Alfred Ngaro’s appearance at the National party’s northern conference has already become a political headache. But as Simon Wilson reports, there were more surprising elements in his appearances than have been publicised to date.
Alfred Ngaro was the best dressed man in the National Party over the weekend. Make that the best-dressed person. At the party’s northern regional convention he wore a beautifully tailored three-piece suit with white shirt and tie, and on the Saturday, the day he made his speech, that tie was silver. With his reading glasses and silver hair trimmed to a short back and sides, he looked distinguished, dignified and learned. He looked like Michael Joseph Savage.
He was the scheduled speaker, on social housing, for one of three “breakout” sessions. The other breakouts featured deputy PM Paula Bennett and MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi on crime and MP Simon O’Connor (standing in for minister Jonathan Coleman) on health. Delegates chose which session to attend, and then they were repeated, so every delegate could attend two of the three. I went to Ngaro’s second session.
He began his talk with a story about picking up his grandson from school. Ngaro drives a truck, a big ute, because he’s an electrician by trade and that’s what you do. It’s got his name and a big photo of him on the side. He said his grandson said to him, “Papa, my dad says you’re a very important man now.”
Ngaro said, well, yes, that was probably true.
“Papa,” said the boy, “I’m very proud that you’re a very important man.”
They pulled into a service station and there were guys hanging out the windows of a car at the next pump.
“Hey,” they called out, pointing at him, “it’s you!”
Ngaro’s grinning at this, and he’s got a very friendly grin.
“Papa,” said the boy, “You’re a very important man.”
“Hey,” they called out again, “it’s you! Neil Waka!”
Alfred Ngaro told this story to humble himself. He wanted to show that he understood fame was fickle and power should not be taken for granted. But it’s also a story that speaks to his dignity and his exceptionally elevated role in the community. Ngaro was the first Cook Islander to be elected to parliament and in December he became the first to sit at the cabinet table.
If you think the prime minister is going to sack him, forget it. Yes, he behaved as if his social housing portfolio was a personal fiefdom to do with as he pleased, and he boasted about it. Steven Joyce, Paula Bennett and Bill English will have given him a very rude wakeup call about that. But neither he nor his big community of support are going to be humiliated like that anytime soon.
The rest of the speech was notable, in big and little ways, for more than has been reported. He didn’t start with a mihi, even a cursory one, because in the National Party, when they’re among themselves, almost no one does that.
He said Amy Adams, who is the actual minister of social housing, briefed him as associate minister; she said she was taking policy and procurement and he could have the rest. So he does all the donkey work. But if anyone was going to stop Willie Jackson’s marae getting any money in this area, it would be Adams, not Ngaro.
(Don’t go believing the prime minister’s assertion that ministers don’t get involved in that level of decision making, by the way. They do it all the time.)
He said social housing used to be called state houses, “so it’s nothing new”. Labour’s policy is to build more social housing, but he couldn’t see the point in that because what did it tell tenants? “You can have a state house for life. It means they will never find a way out of dependency.”
He talked about the Warm Up New Zealand programme, which has subsidised insulation and other measures for 300,000 homes. He didn’t mention it’s a Green Party initiative picked up by the government.
He made a number of comments supporting community housing providers (CHPs), which are the private sector organisations funded to do a job once done by the state. He said, “CHPs can provide a better service than the government can.” An assertion he didn’t seem to think was at all controversial.
He said the government was spending $2.3 billion on subsidies to help 310,000 families into social housing and a further $354 million on emergency housing. That figure included an extra $8 million on motels in the last quarter. Motel stays were reviewed after seven days and did not last longer than 12 weeks. Te Puea marae at Mangere Bridge has been given 20 modular units to use as emergency homes.
He didn’t say it, but the government is determined on this: it will spend whatever it takes this winter to prevent any news outbreaks of homeless families sleeping in cars.
He sang the praises of Housing First, an American initiative that helps the homeless by giving them a home and then providing the support services they need to stay living in it. Housing First has been remarkably successful in Hamilton, where very few people now live on the streets and the “retention rate for residency”, according to Ngaro, is 95.7%. Housing First has just been introduced to Auckland.
Ngaro also spoke about “the need for tough, strong measures” to deal with people who broke the rules. He meant “smoking P, not paying your rent and other antisocial behaviours”. Those people risk being thrown out of their house and taken off their benefits. “Most New Zealanders,” he said, “will think it’s fair.”
By the time he became an MP off the list in 2011, Ngaro already had a long record of church and community service. He has a National party perspective on social services, of course, but he knows the field: he’s been involved with many groups on the ground, making it work.
National is determined this election to win the social policy debate. The initiative still lies with Labour and the Greens, but in that speech Ngaro set out the arguments and the evidence, in relation to social housing, they will need to counter if they are to hold the initiative.
In the second session, the one I attended, he didn’t mention Willie Jackson at all. Presumably the explosive remarks he made in the first session about Jackson and the Salvation Army’s policy analyst Alan Johnson had already led to a swift cuff around the ears. That was even before they were reported later in the day by Newsroom’s Tim Murphy, who was at the first session.
Ngaro did talk about Johnson, though. He didn’t say the Salvation Army had “run riot” over homelessness, but he did said he had met Johnson and shared his concerns about criticisms of the government’s social housing programmes. “And you know what? He didn’t even know about half the things the government is doing”. Which cannot be true – Johnson is vastly experienced – but still.
He repeated that he had been asked by the prime minister to “get close” to Johnson because he was an influential critic. “How close?” Ngaro had replied. “Because I’m not going to get that close, Bill. I’m not like that.” (In the first session, he’d said Bill had told him, “I need you to love him.”)
Ngaro added, for good measure, “we got close, but not too close, and there were other people there.”
Listening to National’s cabinet ministers, it’s like they’ve all had it drummed into them – probably by Paula Bennett – that it’s so important to connect to their audience by making jokes. And that’s true.
But does Alfred Ngaro even know this “joke” is homophobic? He didn’t know he had broken cabinet rules about putting pressure on recipients of government funding. What’s naive and what’s calculated?
It’s very hard to tell.
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