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This isn’t how we do things (or is it?)

Brenda photoBrenda Pilott
National Manager
Social Service Providers Aotearoa

Community and Voluntary Sector Minister Alfred Ngaro didn’t have a very good day on Sunday 14 May.  Speaking to delegates at National’s Auckland regional conference, in a “presentation laced with political menace against those who question National’s performance on housing” as a reporter described it, he talked extremely frankly about how providers who express a political view or engage in political activity critical of the government may find themselves without contracts in future.

This created quite a furore and it took the more experienced Steven Joyce to calm the waters with a retraction and reprimand of the errant minister.  Minister Ngaro subsequently withdrew his remarks though apologies to Willie Jackson and the Salvation Army’s Alan Johnson remain conspicuously absent.

We have been asked to believe that this was simply a case of an inexperienced minister talking a bit loosely.

But perhaps the deeper trouble is that he was indulging in some truth-telling.

The role of advocacy is central to most community sector organisations, whether it’s advocacy on behalf of a client with a government agency, making a submission to a select committee or speaking out publicly against policy proposals.  However, the feeling has grown that commenting publicly on political matters will endanger a provider’s chances of getting or retaining service contracts.  That political criticism will meet with contractual retribution.

Minister Ngaro’s comments appear to back up that belief.  Politically unwise though they were, they have certainly generated an important debate.

PM Bill English has now sought to reassure the sector that this is not actually how the government works.

That reassurance is welcome, especially as significant areas of community funding are under direct ministerial control; an unusual convention in NZ’s appropriations system.

The PM’s assurances need to be backed up by ministers and departments consistently showing that they understand that the community sector is independent of government and has the right to speak out, even where we contract with government to provide services.  A formal protocol to that effect would be helpful.

Speaking out when government policy is felt to be wrong – or publicly congratulating government when it gets things right – is a core role of the community sector.  Government should prize that as a hallmark of a free and open society, not seek to dampen down these voices.

This blog has been contributed by a member of ComVoices
ComVoices actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.
Click here for our website: http://comvoices.org.nz/