15 May 2017

NGOs 'always free' to speak out about government policy - PM

8:16 pm on 15 May 2017

The Prime Minister is offering assurances to community agencies that they will be treated fairly, following controversial comments made by one of his Cabinet ministers.

At the National Party's Auckland conference, Associate Social Housing Minister Alfred Ngaro warned Labour list candidate Willie Jackson of the financial consequences for the Manukau Urban Māori Authority if Mr Jackson bagged the government on the campaign trail.

Mr Jackson heads the authority, which runs a charter school and has a Whānau Ora contract.

Mr Ngaro told the conference that Mr Jackson could lose the contract and support for a second charter school if he criticised the government.

Five of nine NGOs contacted by Checkpoint with John Campbell today said they strongly believed being critical of the government could affect their funding.

Prime Minister Bill English said he had spoken to Mr Ngaro, who had made several apologies, including to the Cabinet this morning.

"I don't think he has to apologise to everyone who did not like his comments.

"But I've made it clear to him that some of his comments were wrong, particularly around partnership schools, because ministers are not involved in the decisions about which schools are in partnership schools."

Mr English also said community agencies were entitled to their views.

"They are often involved in tense negotiations with government agencies and there will be differences of view about the nature of ... those agreements, but they have always been free to say what they want about government policy."

Mr Ngaro had not offered to resign as a minister, he said.

Officials asked to review minister's decisions

Mr English said he had asked officials to review Mr Ngaro's decisions as a minister, but was "not concerned" as he had not been involved in any judgements over funding.

"In the end, what people do is what matters the most," he said.

"Every indication from Alfred's conduct as a minister is that he is respected for his knowledge of the issues and has built up good relationships with the non-government sector."

Mr English put Mr Ngaro's comments down to a "lack of experience" and said they may have reflected "a bit of pressure from criticism".

Ministers who worked in the social sector needed to be "ready, willing and able to take criticism every day from organisations they're dealing with," he said.

"People have every right to criticise. If they're focused on the results, then they can work with us and we can work with them."

In a statement, Mr Ngaro said his remarks were a bit naive, poorly-worded and he regretted them.

Little says comments 'out of order'

Labour Party leader Andrew Little said Mr Jackson had stepped back from his private interests to focus on his candidacy.

He said Mr Ngaro's comments were out of order and New Zealanders deserved better.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce earlier said Mr Jackson's charter school was not under threat.

"It's not the way the government operates, we work with providers of all types in terms of working relationships, and they all have different politics," he said.

"Their politics doesn't get involved with the way that the government contracts - and nor should it."

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