4 Mar 2022

State landlord's board chair 'greatly let down' over breach of political neutrality

8:11 am on 4 March 2022

The chair of Kainga Ora's board says he feels "greatly let down" the public agency has been found to have breached standards of political neutrality.

Building in Christchurch, Moorhouse Ave

File image. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Emails released under the Official Information Act (OIA) last year show the Kainga Ora knowingly funded advertising featuring now-MP Arena Williams while she was a candidate.

The advertorial, which promoted community spirit at Kainga Ora's Hobsonville Point development, appeared in the New Zealand Herald's dedicated property section OneRoof and remained online throughout the 2020 election campaign.

The OIA correspondence showed Kainga Ora officials discussed concerns, raised by Williams herself, about the perception of her electioneering ahead of her campaign announcement.

Officials went back and forth on this before deciding they would just pretend they did not know about her candidacy.

An investigation carried out by the Public Service Commission pulled the agency up on it; finding the emails unacceptable and the agency "initially" got it wrong.

Commissioner Peter Hughes said Kainga Ora's chief executive Andrew McKenzie has since met his expectations by owning what happened, fixing it and learning from the problem.

Kainga Ora's board chair Vui Mark Gosche told RNZ he felt "greatly let down" about the cover up he first heard about through the Minister of Housing Megan Woods.

"The minister rang me and I immediately indicated to the CEO and the staff that the position that they had expressed up until then, was wrong and unacceptable.

"From there on, we've moved to resolve it ... if I'd known about this earlier this would have been knocked on the head right at the beginning."

The commission's report stated Kainga Ora minimised the issue, demonstrating "a misunderstanding of the principle of political neutrality at all levels" up until late last year.

Gosche said it was at this point - when the board intervened - that Kainga Ora u-turned on its position and conceded it had mishandled the advertising issue.

He, as board chairperson, has now received a strongly worded letter from Woods which set out her expectations that responsibility and accountability ultimately sit at board level.

The minister also wrote that she expects the board would now "actively monitor and hold serious management to account" to ensure it does not happen again.

Gosche said the criticism was warranted because Kainga Ora should have done better but stressed it did not reflect the integrity of the organisation as a whole.

"This is serious problem that has arisen in one area of our work and I just ask the public to look at the rest of the work we do and judge us on that. I think it would be terrible for the organisation's entire reputation to be stained by this.

"That's why we have to resolve any issues going forward but be clear to the public that this is not acceptable from the Minister, from the board and from the CEO, right through the organisation, and everybody understands that right now."

Woods, who asked for the investigation, told RNZ she retained confidence in Kainga Ora's board and its chief executive Andrew McKenzie.

"As soon as I saw some of the language that was used in the emails I went straight back and made it my view clear that it was well below my expectations ... to claim that you were going to 'un-know' something is simply not possible.

"I expected them to operate the same principles that once you know something, you simply cannot 'un-know' it. I've made my expectations clear and I've told the chair of the board that I see it as the board's role and their responsibility to deliver on the improvements that need to be made within the organisation."

The minister told Gosche in her letter she expected these improvements would be a standing item in their regular chairperson to minister meetings and she would receive regular updates on the work.