Bryce Edwards: Who’s accountable for the KiwiBuild debacle?

Bryce Edwards: Who’s accountable for the KiwiBuild debacle?

Will KiwiBuild minister Phil Twyford lose his portfolio in tomorrow’s Cabinet reshuffle? That’s the big question, given that the Government’s flagship housing programme has been so heavily discredited, and the accompanying debate about Twyford’s role in the debacle and whether he’s to blame.

It seems unlikely that Twyford will get the sack. Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been unwilling to express her complete confidence in Twyford’s KiwiBuild work, she has also recently claimed that he’s done an “incredible job”. She has also backed him by saying “I’m loath to see one individual carry any blame for what has been a policy that’s been difficult”.

Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan also argues today that it’s unfair to blame Twyford for a policy that he inherited from Annette King and David Shearer, and which has been strongly pushed by all Labour MPs including Ardern – see: Why all of Labour must take blame for ridiculous KiwiBuild.

Here’s du Plessis-Allan’s main point: “This was a major Labour party policy at two elections. It was a huge promise that they keep on repeating. He was the guy asked to do the best he could with that. He was effectively given a helicopter and told to fly to the moon. How could he make that work? It was always impossible. So he doesn’t deserve demotion actually.”

But there are many commentators – from across the political spectrum – who believe Twyford should go. Writing for the Herald yesterday, David Cormack says: “So the big thing that should happen and which seems to have been signalled is Twyford should lose at least one portfolio. Probably housing. Because truth be told KiwiBuild has been a cluster fuss. And Phil has not been great at fixing the housing crisis” – see: Why Twyford will probably lose housing portfolio (paywalled).

In terms of his replacement, Cormack says: “The Minister best placed to probably pick up the housing portfolio would be a big ol’ nerdy swot. Someone like David Parker.”

For Matthew Hooton, the most obvious candidate to be the new Minister responsible for KiwiBuild is Kris Faafoi, but he says the Government seem to want to keep Twyford in place: “the current Beehive line is that perhaps Twyford should remain Minister of Housing now that he has learned about the industry and from his complete failure so far” – see: Why Housing Minister Phil Twyford must go (paywalled).

Hooton believes this would be a mistake: “there is precious little evidence that Twyford, now 56, is a person who can listen and learn. KiwiBuild, after all, is not a new policy. It was announced by Labour back in 2012 with Twyford responsible for building and construction all the way through.”

Furthermore, there’s a question of accountability: “surely the Prime Minister must hold him accountable for the tens of millions he has wasted on his initial folly”. And Hooton says Ardern owes to Aucklanders, to “not leave them under the control of someone whose credibility among everyone from first-home hunters to the country’s most senior business leaders is so low.”

Twyford is actually failing to be accountable for the KiwiBuild fiasco according to Duncan Garner, who points out that the minister simply is no longer doing media interviews on the housing programme: “Twyford is so embattled he’s now living in his own panic room. We have asked, in the public interest, to interview Twyford 11 times in recent months – he’s turned us down every time. Phil, if you can’t be accountable to the people, stop taking up space in Cabinet” – see: Twyford’s no-show at KiwiBuild conference a ‘middle finger’ to the industry.

In fact, Garner points out that Twyford has failed to be accountable to the construction industry that is working on KiwiBuild, saying that the minister pulled out of a Kiwibuild summit this week, thereby insulting those who were expecting to hear him speak. Apparently, Twyford “astonishingly, pulled the middle finger to the entire industry and pulled out at the last minute. The industry wants to know, deserves to know, what, how and when his shambles of a policy will be euthanized or scaled back.”

See also, Garner’s earlier column: Flagship KiwiBuild policy in tatters as PM refuses to speak its name. In this, Garner asks what exactly Twyford was doing for nine years in opposition? And he says: “Truth is Twyford has let himself down and continues to let the country down every day by not being totally upfront and realistic.”

The pros and cons of getting rid of Twyford are discussed by Claire Trevett in her article last week: Housing Minister Phil Twyford’s Waterloo: Will KiwiBuild cost him? (paywalled). She points out the irony in the fact that, when he was in opposition, Twyford used to go hard against the then Housing minister, Nick Smith, for his lack of progress, and he’d frequently call for his resignation. But “the tables have turned somewhat” and now Twyford is on the receiving end of the same sort of scrutiny over the housing crisis.

Here’s Trevett’s main points about whether to sack or retain Twyford: “Handing the portfolio to another minister would buy some breathing space and break that association. However, there are problems with moving the portfolio to another minister. The first is the shortage of ministers able to take on the Mr or Ms Fixit role required, and turn things round before 2020. The other problem is whether anybody would want the job. Many would prefer Twyford to carry the can if things turn totally to custard. Ardern will also be assessing how much of the KiwiBuild mess is Twyford’s own fault and whether Kiwibuild is as bad as it seems”.

At the KiwiBuild summit this week there was obviously plenty of discussion about the ongoing viability of the housing programme. According to an RNZ report from the summit, “A poll of people at the KiwiBuild summit found a majority had little to no confidence in KiwiBuild ever achieving its original aims. And the frustration from industry is clear. They want the Government to move in other areas too – in regulatory reform, freeing up land and building. Infrastructure” – see: Construction industry urges Government to get on with KiwiBuild changes.

This article also reports that other Government figures attended the Kiwibuild summit but were reluctant to be accountable for KiwiBuild or even discuss the details of the programme. Standing in for the absent Twyford, Jenny Salesa, the Building and Construction Minister, apparently “didn’t even mention KiwiBuild once in her speech” and told journalists: “In terms of housing and KiwiBuild is part of housing, I’m not the responsible minister”. Similarly, “the head of the KiwiBuild Delivery Agency, Helen O’Sullivan, also refused to answer media questions on progress.”

Some of the reluctance by the Government to talk about KiwiBuild might relate to the fact that the long-promised “reset” or “recalibration” might be about to take place. It was supposed to happen about six months ago, but is continually being delayed. The most recent statement on the timing from Twyford is that: “It’s taking a little bit longer but it won’t be much longer. I’d be I would think, a few weeks at most.”

It now seems that KiwiBuild might even be entirely killed off. Henry Cooke reports that Jacinda Ardern has signalled the housing programme could be axed before the next election, which would leave all of Labour’s main election promises broken – see: KiwiBuild policy not guaranteed in 2020.

The debate has turned to the question of explaining how KiwiBuild turned into the disaster that it now is. For the most detailed account of “the route to the mess that is KiwiBuild”, see Henry Cooke’s How KiwiBuild fell down, and whether anything can be saved from the wreckage.

Cooke explains how the flagship housing programme was a great example of policy made on the hoof – or in this case, made up by Annette King during a short car ride with the head of the Salvation Army. It seems the policy was also more designed for ideological and electorate purposes than to actually be implemented. And Cooke details how the scheme took on a piecemeal approach, with all of the original promises of the scheme slowly but surely dropping away.

Another version of what went wrong can be found in former Property Institute of New Zealand CEO, Ashley Church’s article, Why did KiwiBuild go so badly wrong? This boils down to the idea “that ‘Government planning’ is an oxymoron and that the best thing the Minister could do, to achieve his targets, is to get out of the way and leave the private sector to it”.

Alternatively, David Cormack has an explanation that says the Labour politicians were just too naïve and too ready to see the housing problem as a National Party one: “It seems that Labour genuinely believed that National wanted a housing crisis and it was merely a lack of willpower and smugness that stopped them from fixing it. So along came Phil, and with all the willpower and smugness in the world he was unable to fix it. Maybe there are more systemic issues at play, like RMA reform, the cost of new-build components and other boring bureaucratic issues that require attention.”

In Hooton’s column, above, he also criticises Labour for taking such a limited and piecemeal approach to solving the housing crisis: “it would have to be done at scale, utilising the Crown’s procurement power, rather than as a collection of much smaller projects”. He says that should have been done on a mass scale, and would have been more successful if it had instead involved building 100,000 state houses (which could still be privatised in a “rent to buy” scheme).

Duncan Garner also has another opinion piece in which he is scathing about Twyford’s failure to properly develop the KiwiBuild concept, explaining that the problems have come about because it was never a serious proposal: “Kiwibuild was more marketing than anything made of solid concrete; it was only ever just a slogan, but slogans do not turn into affordable houses. You can’t sleep in a slogan, or stay warm in a catchphrase, or house your family in a branding exercise. I am sorry to say this New Zealand, but we were taken for fools and we were misled; joke, flop, pathetic, disappointing, lost opportunity. Nine years of neglect? That is Labour had nine years in opposition planning Kiwibuild, but not doing a day’s work on it” – see: Has there been a bigger flop that Phil Twyford’s Kiwibuild?

Finally, it’s worth noting that despite all the troubles with KiwiBuild, a large majority of New Zealanders (60 per cent) still believe that the Government should be proceeding to build the promised 100,000 affordable houses – see 1News’ Latest KiwiBuild development revealed for Auckland, as poll shows Kiwis still back the concept.