National MP Alfred Ngaro: 'I own my mistake. I own what I said'by Guyon Espiner
The minister whose provocative conference speech earned him a rebuke from the PM says voters should support the person – or party – whose values they share.
Ngaro’s comments to National’s Auckland regional conference (“If you get up on the campaign trail and start bagging us, then all the things you are doing are off the table”) showed little understanding of how politics is conducted, in public at least. But his lack of political expertise was a major factor behind National’s decision to recruit him as a list MP in 2011. He is now Minister for Pacific Peoples and for the Community and Voluntary Sector and Associate Minister of Social Housing and for Children.
The first Cabinet minister of Cook Island descent, Ngaro says he never wanted to go into politics and had resisted the advances of his National colleague Sam Lotu-Iiga, whose nine-year political career ends this year. “I said, ‘Dude, I thought you were my friend. Why would you want me to do that?’” After all, Ngaro had once voted Labour and had no real connections to National – indeed, he says, he felt “disconnected” from politics. But there he was, in an interview with party officials as they searched for new talent for the 2011 election.
“They said to me, ‘Why do you want to be a National MP?’ And I said, ‘Well, I don’t.’ They said, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘Because my wife told me to come.’”
Ngaro told his interviewers that he had no political science degree, had never been involved in any political party and had no political aspirations. They replied that they wanted him for those very reasons.
What they wanted was on show in our interview. Asked where Auckland house prices leave first-home buyers, Ngaro said the dream of home ownership had “evolved” to a dream of secure rental tenure. Most MPs – let alone ministers – would have alarm bells ringing in their heads before they spoke about aspirations of secure rental tenure.
That’s not to say Ngaro doesn’t have anything to offer. He’s intelligent, highly articulate and charming. He’s a great storyteller – his own construction-worker-to-Cabinet-minister story is a compelling one. He just isn’t a politician. At least that’s what he told the National Party.
A short time after his gaffe, however, Ngaro’s a wounded beast. Labour leader Andrew Little is calling for his resignation and he’s been hammered by the media. He has worked his way through a list of apologies, including to the Prime Minister and the two social-service providers caught up in Ngaro’s threats, the Manukau Urban Maori Authority (whose CEO, Willie Jackson, is a Labour list candidate) and the Salvation Army. His apology isn’t a politician’s apology, either (“I apologise if offence was taken”), but full-throated. “I own my mistake. I own what I said,” Ngaro tells the Listener.
I wonder whether he’ll ever regain the open and relaxed style he displayed when we met a month earlier in his electorate office in Te Atatu. He was remarkably comfortable, perhaps too comfortable for comfort.
His first-floor office overlooks suburbia, and I wonder what a brick and tile costs around here. “A brick-and-tile three-beddie on that side of the street?” he says. “Ah … about seven eighty.” He’d make a good real estate agent. “Maybe eight twenty, eight forty.”
I wonder if that worries him. Ngaro likes to tell stories, and I get the first of many that afternoon. When his parents bought a house in Auckland, interest rates were 18%. “I’m not arguing that it isn’t tougher. We had different challenges. Dad was a labourer; Mum was a cleaner. We had very little,” he says. “I was doing a paper round and a milk run and that went to support the family.”
So how does a family buy an $840,000 house? Ngaro went to school in Te Atatu and Henderson. Is he worried about families shunted around by landlords as they juggle jobs and schools? “Those concerns are the same concerns that all families have,” he says. “There are different ways that people are doing it and we have helped out our children. We have helped our older son get into a place.”
So the bank of Mum and Dad? “Yeah, of course it is the bank of Mum and Dad, and that is the way we have helped them to get through.” So is that the only way now, unless you strike gold? “It is a family exercise,” he says.
“The view that used to be the Kiwi dream of owning your own home – the house, the boat, the bach, all of these things … the reality is that that’s evolved and changed. What has actually now become more important, and that is internationally as well, is the security of tenure. Can I have the security of a place I can call my home, where I can raise a family, so that they can have a good education.”
It sounds as if he’s saying the home-ownership dream is dead, but of course he rejects that interpretation. “I don’t think it has died. There are still people who are buying homes.” Many of them are investors, he concedes, but he argues that’s long been a retirement strategy.
As winter takes hold, it seems a good time to ask the Associate Social Housing Minister whether it’s going to be worse for homelessness than it was last year. He lists the $350 million emergency-housing package and other initiatives, but he has a moral message, too.
“It’s not just a one-way street, right? We have consumerised care to the point where if you stub your toe or cut your finger, we look for someone else to solve the problem. What we haven’t done enough of is actually getting back to community resilience – communities themselves self-regulating. We don’t always need a government department or NGO provider to meet some of the needs we have.”
So what does community resilience look like for, say, a mum who has had an ugly episode with a partner and ends up sleeping in a car with three children? Ngaro, who is a White Ribbon Ambassador, says, “The first response has to be a community saying, ‘We are not going to stand for that. We are going to provide support. We are going to speak out.’”
When the reluctant MP turned up in Parliament, in 2011, it might have seemed he was with the wrong party. How did the son of a Pasifika labourer and cleaner, from a household of unionists and staunch Labour voters, end up as a National Cabinet minister?
The answer comes wrapped in another family story, of his dad turning up at a function just before the 2008 election, when Helen Clark was Prime Minister and John Key Opposition leader. Ngaro’s dad surprised him by opting for a photograph with Key rather than Clark. He was, says Ngaro, attracted to the aspiration of Key and viewing Labour’s approach as paternalistic. “We didn’t come here to be saved. We came here for the same opportunities as everyone else,” he says.
The family sayings, usually about resilience and self-reliance, have become his own. “You’re not a problem to be solved; you’re a potential to be realised,” his grandmother would tell him. “That’s been a powerful founding statement for me.”
The story blends with his own narrative as the community man sceptical of experts and intellectuals. Becoming a Cabinet minister was a step up, sure.
“But I just apply the same work ethic that I grew up with, which is simple: it’s a pioneering spirit of all migrants coming in. You work hard, you work smart.”
He says the first lesson he learnt about being a Cabinet minister was from Malcolm the limo driver. Having a driver open doors and address him as “Minister” made him uncomfortable, but Malcolm told him he’d earned it, and that “every time someone calls you Minister, you are reminded of the responsibilities you have.” We’re back to home truths and values. “People ask me, ‘How did you go from being in construction to being a pastor to being a politician?’, but nothing much has changed. I just try to be true to who I am.”
Should have known better
But who is Alfred Ngaro? The rags-to-Cabinet story is real. Mum had two jobs and Alfred and his brother Danny would sometimes help her clean the Newton Post Office on Karangahape Rd at night. But is he really the political innocent he will have us believe? Was it simply naivety that saw him threaten the funding of social service providers challenging the Government?
Looking into his background, you can easily see that he should have known better. In his maiden speech he said, “I come here as a pastor, an NGO manager, a senior government adviser and a community development business consultant.” Any one of those past roles should have told him that threatening to kneecap the social programmes of those who criticise you isn’t the way New Zealand is governed. Add the fact that he is also the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector and your head really does start shaking.
It’s odd, because Ngaro likes to say that values are more important than politics. He says he doesn’t even tell locals to vote National because if he can change their mind one day, someone else can change it the next: he tells people to vote for the person or party who shares their values.
As for Ngaro’s own values, he’s something of a social conservative. He voted against the same-sex marriage bill. “It wasn’t gay marriage; it was the re-definition of marriage.” Did it damage marriage? “I think what it has done is challenge the aspect of how people see marriage. Now it has a legal [status] that is in legislation rather than a personal thing that people have.”
We talk about values for a while, but it ends back up with the cost of housing, even if his point is related. He says “cultural change” is the glaring omission from the housing debate.
“When the divorce rates started to increase … our demand increased.” When mum and dad split up, they need two houses rather than one. “The reason we don’t talk about it is that it is perceived as a moral judgment, but if you take away the moral judgment, the real question is what we are doing to support people. What are we doing to say that happiness isn’t just defined by an income? It is defined by things that are really important, such as relationships and time with your family.”
I’m looking past him again, out to the brick-and-tile houses below. Those cost eight forty, eight fifty, I say, working myself up again. Then mum and dad are both working and don’t see each other. We spin the wheel so fast that it’s bloody easy to fall off.
“But, Guyon,” he brings me out of my rant of flailing limbs and wailing phrases, “that is what my family were doing. My mum was working two jobs. She was at the Intercontinental Hotel as a cleaner. She was at the Post Office, too. Dad was working 50 hours, 60 hours, down at the wharf as a labourer and then a welder and then a boilermaker and there were five of us kids.”
It’s not a bad response, especially given the absence of a question. So why did his family survive where many struggle now? He says we put too much emphasis on money today. “You don’t always have to have money for the pictures or Rainbow’s End or lavish them with toys.” We’re back to stories of resilience. This time the story is about an elder in his community. “He would always say to me, ‘Start with what is in your pocket first. Start with what you have in your hand and ask the question: before you buy it, can you make it?’”
The road back
Can he make it? That is the question for Ngaro now. A big mistake early in a Cabinet career can be terminal. His rehabilitation is partly in the hands of the party bosses, who – let’s remember – knew what they were getting: not a constitutional lawyer but a community man. The work he’s done over 20 years in the community sector was recognised in his winning the Sir Peter Blake Emerging Leader prize in 2009 for his work on the Tamaki Transformation Project.
He is a self-described “strong advocate for fathering” and believes boys without dads are often cast adrift. He is 51 and has four kids of his own and grandchildren, too. Family is his biggest luxury.
He picked the youngest grandson up from pre-school recently and gave him a ride in the big car. The young boy is impressed. “Dada says you are a very important man now, Papa,” he tells his grandfather. They stop at the petrol station and a group of guys yells out, “It’s you.” Yep, Ngaro thinks, I guess it is. “Who was that?” asks one of the young men. “That’s Neil Waka!”
It’s a good story, good enough for Ngaro to tell it again at the regional conference in Auckland a few weeks later, where he also makes his gaffe. Both the story and the mistake tell us a lot. The story tells us he actually has many political skills: he promotes himself while pretending to be humble, he’s a great communicator and he has charm, humour and ambition; the mistake tells us he doesn’t yet appreciate the true public service role of a Cabinet minister. He knows a lot about politics, but he’s yet to demonstrate he knows a lot about government – or that he knows the difference between the two.
This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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