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Nine year itch: What Alfred Ngaro revealed about the National Government

Alfred Ngaro. Photo/Getty Images

Did Alfred Ngaro accidentally reveal the way the Government controls its critics?

A third-term government is a little like a bad marriage. It all started out lovey-dovey cuddles and kisses and then, by the ninth year, the itch set in with a large dollop of complacency and arrogance.

That may explain the behaviour of Alfred Ngaro, the Cabinet minister whose speech to a National Party regional conference last weekend contained a none-too-subtle threat that the Government would deny funding to individuals and organisations that were critical of them in election year. “If you get up on the campaign trail and start bagging us,” he said, “then all the things you are doing are off the table. They will not happen.”

How any politician could stand up in a forum attended by note-taking journalists and boast about threatening, say, a Maori partnership school or the Salvation Army and still remain a minister is beyond me. His backside should have had a smouldering imprint of Prime Minister Bill English’s boot on it. Instead, he was mildly rebuked and an internal audit made of funding that he had not yet granted or denied during the five months he had held the voluntary sector portfolio.

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I have met Ngaro. He is a charming fellow who, I would have thought, has enough brainpower not to commit an act of political suicide. His words were bound to create a public perception that the National Government is running a protection racket. (“Nice organisation you’ve got there, buddy. Be a shame if anything happened to it.”)

Worse, his outburst implies that other non-governmental organisations that haven’t complained must be compliant sycophants, staying quiet to keep the cash coming in.

The fact that the country’s public radio service, Radio New Zealand, which has been known to broadcast the occasional excoriating critique of the Government’s performance, has had its funding frozen (and therefore, in effect, cut) since 2008 could be seen as reinforcing the view that Ngaro wasn’t just running off at the mouth, but rather that he had spilled the beans on how the state controls its critics.

If this is the case, the schemers in the Beehive are not very good. Mainstream and social media are rife with criticism of it, much of it due to the appearance of complacency and arrogance in the ruling party. This week’s Budget is the Government’s chance to renew its vows, give us flowers, take us out to dinner and try to recapture the thrill of the lost romance.

In this, it does have one great advantage. Its rivals for our affections appear dishevelled, disorganised and disinclined to seducing us in any meaningful way. I have the foolish, old-fashioned notion that an opposition party in an election year should offer me tempting policy goodies to persuade me to transfer my affections to it. Instead, all we hear is a regurgitation of a couple of lacklustre, ageing policies that were offered, and resoundingly rejected, at the last election. Once again, Labour and the Greens give every appearance of sluggishly sleepwalking to defeat, leaving the wily Winston with a sufficient chunk of the vote to broker his party the best possible post-election deal with National.

Labour is hoping Jacinda ­Ardern’s toothy grin will be enough to overcome a huge deficit in votes, and the Greens expect the apathetic young to be sufficiently roused to vote at this election. Both propositions are unlikely.

Meanwhile, National tries to resuscitate its flagging marriage with the public with Budget day gifts. The smarter move might be to appoint Ngaro ambassador to North Korea for the next six months.

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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