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 [no] 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.