Auckland housing breaches National's veneer of control

You hum it; Nathan Guy will sing it.

Frank Sinatra might have crooned about there being an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.

The Minister of Primary Industries this week came up with an equally illuminating observation - that there is an awful lot of sand in the Saudi Arabian desert.

It is now more than a month since the Budget was delivered.

The subsequent glow that the document's success gave to National is on the wane.

It is business as usual.

The business of governing, that is.

It is a matter of knuckling-down and getting through the winter with the party's poll ratings unscathed.

For Cabinet ministers dealing with one distraction after another in their portfolios, it is like wading through molasses, a slow, messy process where unwelcome things keep popping out of the woodwork.

Or, as Steven Joyce will attest, from out of the Tasmanian ash veneer liberally applied in the joinery which added even more thousands of dollars spent on fitting out the new headquarters of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

Mr Joyce's ignominy in the face of such extravagance is a lesson that even the most careful minister can be derailed by momentarily forgetting to always be wary of the unexpected.

While the ministry's chief executive will have to carry the can, Mr Joyce will be asking himself why his normally acute political antennae failed him in his own backyard.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Key and Building and Housing Minister Nick Smith combined to further tangle the already tangled web surrounding use of crown-owned land for housing and iwi rights of first refusal if and when some goes up for sale.

Dr Smith's bull-in-a-china-shop approach to portfolio management has its advantages in giving the perception of action.

But when it comes to tackling the Auckland housing crisis, he seems to be running out of options.

But the problem is only going to get bigger, according to the Productivity Commission's latest report.

But more on that later.

Dr Smith has admitted to reporters he is feeling the pressure, which is why Labour is harrying him relentlessly.

It was left to Mr Guy to provide the light relief.

That came amidst news of a shocking 75% mortality rate for newborn lambs on the New Zealand taxpayer funded and so-called ''demonstration farm'' in Saudi Arabia.

The fuss is over what is effectively an $11 million gift - Labour calls it a bribe - to Saudi businessman Hamood al-Ali Al Khalaf in return for his no longer blocking a New Zealand free trade agreement with Gulf states.

The sheep were flown from New Zealand last October at a cost of $1.5 million.

Mr Guy's theory was that some of the deaths could be put down to sandstorms.

When it was put to him that the sheep would have been under cover from the blistering heat, he made his observation about deserts and sand.

Such is his deadpan delivery, it was hard to know whether Mr Guy was being serious.

But he should know.

He has been to the farm near Damman where the temperature is even hotter than Colin Craig's notorious sauna interview with TV3's late-night news show, Newsworthy.

And the prognosis for the survival of Mr Craig's Conservative Party without its founder and major benefactor as its leader is about the same as for a Saudi lamb.

Mr Craig is the party and the party is Mr Craig.

It is a personality cult.

Remove the personality and there is no cult.

It is just a flock of sheep.

It was National's good fortune there were no television pictures of dead lambs.

But efforts to put some distance between the Saudi adventure and ministers did not wash with Labour.

That party had unfinished business.

Two weeks ago, Mr Key taunted Andrew Little in Parliament by predicting Labour's attack on the payment to the Saudi businessman would boomerang back on Mr Little.

Mr Key intimated Labour had been planning a similar deal when it was in Government and Cabinet papers from the time would suggest as much.

Labour waited for Mr Key to release the documents.

And waited.

And waited.

In the end, the Cabinet Office agreed the documents could be made public as long as the parts blanked out remained so.

The papers make frequent reference to ''international legal, commercial and diplomatic risks'' from imposing the ban on live sheep exports, only for the following passages - which presumably explain those risks - to be deleted.

It is reliably understood, however, that the blanked-out material contained nothing which might be deemed to be politically explosive.

Was Mr Key firing blanks?

All this pales into relative insignificance when placed alongside the Productivity Commission's latest missive on Auckland housing.

The commission noted that back in 2012 the Auckland Council estimated an existing shortfall of between 20,000 and 30,000 dwellings, plus need for a further 13,000 dwellings to be built each year.

Even using the council's conservative estimate of the shortfall, the commission says 46,000 new homes were needed by the end of last year.

From 2012-14, however, only a few more than 14,000 dwellings were granted consents - about half of what the council estimates is required just to accommodate new demand.

In the meantime, the shortfall of dwellings in Auckland continued to grow.

The big worry was that developers were not planning to build dwellings at a rate that would erode the shortfall.

The ambitious new dwelling targets in the Auckland Housing Accord, if met, would erode the backlog, but would still leave Auckland 26,500 dwellings short by the end of 2016.

The commission's report got scant coverage but should be compulsory reading for every politician, both inside and outside Auckland.

• John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.

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