngaro, and instead the minister was made to issue an apology of sorts, saying his comments were “a bit naive, poorly worded and I absolutely regret what I said”.
The Herald reported “Prime Minister Bill English says he will review any decisions made by Associate Social Housing Minister Alfred Ngaro to make sure they were not politically motivated” – see: Prime Minister Bill English to review Minister Alfred Ngaro’s decisions after funding threat. English also apparently “defended Ngaro and the National government, saying that unlike previous governments National did not “use funding levers to manipulate opinion”.”
Questions have also been raised about how forthcoming Ngaro was in issuing an apology, as the minister initially seemed reluctant to admit any problem with what he said. Newshub’s Lloyd Burr reports that “Ngaro was still unapologetic when Newshub asked him to explain” – see: Alfred Ngaro’s threat to Willie Jackson was worse than just a brain fart.
Burr says that Ngaro gave an interview with him after his conference speech, in which the minister continued to make the argument that NGOs needed to be “mindful” of criticising the Government. Burr concludes: “It begs the question – why did he repeat the sentiment in an interview on camera after the speech if he regretted saying them? My guess – he didn’t regret it until he was told to.”
And according to Andrey Young, the Minister should have at least offered to go: “The stupidity of Alfred Ngaro’s judgment at the weekend was so gross it warranted at least his offer of a resignation from the cabinet to Prime Minister Bill English. None was forthcoming, English confirmed at his post cabinet press conference. But it was clear from English’s response that he was not looking for a resignation from Ngaro. That may be because it would have signalled a misjudgment on English’s part in having promoted him in December from the backbench into cabinet” – see: Ngaro comments warrant the offer of a resignation.
Criticisms of Ngaro and National
Condemnations of Ngaro have come thick and fast since the weekend. Today’s Press editorial points out that the “Minister sounded authoritarian, perhaps menacing, even a little bit Trumpian”, whereas “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” – see: Gagging orders for community organisations not the NZ way.
And many of the criticism drew parallels with mafia-style activity. For example, Gordon Campbell said: “There’s a Cabinet manual that outlaws the sort of Mafioso tactics that Ngaro was advocating. Subsequently, Ngaro didn’t apologise to the person he threatened – Jackson – or to the public, whose money he was threatening to co-opt for political purposes. Instead, Ngaro has apologised to his consiglieres (eg Finance Minister Steven Joyce) and to the capo di capo (aka PM Bill English) of the National Party, for embarrassing da bosses” – see: On Alfred Ngaro’s standover tactics.
Public law specialist Andrew Geddis pointed out that Ngaro was straying into an illegal area: “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’.” – see It’s a Sicilian message.
A number of critics also pointed out that the Ngaro controversy isn’t an isolated case, and the National Government had a history of threats. Today’s Press editorial makes this point: “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?”
The No Right Turn blogger said: “its worth remembering that National has form on this. John Key threatened to cut the Human Rights Commission’s funding when they criticised his increased spy powers. Backbencher Shane Reti threatened to cut roading funding to critics during the Northland by-election” – see: National: Party of bullies. He concludes that “It seems to be a deep-seated belief in National that government funding is for donors and cronies, and that it should be deployed as a weapon to silence and bully critics.”
Critics have also drawn attention to the 2013 report by sociologists Sandra Grey and Charles Sedgwick on how NGOs that contract to the state often feel inhibited in speaking out on political issues – see: Fears, constraints, and contracts: The democratic reality for New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector. Here’s a summary from the report: “While New Zealand’s community and voluntary sector organisations have in the past been a strong and necessary voice for the most marginalised of our society, since the 1980s their place in democratic conversations has come under challenge, almost to the point where for some groups the only option is to remain silent. Responses to our survey demonstrate that the community and voluntary sector in New Zealand is not simply silenced by disapproving governments, they have been constrained by the very mode of governance that has come to dominate in the early part of the 21st century.”
Similarly, see Greg Presland’s blog on The Standard: Alfred Ngaro reprimanded for being “naïve”.
The big problem with the controversy for National, according to Tracy Watkins, is “it feeds the perception of third term arrogance and bullying that are the enemy of any third term government” – see: It’s a third term thing – why Alfred Ngaro hurt National.
Watkins says that it’s “the circumstances of his original threat” that “leaves worrying questions over whether his is an isolated view, or reflective of a wider culture among his colleagues.” Furthermore, it builds into a growing feeling of a government that is too heavy-handed with the public service: “This National government is a machine whose reach into the public service is extraordinary… Stories about everything having to pass through a minister’s office, and the power wielded by minister’s press secretaries over their departments, are rife. In terms of public perceptions, there can be a fine balance between sound stewardship and heavy handedness.”
Defending Ngaro and National
National blogger David Farrar was unequivocal in labelling Ngaro’s statements as Just wrong. But his blog post on the matter was mostly concerned to put forward National’s grievance against the NGOs being funded who are said to be too critical and political: “there is a breed of NGO that doesn’t provide valuable services. They are in fact just lobby groups for their points of view, and those lobby groups should not be funded by the taxpayer just so they can lobby Parliament and the Government. Funding should be reserved for the actual provision of useful services.” Farrar argued that “If National stopped funding organisations that criticise them, then there would almost be funding at all.”
On social media there were a few other attempts to defend Ngaro and/or National. For example, on the Pundit blogsite, former Cabinet minister Wayne Mapp wrote: “From what I saw it primarily seemed to be related to what Alan Johnstone of the Salvation 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 political lesson for Alfred, who is actually a decent person with a genuine sense of social justice. Not surprising given his role as a Pastor in a relatively poor community.”
Claire Trevett also reported the response of Finance Minister Steven Joyce: “He got a bit carried away. It’s not the way we operate. We work all the time with providers who have different political views. It’s important you do that and we certainly don’t look to take an approach where a provider would get penalised for their political views. It’s fine to disagree with people politically but to make any suggestion it might impact on your relationship with government, that’s where it’s overstepping the mark” – see: Associate Housing Minister Alfred Ngaro reprimanded, apologises to Prime Minister over Willie Jackson comments.
And today Audrey Young also puts forward the case that it’s unlikely that Ngaro – or even the National Government – really is acting in an underhand manner against NGOs: “The biggest reason English has been so forgiving of Ngaro is that he does not believe the junior minister would have followed through on his threat – and there is no evidence of it. In fact, the evidence suggests the opposite. The last I heard the Salvation Army, it was on RNZ putting the boot into the Government’s housing policy and praising Labour’s. English himself has had close engagement with social service sector. He was known to be a minister who was and is open to new ideas and criticism and looking at new ways of doing things. Ngaro has not yet had the opportunity to walk the way he talked. As a new minister, and Associate Minister for Social Housing, his work and decisions are closely watched by Social Housing Minister Amy Adams. He would not get away with it. Ngaro’s comments smack of an inexperienced minister trying to sound as though he was an experienced political operator by talking tough.”
Finally, Toby Manhire has taken Alfred Ngaro’s rather lacklustre public apology and applied some “truth serum” to tell us what he really meant –- see: Alfred Ngaro’s heartfelt apology: what he said and what he meant.
All items are contained in the attached PDF. Below are the links to the items online.
Alfred Ngaro NGO controversy
Audrey Young (Herald): Ngaro comments warrant the offer of a resignation
Tracy Watkins (Stuff): It’s a third term thing – why Alfred Ngaro hurt National
Lloyd Burr (RadioLive): Alfred Ngaro’s threat to Willie Jackson was worse than just a brain fart
Stacey Kirk (Stuff): Prime Minister orders DPMC investigation into Alfred Ngaro’s decisions
Tim Murphy (Newsroom):Apology, but no salvation for Ngaro
Gordon Campbell (Scoop): On Alfred Ngaro’s standover tactics
No Right Turn: National: Party of bullies
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Just wrong
Herald: Prime Minister Bill English to review Minister Alfred Ngaro’s decisions after funding threat
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Alfred Ngaro must be sacked as a Minister and is anyone awake in Andrew Little’s office?
Jacqui Stanford (Newstalk ZB): PM won’t force Ngaro to apologise over Willie Jackson comments
Herald Editorial: Ending rental tax breaks a brave move
Jane Patterson (RNZ): Ground down by negative gearing?
Mark Sainsbury (Newshub): Labour’s housing policy could bite the hand that feeds it
No Right Turn: Time to end negative gearing
Dan Satherley and Tom McRae (Newshub): Property investors to quit? That’s what we want, says Andrew Little
Jono Galuszka (Stuff): Labour property tax plan will hurt mum and dad investors, association says
Rob Hosking (NBR): Killing negative gearing won’t work — but the government still has a problem (paywalled)
No Right Turn: Market failure
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): It’s land not owners who are the problem
Chris Keall (NBR): Property Institute boss despairs at Labour’s negative gearing move but savages Nats too
Michael Reddell (Croaking Cassandra): Labour on housing
The Standard: The looming battle over property
Andrew Coleman (Spinoff): Why does New Zealand keep building such massive houses?
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Heather du Plessis-Allan and Millennial entitlement
Simon Wilson (Spinoff): National is cloning Labour’s identity and other lessons from its weekend conference
Barry Soper (Herald): Paula the Performer the new face of politics
Rob Hosking (NBR): PM Bill English on not being finance minister, social investment and the ‘c’ word
Claire Trevett (Herald): US show host John Oliver to Bill English: ‘Careful Bill. When it comes to Kiwis, Johnny don’t play.”
Shaun Bamber (Stuff): John Oliver tears PM Bill English to shred
My Thinks: National Party Auckland Conference
Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Eminem versus the National party: greatest hits
Cas Carter (Stuff): No hiding down under from Eminem’s lawyers for National Party
Mike King (Spinoff): ‘A masterclass in butt covering’: Mike King’s letter quitting suicide prevention panel
John Edens (Stuff): Mental health advocates support Mike King’s stance on suicide prevention
Katie Kenny (Stuff): Suicide prevention strategy ‘the responsibility of all of us’
Olivia Carville (Herald): Comedian Mike King quits: Govt’s suicide plan ‘deeply flawed’
Cecile Meier (Stuff): Canterbury families ‘struggling to cope’ as children wait ‘months’ for mental health help
Dominion Post Editorial: The need for a proper ambulance service
Aaron Leaman (Stuff): Auckland University emails: what are they hiding?
Foreign Affairs and Trade
Vernon Small (Stuff): English heads to Japan amid efforts to rescue something from the TPP deal
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): PM’s Japan trip could build on ‘natural affinity’
Barry Soper (Herald): FTA with Japan would be good start for Bill English’s visit
Chris Bramwell (RNZ): TPP top of agenda for English’s talks with Japan’s PM
Sam Sachdeva (Stuff): McClay trades on NZ’s underdog status
Sam Sachdeva (Stuff): TPP hopes still alive despite loss of US
Jo Moir (Stuff): Allegations Maori King insulted at Taiwanese banquet – MFAT disputes claims it came from them
Tim Murphy (Newsroom): Why China is splashing cash around in the Pacific
Nathan Smith (NBR): Questions about TPP’s future as NZ ratifies agreement
Colin Craig vs Cameron Slater
Steve Braunias (Herald): The sad, ragged ballad of Colin Craig and Rachel MacGregor
Harrison Christian (Stuff): Helen Craig: ‘I wanted to deck my husband’
Angela Woods (Herald): Lawyer plays tape of Slater calling Craig a ‘ratbag
Harrison Christain (Stuff): Love poems and hot saunas: Week one of the Colin Craig trial
Sam Sachdeva (Stuff): Data key to Labour’s campaign strategy
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Revealed: Andrew Little’s acting coach
Ellen Read (Stuff): Fairfax consults on Nelson Mail newspaper future
Bill Ralston (Listener): When did New Zealanders stop giving a damn?
Tim Hunter (NBR): Some fictitious advice for journalists (paywalled)
Chris Trotter (Stuff): Prepare for an online onslaught from politicians
Angela Woods (Rotorua Daily Post): Flavell challenges Coffey to a race of a different kind
Gia Garrick (Newstalk ZB): Green Party bringing in more money than Labour
Emma Hart (Public Address): What’s the Big Idea?
Tina Ngata (Daily Blog): More Greeny-brown than Browny-Green.
Jason Walls (NBR): PM unconcerned about NZ’s relationship with Australia
Jason Walls (NBR): NZ has ‘squandered’ its relationship with Australia (paywalled)
Germana Nicklin (Stuff): Australian tertiary education policy is not just a domestic matter
Michael Coote (NBR): Do not pander to whingeing Kiwis (paywalled)
Simon Collins (Herald): Financial squeeze: Tertiary students go hungry as living costs outrun grants
Hannah Martin (Stuff): Students going without food, sanitary products – study
Jo Moir (Stuff): Government not ruling out limiting the number of students who get tertiary courses subsidized
Emma Espiner (Newsroom): Embrace foreign students – we might need them one day
David Farrar (Kiwiblog): Labour even against metro schools
Public integrity issues
Paul Little (Herald): Register of pecuniary interests telling reading
No Right Turn: Open Government: How do we measure progress?
Benedict Collins (RNZ): Jailed fraudster got friend job at Transport Ministry
Kelly Dennett (Stuff): Rape victim embraces attacker at restorative justice session
Vernon Small (Stuff): Steven Joyce’s big Budget announcement will be for families but it won’t be tax cuts
Jason Walls (NBR): Budget 2017: What the public want to see in next week’s budget
Demelza Leslie (RNZ): PM watched ‘more than half’ of SAS raid footage
Danyl Mclauchlan: Rise and Fall of a Young Turk
Shane Cowlishaw (Newsroom): Big data use requires public buy-in
Deena Coster (Stuff): How a playmate exposed the cultural chasm between Maori and Pakeha
Tamsyn Parker (Herald): KiwiSaver hits $40b, but balances stay low
James Walker (Spinoff): Countdown: Why we’re taking a stand to support our transgender staff
Mike Yardley (Stuff): Tourist levy needed to help struggling councils
Dominion Post Editorial: Putting taxpayer money into films is always a gamble
Collette Devlin (Stuff): $300m Government boost for international and New Zealand movies
Lizzie Marvelly (Herald): Don’t get caught in the parent trap
Henry Cooke (Stuff): Can women breastfeed in New Zealand Parliament? Kind of