National – in what was clearly a rehearsal for its election campaign – spent the weekend trying to get its message straight while it ironed out the bumps in the Government’s relationship with the electorate.

That meant one Minister, Alfred Ngaro, making a series of embarrassing gaffes for which he has now been admonished while another, Paula Bennett, conceded the Government was not getting its message across.

The party held the last of its regional conferences; this time in Auckland.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes elements of the party continue to ferment over the vote at the UN Security Council last December to oppose Israeli settlements on the occupied territories.

That concern was intensified after Prime Minister Bill English slapped down Foreign Minister Gerry Brownlee over comments he’d made which had appeared to back off the resolution.

Overall, to use a favourite Government saying, it was an “untidy” weekend capped by a flat speech from English which saw delegates ignore placards they’d been given to wave when he finished speaking.

Altogether it was an oddly jarring conference.

The party makes much of its ethnic outreach and pushed forward groups like its  Philippino members and Global Indians who had a high profile at the conference.

But the new party Maori grouping, Kahurangi Blue, appears to have made no traction in Auckland and there were few, if any, Maori delegates at the conference.

 Alfred Ngaro


However, the  big embarrassment was new Associate Social Housing Minister Alfred Ngaro who on Saturday told delegates that if social housing providers started “bagging” National on the campaign trail “then all the things you are doing are off the table. They will not happen.”

When his comments were published on the Newsroom website, senior Ministers and staff took him aside from the conference for some “counselling”.

But there is still confusion as to whether he has met Willie Jackson to talk about social housing.

Jackson himself says he has not but late yesterday morning Ngaro told POLITIK he had met Jackson.

“We’ve been meeting with the local marae, Te Puea Marae, Waatea, Willie Jackson and their crew,” he said.

If Ngaro was simply an embarrassment, Deputy Prime Minister, Paula Bennett seemed to concede some of the points Government critics have been making about police numbers.

She told conference delegates that the Government’s polling had shown that despite the recent announcement of 1125 extra police and police staff, people didn’t know about it.

“We’ve got more work to do,” she said.

Even so, she said there would only actually be 100 extra police on the beat by the end of the year; then another 200 each year over the next four years.

“You are going to hear other parties say they can do more but you actually physically can’t because of how many you can train at the Police College.”

However, she did admit that aggravated robberies of dairies and small businesses in Auckland had risen by 20% this year.

This has been a particular concern of the Indian community in Auckland and was a focus during the Mt Roskill by-election with the newly-formed NZ Peoples’ Party campaigning on it.

This year, the former Labour candidate, Sunny Kaushal,  led a protest march about the robberies.

Kaushal who withdrew from the Labour campaign a fortnight ago after he was offered a low list ranking has apparently since been in discussion with National about coming across.

National is making a  big push to get the Indian vote in Auckland and has formed a group within the party called “Global Indians”.

It is clear that is having an impact on Police Minister Bennett.

“I want you to know that we are taking it very seriously; we do think there is a problem.

“I hear the call from some of those involved for a police task force; I can say that you have almost effectively got one.

“There is no doubt it the police do see this as an area that needs more effective policing.”

National MP, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi, said there was increasing crime against small businesses.

He said the police had set up “Operation Dikhaana” which meant “show” and had already visited over 1000 shops and dairies to talk about safety.

But Bennett also said that sentences for those caught robbing dairies were too light.

“Particularly here in Auckland the sentences are too light,” she said.

The conference was in a mood to get tough on law and order and passed a remit calling for mandatory 20-day jail terms for any wilful breach of a domestic violence protection order.

But there were also worries among the delegates.

There was talk of concern among some members of the New Zealand vote at the Security Council last year to oppose Israeli settlements on the occupied territories.

 Tamaki National Party delegates

Concerns are reported to have flared up again after the Prime Minister slapped down the new Foreign Minister, Gerry Brownlee, last Monday over Brownlee’s claim that the resolution had been “premature”.

The concern is centred among  Jewish members of the party in the Tamaki electorate but apparently extends to some evangelical  Christians within the party also.

Cabinet Ministers and MPs are aware of the potential for the issue to blow up.

For the last three weeks, the party’s regional conferences have featured keynote speeches from Finance Minister Steven Joyce and the Prime Minister.

Joyce’s speech has hardly varied, but English has clearly been trying out new lines each week.

His speech was detailed, a point by point defence of the Government’s achievements and rebuttal of Labour’s criticisms.

Bill English at National Party Auckland Regional conference

And he directly addressed Auckland concerns about the current immigration levels.

He said that New Zealanders were returning which was a sign of confidence in the country.

So Kiwis are voting with their feet,” he said.

“If they had all left we would have a few more empty houses; there would be a few less cars on the road, there would be a few less kids showing up unexpectedly to our schools.

“But why is that a bad thing?

“Kiwis coming home is a success, and that’s why we want to keep focussed on growing this economy and the attitude that goes with it becue it is the attitude that is going be as much at stake in this election as the numbers and policies.”

 Bill English at the National Party's Auckland Regional conference

English’s speech ended abruptly with a short standing ovation, but the organisers had distributed large placards to each seat in the auditorium presumably for delegates to wave as English walked out.

But he didn’t walk out and instead hung round the edge of the stage while the delegates shuffled out leaving the placards behind.

This was a contrast with the theatrical entrances and exits that John Key used to make as Leader.

But if English was going high and wide with his speech, Labour Leader, Andrew Little was being very specific to the Labour Congress in Wellington.

He announced a Labour Government would end so-called “negative gearing” which allows property losses to be offset against other income.

“This policy is about the big speculators who purchase property after property,” he said.

“It’s about those big time speculators who are taking tens of thousands of dollars a year in taxpayer subsidies as they hoover up house after house.

“I say to people who would defend these loopholes – how can we as a society possibly defend handing out subsidies to property speculators when most young couples can’t afford to buy their first home.

“You ask me whose side I’m on? It’s families. It’s first home buyers.”

The Government is vulnerable on housing and a number of other issues — and it seems to know it.

It wasn’t helped by Ngaro, but the focus now will turn to the Budget, and  that is likely to be a highly political document given Steven Joyce’s other role as campaign chair.

Finance Minister Steven Joyce

He offered another more specific hint about what might be in the Budget.

“We remain committed as the National Party to reducing the tax burden and in particular the impact of marginal tax rates on lower and middle-income earners,” he said.

Joyce attacked Little saying he did not understand economics and what was making New Zealand successful.

“His recipe is the opposite of a recipe for growth it is a recipe for stalling growth.”

And that sounded like the beginning of an election campaign.