By Bernard Hickey
Labour Leader Andrew Little has called on Prime Minister John Key to sack Nick Smith from his role as Minister of Building and Housing, saying Smith misled the Prime Minister and the public about the possible sale of Crown land in Auckland.
Little's comments came after it emerged the Ministry of Education had sent an initial letter to the Tamaki collective of Auckland iwi in
February December advising them that the Government could offer land at Massey East back to the iwi under Treaty 'right of first refusal' provisions if it was not required.
Previously, Smith had said the land, which the Government plans to sell to developers, was not able to be offered back to iwi under Treaty provisions because the Government had reassigned the Education land for housing purposes in May under the 1955 Housing Act, under which Treaty provisions do not apply.
Key repeated that claim in a news conference yesterday, saying Ngati Whatua did not have the right of first refusal. Last night Ngati Whatua and Waikato-Tainui announced they were taking legal action to block the sale of the 9.5 ha of land on Moire and Graville Roads in West Auckland. Smith has pledged to agree development deals on that land by October and to have houses built there by the end of next year.
Confusion around the issue deepened on Tuesday when Key told reporters he had been wrongly advised that Ngati Whatua did not have right of first refusal, while Smith insisted that his position was legitimate and that the letter was only a preliminary one that was superceded by the Cabinet's decision in late May to buy the land from Education for Housing purposes.
"Everything that Nick Smith has done to address the Auckland housing problem has turned to custard. We now have a situation where two weeks ago he showed journalists plots of land where houses would be built and we have John Key saying at a Press Conference that there was no issue of right of first refusal by Ngati Whatua and Waikato Tainui, now it turns out that the land isn't available for house building and there is an issue of first right of refusal," Little told reporters.
"Nick Smith has blundered his way through and I think it's time for the Prime Minister to relieve him of that portfolio," he said.
"If I was Prime Minister and I said things at a press conference that were based on advice from my Minister of Building and Housing that were wrong and could not be sustained then he would be relieved of his portfolio," he said.
"You do your homework before you start making announcements or declaring that there is no issue about first right of refusal. You don't raise false hope and mislead people. The Government has reacted in panic mode. All the measures they've announced, whether it's the bright line test or rules on foreign buyers and now releasing crown land. They haven't done the homework. They haven't thought it through and now they've landed up in the swamp, and that sits at the feet of the Minister of Building and Housing."
Little said a Labour Government would run an accelerated building programme in Auckland that was led by the state.
Smith defends his stance
Smith told reporters in Parliament that he had told developers would need to work with iwi, but that the formal right of first refusal clause was not triggered on the Moire Rd site.
"We need to be very clear. There is a first right of refusal and there is the protocol. They are two separate legal obligations. The government's view on the Moire Rd site was the right of first refusal was never triggered. It is true that the government has a discussion with the Tamaki Collective under the protocol of working with them on developing that site for housing. That has always been the intent," Smith said.
He then went on to differentiate between Ngati Whatua o Kaipara, which has a settlement with the Crown and which the Government was working with on its Hobsonville development, and Ngati Whatua Orakei.
"Ngati Whatua O Kaipara is different to Ngati Whatua Orakei. Ngati Whatua Orakei has no right of first refusal, except that through the Tamaki Collective, and that is why the Crown has consistently met its Treaty obligations by talking with the party that the legal obligation rests with, and that's the Collective," he said.
Smith said he was disappointed with the legal action and said he had talked with Waikato/Tainui spokesman Tukuroirangi Morgan earlier on Tuesday.
He said the Government remained committed to its plans to sign the first agreements in October and build houses by the end of next year.
"We've got some complex issues to work through, but I still remain absolutely committed to that programme and that timetable," he said.
Smith went on to suggest that development could carry on while a dispute over land ownership was being resolved in the courts.
"In the arrangements that we have made in other areas, a key feature of this programme is that the land ownership remains with the Crown through the development phase and the title only changes going from the Crown directly to the home owner, whether that's a social provider or a family looking for a first home," he said.
"Any legal interruption in that process would be in the time the land ownership changes and that's at least a year away until those first homes are completed."
'Judge me on my record'
Smith rejected Little's call to resign or be sacked.
"He hasn't built too many houses. I think this programme is a very positive one. It's an opportunity to build houses and any questions on the programme should be delivered on results. I've said that this programme is going to deliver a contractual agreement in October for housing. I've said it is going to deliver new houses by the end of 2016. I think that should be the real way that I am judged on the performance of this programme."
Smith also denied he had rushed the process.
"I make no apologies for wanting to work with some urgency. There's not a single day that the media does not challenge me as to whether I am doing enough about growing additional housing so we have been moving at pace and we will continue to move at pace," he said, adding the Government had consulted with the Tamaki Collective a month before the Budget.
Smith said the Tamaki Collective Treaty Settlement legislation required that any government agency no longer requiring a piece of land had to give preliminary advice to iwi.
"That letter in December very clearly says preliminary advice. It says the Ministry of Education no longer requires that piece of land. It then says very clearly in that letter that section 40 is triggered. Section 40, in its second component, says that there is the opportunity for government agencies to put their hand up for that piece of land. In about March, I think, the piece of land was brought to my attention. We did a preliminary investigation and then we made a decision to use that land for housing purposes."
'Doing the best he can'
Earlier Key had told reporters that comments made at a news conference about Ngati Whatua not having right of first refusal were wrong because he was wrongly advised.
"The advice I had was wrong on that piece of land. I never said they didn't have first right of refusal. I said we used that structure for that piece of land, but in fact that piece of land the advice I have had is we acquired it after settlement," he said.
Asked about whether Smith had kept him fully informed, Key said Smith was doing the best he could.
"It's a bit of a complex situation. There are lots of different agreements and sub-agreements and all this stuff," Key said.
(Updated to correct month of letter from February to December)