The Salvation Army says there is “no truth” to a claim by cabinet minister Alfred Ngaro that it is divided over the activities of its policy unit on homelessness.

But today it has accepted a personal apology from the embarrassed National MP.

Ngaro made the claim about the Sallies in a presentation to the National Party in Auckland in which he also warned Labour candidate Willie Jackson not to criticise the Government while getting funding for social projects.

The associate housing minister said the Salvation Army’s policy unit had “run riot” over homelessness – and tensions had arisen as elements in the broader church were not sure about what it was doing. 

He told the party’s northern convention the Church “are going to be partners” with the Government in its community housing programme. But “with the Sallies you’ve got the Church, the social welfare part and the policy unit. The policy unit are running riot and say all sorts of things and there’s some tension in the Church because they are not sure about that.”

Ngaro has since apologised to the Prime Minister and his colleagues for speaking out in that way – saying his comments were “a bit naive, poorly-worded and I absolutely regret what I said”.

But the outburst against Jackson’s Manukau Urban Māori Authority and the Salvation Army may lead to ongoing sensitivities and end up constraining the Government in future negotiations with the two groups.

Salvation Army spokesman Robin Raymond said of Ngaro’s claim of tension within the Church over the policy unit and senior analyst Alan Johnson: “There is no truth in this story and we don’t want to blow it up any further. It is just not a thing. There’s not division – there’s no truth to that.”

He said Ngaro’s comments were “a National Party issue between the minister and the party. We’ve got relationships with all parties in Parliament and we are pretty confident in those.”

Ngaro had met Johnson last Friday, revealing he’d been encouraged to get to know him and “to love him” by the Prime Minister, Bill English. Ngaro revealed a private conversation with the PM in which English told him he’d met Johnson, and Johnson was leading a media campaign against Government inaction over homelessness.

Johnson confirmed both meetings with the Prime Minister and associate minister but did not want to comment on Ngaro’s claims.

Ngaro personally called a church official today to apologise.

Ngaro’s expressed threat to withdraw funding from organisations who “take with one arm and throw with the other” could yet rebound.

The Government would now be unlikely to be able to reconsider funding or any future dealings with either the Army or Jackson’s MUMA without those parties making a case that political bias or retribution could be at play. 

The Salvation Army, including Johnson, often appears in media reports about social issues and in the past year were quoted on the homeless living in cars in South Auckland.

English told his post-cabinet news conference this afternoon he had asked the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to review Ngaro’s actions as minister, but he said he was not concerned that Ngaro had breached any guidelines because he had not been involved in any funding decisions.

He said Ngaro had not offered his resignation and had been a good minister, although he had apologised to the cabinet and the comments reflected his inexperience. English said Ngaro’s comments had been misjudged and were also wrong because decisions about partnership schools were not made by ministers.

“It’s not how this Government works. I think past governments have operated that way,” English said.

Pressed repeatedly about comments from people from non-government organisations who said they felt their funding would be threatened if they spoke out against the Government, English said they could be reassured the Government did not link funding decisions to political criticism.

“There’s no constraint on expressing political opinions of any sort and they regularly do,” English said, referring to the Government’s plans to spend $300 million with various NGOs to deal with homelessness.

“There’s no indication that he has made decisions or done things that would be inconsistent with how the Government deals with these organisations,” he said.

English said Ngaro had built up good relationships with community and social housing organisations.

Asked about English’s conversation with Ngaro about a private conversation with the Salvation Army’s Policy Unit head Alan Johnson, English said he would not go into the details of a private conversation, although he said he had instructed Ngaro to better understand the Salvation Army’s position and to convey the Government’s position. English described Johnson as “very well informed” on housing issues.

“The comments were in some respects wrong and in some respects misjudged. He’s a minister who’s learning how the Government operates,” English said of Ngaro.

National’s damage control over Ngaro’s comments began yesterday, when English said on Radio New Zealand he was willing to scrutinise Ngaro’s decision-making related to community housing organisations.

“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.”

Ngaro was elevated from the back benches straight into Cabinet by English in December last year shortly after English was selected as Prime Minister by the National caucus. Ngaro was elected as a list MP in 2011.

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

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