I blogged in June around the controversy over Kainga Ora spending almost $500,000 on advertorial fluff pieces that appeared to be genuine news. The background is:
- Kainga Ora (Housing NZ) signed a contract with NZME to spent $25,000 a month for almost two years in return for stories they would write that would look like news stories.
- NZME failed to state that this was supplied content, and for many months they appeared without any disclaimer that they were paid for.
- The Minister of Housing, Megan Woods, denied in a written question that there was any agreement between NZME and Kainga Ora. This was false, and later blamed on a clerical error.
- One purchased article was in May 2020 and featured Arena Williams (now a Labour MP) and was full of details about what she had done for her community – it appeared three days before the Labour selection for Manurewa.
So all this is bad enough, but it gets far far worse. It turns out that not only did Kainga Ora know Williams was an aspiring Labour candidate, they decided to pretend they did not know!!
OIAs released to Nicola Willis show that Kainga Ora staff knew that Williams was seeking the Labour nomination in a few days and the response from the Senior Comms Advisor was:
we can just act as though we don’t know anything!
So their strategy was to promote an aspiring Labour candidate, and if questioned to pretend they didn’t know!
This is confirmed, as they negotiated with Williams:
She was worried that putting herself out there in the media might suddenly seem like she’s helping coordinate some publicity for herself. 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
So Kainga Ora told the aspiring Labour candidate that they would just proceed as though they didn’t know she was about to be announced as the Labour candidate!
And if we can promise to show her the copy for approval, she might get some additional comfort from that.
So the NZ Herald published a story that was written by a Government agency, funded by taxpayers, whose content was personally approved by the aspiring Labour candidate – and none of this was known until revealed by Nicola Willis as none of the stories had been marked as advertorial.
We’re getting close to the pre-election period where it’s stipulated that: The neutrality of the public service and other agencies in the state sector must be protected throughout the pre-election period.
Kainga Ora doesn’t seem to understand that public service neutrality applies all the time, not just during the pre-election period.
The $500,000 was wasteful spending at the best of times anyway. But to spend some of it to promote an aspiring candidate and state in writing that the agency will just pretend not to know she is about to become the candidate is appalling ethics.
Newshub reports on the story here:
Newshub can reveal the Government’s housing developer Kāinga Ora brazenly took steps to cover up the fact it was using a Labour candidate in its taxpayer-funded advertising – risking its political neutrality.
Although it knew Manurewa MP Arena Williams was planning to run for Labour, emails show it hid the fact, choosing to act like it was unaware.
“Documents released to me under the Official Information Act show that just months before last years election, Kāinga Ora secretly commissioned, paid for and arranged publication of ‘advertorial’ material about Labour Party figure Arena Williams, and on finding out about her impending candidacy senior public servants agreed to ‘proceed as though we didn’t know’. …
“These actions by senior public servants show a flagrant disregard for the proper use of taxpayer funds and the need for public agencies to consistently act with integrity and in the public interest.
“I am gravely concerned about the culture at Kāinga Ora. New Zealanders have a right to expect that the Government housing arm will focus its time and money on getting houses built – not promoting Labour Party candidates.
Never mind that the waiting list for state housing has increased almost 500% – let’s spend $500,000 on fake newspaper stories making us look good.