Housing minister Megan Woods has chastised officials for undertaking to deny knowing someone featured in government-funded advertising was a Labour party candidate.
Kāinga Ora emails obtained by the National party under the Official Information Act reveal an official told the candidate, Arena Williams (now an MP), “we can just act as though we don’t know anything!”, when discussing her political affiliations and its advertising campaign.
The emails showed that within three days of approaching Williams, Kāinga Ora was aware of Williams' pending candidacy as well as her concerns the advertising would be seen as electioneering.
Housing minister Megan Woods was clearly not amused and told the housing development agency “once they know something, they cannot un-know it”.
Woods learned of the offending emails in August this year when the agency consulted her office on a National party official information request concerning the offending ad.
National’s housing spokesperson Nicola Willis told BusinessDesk the emails revealed conduct that was a “stain on the public service” and would reflect poorly on Kāinga Ora if significant action wasn’t taken to make sure it never happened again.
She said it wasn’t clear to the public appropriate action had been taken and she would be calling on the Public Service Commissioner to step in if the agency didn’t respond appropriately.
Michael Macaulay, who teaches ethics at Victoria University’s School of Government, called the emails a "shocking revelation".
He said what officials advised Williams ran "completely contrary to everything we would expect from public officials in terms of transparency and integrity”.
In his view, it was imperative that Kāinga Ora’s leadership find out why they gave that advice, why they had that attitude to begin with and what were they trying to achieve?
However, Kāinga Ora continued to defend the treatment as recently as last night. In a late Wednesday evening email, a senior media advisor for the agency suggested that BusinessDesk "should read the actual story first" and included a link to the original OneRoof article.
"When it was begun Arena Williams was not a Labour candidate," the spokesman wrote. "And still wasn't when the story was published. Anyone can clearly see it's not political, rather it's residential or community-focused! I can't help but notice Nicola Willis hasn't linked to the actual story anywhere. I wonder why?"
The ad was part of a campaign that appeared on OneRoof in May last year, featuring Williams as the face of Hobsonville’s community spirit.
The ad went up just days before her selection as a Labour candidate was officially confirmed, and less than two months before the election campaign began.
The Minister's office wrote to the agency to pass on her disappointment at some of the conduct revealed in the emails.
Kāinga Ora had already been in trouble because the content was published as news stories, rather than as advertising, as well as facing criticism for the amount spent. The ministry said it had no control over how the advertisements were presented.
Its Hobsonville Point development team solicited Williams’ involvement after spotting Facebook posts about her community activism.
The emails also discussed whether the agency, itself, might face criticism for political bias.
Public agencies are required to be politically neutral.
However, any concerns about perceptions of impropriety were quickly brushed aside.
“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,” wrote one employee.
A draft ad that apparently did disclose her candidacy was the subject of further email discussion.
Someone opined that the neutrality rules didn’t apply before the election period began so it was “technically safe” to publish it.
However, as most people “won’t know about these rules” they also advised playing it safe and removing the offending paragraph.
General manager looped in
The emails also show that senior staff were involved in the discussions including the general manager of marketing and communications.
Woods told Newshub on Wednesday she had made it clear to Kāinga Ora she wasn’t comfortable with any use of political candidates in its advertising.
A spokesperson for Kāinga Ora said it only became aware of Williams potential candidacy “in the latter stages” of the story being put together and attributed her ongoing involvement to a staff member’s “personal judgement call”.
Kāinga Ora said it takes its responsibility regarding political neutrality seriously and the relevant staff had been reminded to check with senior management to ensure all necessary steps were taken to fulfil its obligations under the public service code of conduct.
Willis said the response from Kāinga Ora was misleading because we know from the OIA response that a general manager had discussed the matter with the staff member.
This story has been updated to correct the reference to a Kāinga Ora senior media advisor, initially described as a communications manager.