Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8 am: English reprimands Ngaro

Bill English told reporters at the post-Cabinet press conference that Alfred Ngaro's comments were "wrong and misjudged" and Ngaro had apologised to Cabinet. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we look at why the comments by rookie minister Alfred Ngaro throw a spotlight on one of the weaknesses of Bill English's social investment approach.

1. 'Wrong and misjudged'

Alfred Ngaro's not-so-veiled threats at social sector organisations who criticise the Government has exposed one of the weaknesses of Bill English's social investment approach.

It depends wholly on these NGOs trusting and cooperating with the Government, and that was clear in English's attempts to reassure them yesterday. He said Ngaro's comments were not representative of how the Government operated, although he also defended Ngaro's record as a minister and his relationships with community groups.

Pressed repeatedly in his post-cabinet news conference about Ngaro's comments, English said the Community and Voluntary Sector and Associate Social Housing Minister's comments were "wrong and misjudged."

The Prime Minister said Ngaro's implied threats, which were first reported by Newsroom Co-Editor Tim Murphy on Saturday, were not how the Government worked with these community groups.

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

English said the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet would review Ngaro’s actions as Minister, but he was not concerned that Ngaro had breached any guidelines because he had not been involved in any funding decisions. Ngaro had also been wrong to link charter school decisions to political support because such funding decisions were not made by ministers, English said.

He said Ngaro had not offered his resignation and had been a good minister, although he had apologized to the cabinet and the comments reflected his inexperience.

English was asked to reassure community groups that it was not denying contracts to those that criticised the Government.

"We can reassure them of that," he said.

“There’s no constraint on expressing political opinions of any sort and they regularly do."

English has made the social investment approach the central theme of his Government's approach to dealing with entrenched and multi-generational social deprivation. It depends on community groups to deliver services and work with vulnerable clients, rather than Government departments. English's vision is that these groups will get access to Government data on these clients, and vice versa, and then be contracted to deliver services.

But the controversy around Ngaro's comments has highlighted that NGOs have to trust the Government for the approach to work. It has already been raised as an issue in the debate over the Government's use of NGO data. See more on that in this piece from Newsroom's Shane Cowlishaw on the Privacy Commissioner's critical report on the protection and use of NGO data.

However, some NGOs are clearly fearful about criticising the Government and then losing funding. RNZ reported five of the nine NGOS they spoke to strongly believed that being critical of the Government would affect their funding.

2. Ngaro backpedals...a bit

The source of the controversy, Ngaro, tried to undo the damage yesterday with a series of apologies, but it was clear neither the Prime Minister or the community groups involved were happy and there have been calls for his resignation or sacking.

Tim Murphy reports the Salvation Army denied Ngaro's claim there was division between the Church and its policy unit.

It's worth looking again at the baldness of Ngaro's comments on Saturday, which were made in public to party members.

"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."

Ngaro said the next day he regretted the comments, which he said were "a bit naive and poorly worded."

But he then went on to make similar comments later in the day to Newshub.

Ngaro said community groups needed to be "mindful" with their comments.

"It was actually about saying 'look let's be mindful about the working relationship we have'," Ngaro said.

"It's the context of saying that on the one hand we're working together, and on the other hand too, if people are criticising, we just need to be mindful of that type of relationship," he said.

"My comments was (sic) just to be mindful of the fact that if we are going to be able to have these partnerships, we've just got to be political, what you call sensitive, in that context."

The political pressure around this story may not let up quickly and is likely to be revisited when Parliament resumes next week.

“Bill English is obviously creating the wrong culture for his ministers and for his ministries. Just last week, MSD had to apologise for attempting to gag emergency housing organisations," Labour Leader Andrew Little said.

“The Prime Minister needs to reassure community organisations that this sort of bullying of groups who depend on government funding will not be tolerated,” he said.

3. Flying off to Japan

The Prime Minister will however get some slight respite from domestic political matters over the next week as he travels to Japan and Hong Kong with a trade delegation.

Newsroom's Foreign Affairs and Trade Editor Sam Sachdeva is travelling with the PM and will report from Tokyo and Hong Kong on what emerges from discussions about TPP and other strategic issues such as the North Korean situation.

Here's Sam's preview of the trip, which will focus on whether the TPP has a future without America.

Here's the key fact underpinning both New Zealand's relations with Japan, and the TPP discussion:

Japan is our country’s fourth-largest trading partner, with about $6.5 billion in two-way trade. With no bilateral free trade deal between the two countries, Japan alone was expected to provide New Zealand more than three-quarters of the $274 million in tariff savings from the original TPP deal.

4. The nitrates are still leaching

The biggest story straddling the political economy yesterday was around water quality and dairying. DairyNZ released its report card on the Water Accord three years after its formation.

As Newsroom's Lynn Grieveson reports, DairyNZ hailed the fact that 97 percent of dairy cattle are now fenced off from waterways, but the report reveals a significant worsening of reported nutrient leaching in the areas with the biggest new conversions and no improvement in nitrate leaching nationally.

Lynn's report goes into the detail of where farmers are meeting and failing to meet their own targets, and in particular how variable the approaches to water quality are in different parts of the country.

Farmers have yet to grapple with the issue of whether and how they might reduce the number of cows leaching nitrates and phosphates into the water table.

Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy's recent comments suggest the Government's previously unbridled support for growth in cow numbers may be shifting in the wake of various official reports from the OECD and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on the effects of dairy intensification on water quality.

Cow numbers have doubled to over 6.5 million cows over the next decade.

"It will be challenging for the dairy industry to grow," Guy said in late April. "There's no way that we can double the number of cows in New Zealand," he said then.

5. Data-based shoe leather campaigning

Before heading off to Japan, Sam Sachdeva wrote up the details of a briefing given to reporters by the Labour Party's campaign office staff on how Labour plans to win the election.

Sam's piece is well worth read for insights into Labour's use of big data, and its focus on door-to-door campaigning. It seems the victory of Wellington Mayor Justin Lester last year's local Government campaign is a model.

6. Got a bell?

Our National Affairs Editor Shane Cowlishaw has picked up on support from the Transport and Industrial Relations committee for allowing children and the elderly to cycle on foothpaths.

Shane's report highlights how the machinery of Government is coming around the idea, and a growing push across ministries to encourage cycling.

7. China's Pacific cash splash

Elsewhere, Tim Murphy reports on how China is using the soft power of its investment in infrastructure to increase its presence and influence around the Pacific.

He reports from downtown Nuku'alofa on the building of a three-storey Government building, named St George Palace.

It will house the Ministry of Finance, the Prime Minister's office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is being built by Chinese workers with the help of a $20 million grant from the Chinese Government.

8. One fun thing

It's hard to go past John Oliver's latest dive into New Zealand's political dramas and personalities. He couldn't help but notice Bill English's recent comment that Oliver was not always funny.

The end result -- a riff on English's pizza making and run/walking skills -- is not always funny, but is well worth a watch. Here's the Newshub version because Last Week Tonight is not available (legally) online in New Zealand.

English was asked about it at his post-cabinet news conference. He hoped it would improve trade and tourism connections with America...