Since this story appeared on Newsroom, Alfred Ngaro has apologised to the Prime Minister, Deputy PM and National’s campaign chair Steven Joyce, The Salvation Army, and issued a statement calling his comments ‘a bit naive, poorly worded and I absolutely regret what I said.’ There was no word of an apology to Willie Jackson.

Don’t expect any apologies or contrition from the National Party on housing – a new, muscularly aggressive defence of its most vulnerable policy area has emerged at its Auckland conference.

The associate housing minister Alfred 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 Whānau Ora contract should he “bag us” on the campaign trail.

“We are not happy about 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.”

The MP’s extraordinary blurring of party politics and government policy implementation came after he claimed to have told Jackson of the risks directly. “I even went to see Willie Jackson at Waatea Marae.

“He has put another application for another Kura that is a Charter School. Their MUMA has taken a contract with Whānau Ora.”

But Jackson told Newsroom from the Labour Party Congress in Wellington the claim was hard to understand.. He had not met Ngaro but sent his deputy, who had reported back “something along those lines, but not as direct as what you are saying”.

“I don’t know what he is on about there. I talk to any party, National or Labour. I would not be doing my job as a community official if I didn’t”

Jackson said he would “bash National whether I was in Labour or not. I have told them all for years I have never voted National. Just because I talk to them does not mean I am going to agree with their policy”.

Ngaro didn’t limit his attacks to Jackson, however.

He also attempted to paint the Salvation Army as divided over its criticisms of government housing policy.

He had been told by the Prime Minister Bill English “at a priority session” that English had met the Army’s policy leader Alan Johnson at an airport. Johnson had reportedly told the PM he was part of a media campaign against the government’s homelessness measures.

Ngaro said: “The Prime Minister said ‘I need you to get close to him. I need you to love him’.” The associate minister had joked back: ‘I think that’s a bridge too far.’

But Ngaro met Johnson (“not alone”) on Friday.

He told the conference there were issues within the Salvation Army. “With the Sallies, you have the Church, the social programmes and the policy part. The policy part is running riot and sayings all sorts of things and there’s some tension in the Church because they are not sure about that.”

He has since apologised.

Ngaro also targeted media coverage of housing. “We have to push back against some of the media,” he said, detailing an exchange he says he had with RNZ’s Checkpoint presenter John Campbell, challenging him over questioning, or the lack of it, over a person housed in a motel. 

“I told him: ‘You are not in pursuit of the truth. You want to manufacture a crisis. You cannot ask people to help themselves unless you are willing to journey with them and ask them the right questions’.

“You would never see that in print, because he did not print it. He did not record it.”

Criticising regional newspapers for ‘constantly wanting to tell these stories about this government who do not care”, Ngaro said ” I have said to our team: ‘We are going to fill the boots of all the media and everyone else that’s out there, all the doubters.

“We are going to be telling them about the $350m [the Government is spending on emergency housing] and take them through the process.

“When they are interviewing people who have not got a Housing NZ home, this is the question they should ask: How many homes have been made available to you? Did you decline? Why? We are going to push those questions.”

An Auckland Councillor, Linda Cooper, backed the call to challenge the media and opponents. “We have got to squash that tired old, lazy notion of the media and Labour Party that we don’t care.”

She, and Ngaro, emphasised National needed to start talking about security of tenure for renters, as well as its historic emphasis on people being able to own their own homes.

Cooper said: “The reality is, there will be people who will not be owning houses.  How do we incentivise private landlords to keep these good tenants, keep these people in the same community.?”

The Building and Construction Minister Nick Smith, the previous face of the government’s housing portfolios, was also at the conference.  However he was only called on from the floor by Ngaro to help answer a delegate’s question on whether National was ‘a bit policy uncoordinated’ on housing , migration and foreign capital.

Smith rejected any suggestion Auckland had an unusually high level of housing ‘non-occupancy’ due to foreign investors buying but not living here.

And he was having none of the government having failed to anticipate migration flows when it came to housing.  “The real question about the housing debate is that people can move faster than you can build houses.

“There was no change of policy but when you have a diaspora suddenly making different choices whether they left or came back….We have to be realistic about the time it takes to have a house built – it is a bit longer than to say, ‘Actually, Australia is a basket case, I would like to be back in New Zealand’.”

Ngaro claimed the controversy last year over people having to live “in cars and park benches” was prompted by “an opposition that chooses to use their constituents for political fodder.”

Citing the Te Puea Marae in South Auckland, which helped temporarily house and feed people with nowhere to live, he said it was important not to rely solely on media reports. “Go out the back to the kitchens and ask the kuia who were watching the families. They’ll say: ‘There were two-thirds who were genuine and we wanted to hug them and help them. And one-third who were just ratbags and we told them to get off their backsides and do something for their families’.”

He exhorted party members to be National’s champions on the ground. He asked them to repeat back to him a series of big numbers the government was spending on housing.

National invested $2.3 billion a year to support housing for 310,000 families, $300m annually on maintenance of state houses, had helped re-locate 313 families out of Auckland (with just three returning) – saving $6m. 

There was no acceptance of housing as a policy weakness, let alone a crisis.  But a rather big raw nerve, all the same, 133 days out from the election.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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