11 Nov 2021

National Party wants investigation into Kāinga Ora

8:55 pm on 11 November 2021

The National Party is demanding an investigation into what it says is a cover-up and a culture of deceit at Kāinga Ora.

Building in Christchurch, Moorhouse Ave

File image. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The housing agency funded an advertorial last year featuring now Labour MP, Arena Williams, while she was a candidate.

It appeared in the NZ Herald's dedicated property section OneRoof.

While preparing for the article, Kāinga Ora officials became aware she was running and there was discussion about whether there was a problem.

The emails throughout May last year refer to concerns Williams herself had raised, being "understandably nervous about people perceiving this as her electioneering ahead of her campaign announcement" and about "putting herself out there in the media might suddenly seem like she's helping co-ordinate some publicity for herself".

One official emailed a colleague saying: "I assured her it wasn't a problem in my view and we could proceed as though we didn't know about her impending announcement".

In another, "the questions won't have a political framing anyway, we can just act as though we don't know anything!".

There was also talk about removing a mention of her Labour candidacy in copy being written up - "it keeps Kāinga ora's powder dry too!".

Another says: "I know you both said to me Arena was leery of being seen to be campaigning and I was open with her about this ... but if you mean that Kainga Ora would rather not be seen to be leaning either way, that's another matter".

"I'm happy to explain that to her and take it out and I'm sure she'd be fine with that ... mind you with recent polling ... I'm sure no one would be surprised, ha ha."

In response, a colleague referred to the pre-election rules "protecting" the neutrality of the public service, so having the "story geared towards her community work" without including details of her candidacy was preferable.

"So, while it's technically safe to publish now, removing the last para does keep us in a safe, neutral space, especially as most people won't know about these rules".

National MP Nicola Willis described the emails as showing "a level of dishonesty and a disrespect for the public of New Zealand that I find deeply troubling and that I think demonstrates a worrying culture at our housing agency".

"These are grave matters for the minister of housing, it is not clear to me that she has taken them seriously at all.

"It is not only a stain on Kāinga Ora but potentially the public service as a whole, if matters of honesty are in question ... using taxpayer funding in ways that are not appropriate and potentially calling into question the neutrality of the public service."

She wrote to Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes calling for an investigation and making "clear [her] grave concerns about the disregard senior staff at Kāinga Ora appear to have regarding the basic standards of conduct and integrity expected of all public servants".

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Nicola Willis. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He responded by letter saying he would "consider the matters" she raised, and would "respond as soon as [he] is able".

Housing Minister Megan Woods asked for a 'please explain', having spoken to the chief executive and the chair this morning, and "as a belt and braces approach" has also written to Hughes seeking advice about whether there was anything further that needed to be done.

"I was concerned over some responses to media inquiries that I've seen in the last 12 hours and did not consider the issue to be taken as seriously as I would've expected," she told reporters.

The situation "fell well short" of her expectations, Woods told Parliament shortly after.

Willis said it was not enough.

"Who has been held accountable? What inquiries have been done? What assurances can we have that this cannot and will not happen again," she said.

"If I were the minister of housing and my department served this up, I would be expecting firm accountability and I would be wanting an explanation from my board as to what they had seen change in the organisation.

"The chief executive should front up and explain how this was able to happen and what he has done to ensure that there is a culture of honesty and integrity in his agency."