RECALIBRATING PHIL TWYFORD: KiwiBuild has become symbolic of Labour's credibility when it comes to delivering on its promises. Claire Trevett looks at the man behind the faltering policy, Housing Minister Phil Twyford, and whether he too will be sent for 'recalibration.'
Back in 2016, NZ Herald political editor Audrey Young wrote that Phil Twyford's own political career followed a parallel trajectory to the Auckland housing market.
As house prices soared, so did Twyford's political stocks as Labour's housing spokesman in Opposition.
That housing market has now soured, and so too have Twyford's stocks as he battles to deliver on the very same policy Labour put up to help address those soaring property prices: KiwiBuild.
That promise was to deliver 100,000 affordable homes for first home buyers over 10 years.
Almost two years on from Labour's election, there have been 83 built, 76 sold and 378 under construction.
About 10,000 are contracted to be built in the future. There are 90,000 more to find.
The house delivery programme has been beset with problem after problem.
It was enough for KiwiBuild to be sent to the intensive care unit earlier this year while attempts are made to resuscitate it.
In January, Twyford and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced they were dropping short term targets and the policy would be 'recalibrated' after it became clear it would fall woefully short of the first year target of 1000 homes.
Demand was lower than expected, first home buyers were more reluctant to buy off the plans than expected, and the houses had taken a lot longer to get to construction than Twyford had believed.
When Labour was in Opposition from 2008 to 2017, Twyford had forged himself a reputation as one of the party's high impact players.
He did this by relentlessly focusing on transport and housing – in particular the "housing crisis" with its two prongs of unaffordability for first home buyers in Auckland, and growing homelessness.
It was largely by dint of Twyford's efforts that the perception seeded that housing was National's biggest Achilles heel.
He repeatedly called on then-Housing Minister Nick Smith to resign over homelessness and affordable housing.
Now the tables have turned somewhat.
Now it is National Party housing spokeswoman Judith Collins who is calling for Twyford to resign.
She has been more than happy to find the loose threads around KiwiBuild and give them a good hard yank: houses that have not been built, houses that have not sold, and houses selling for more than other houses in the same area.
This week saw Collins release further news of houses in a Christchurch development failing to sell, raising the prospect of developers invoking the underwrite to allow them to either sell at a lower price and the Government topping up the difference, or selling back to the Government.
Collins has also highlighted when the Government has simply taken over developments that were already under way or even completed, and relabelled them as KiwiBuild.
She has embarrassed Twyford over the process by which the Government underwrite is given to contractors.
KiwiBuild is the policy Labour can least afford to fail on.
It is something of a totemic policy for the party - symbolic of Labour's credibility when it comes to being able to deliver on policy promises.
It has also dented Twyford's reputation as one of Labour's most effective ministers.
Twyford refused to be interviewed on the topic of KiwiBuild.
He has turned down most media interview requests since announcing the recalibration in January.
One of the few times he has spoken about KiwiBuild was in May to Interest.co.nz.
It was in that interview that for the first time, Twyford refused to commit to the 100,000 long term target.
Ardern is set to do a reshuffle after next week's Budget and while Twyford is unlikely to face a demotion in ranking, there is no guarantee he will hold onto the housing portfolio.
Twyford's name is now strongly associated with KiwiBuild and the intense focus on it has meant its failings have overshadowed progress in other areas of housing.
That includes packages on homelessness, state housing, and social housing.
It has also put Ardern in the embarrassing position of having to front on the failures.
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 – or if Collins has simply been very effective in making it look that way.
Collins has slated the failings as Twyford's fault, saying he had five years to develop the policy and all the problems afflicting it were foreseeable.
But many in Beehive see Twyford's main crime as simply overselling and under-delivering: a case of optimism over reality.
Some are blaming bureaucrats rather than Twyford, pointing to problems in getting bureaucrats to adapt to the new model, take on the role of quasi-real estate agents, and accept the new priorities of the Government.
The interim targets were first developed by Labour's campaign team in 2017 after focus groups told Labour that voters did not believe it could deliver on the 100,000 homes promise.
They were effectively a communications tool to try to convince people it was achievable.
However, after Labour got into Government, those interim targets were assessed and ticked off by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
That led to Twyford dismissing Treasury's more gloomy prognosis, pointing to the rosy picture painted by MBIE instead.
Since then MBIE has had to downgrade those estimates three times – from around 700 to about 371 in the first year to July. The goal was 1000.
Twyford was left with egg on his face.
Ardern will also take into account Twyford's performance across the board.
Others of Twyford's initiatives have borne fruit – such as around homelessness, getting in place the new standards for rental properties, and across transport.
In transport too there are potential problems bubbling. There has been a $1 billion budget blowout for the City Rail Link in Auckland.
Twyford has also now said plans to extend Labour's light rail project - which is yet to begin - out to West Auckland could be scrapped, although plans to take the modern tram from the CBD to the airport were still in place.
That was another of Labour's cornerstone election promises.
Ardern will also need to weigh up the politics of sidelining Twyford.
She will want to do so without Twyford losing face, and that will be a hard ask now.
It will effectively be seen as a statement that she believes he is not up to the job.
That in turn will cast questions on Labour's policy itself – and be an admission National was right.
Twyford entered Parliament in 2008 after working as the head of global advocacy for Oxfam in Washington DC.
The experience Twyford had at Oxfam and as an organiser at the Service and Food Workers' Union earlier in his career had given him organisational skills valued by both former leaders David Shearer and Andrew Little.
Highly regarded for his planning abilities, he was used by Little in strategy and campaign roles – including being appointed as Labour's campaign chair for the 2017 election.
He did have moments of political misjudgment – it was Twyford who drove the "Chinese surnames" release in which Labour tried to work out how many houses in Auckland were being sold to foreigners by using vendors' surnames that sounded Chinese.
Ardern has since issued a half-hearted apology for that, saying the reaction to it had made her uncomfortable and she was sorry if anybody saw it as racist.
Then there was his use of his cellphone on a plane. Each time, Twyford took his medicine with reasonable good cheer and moved on.
In his favour is that it was Twyford who fully developed the party's election policies in transport and housing – two of the most comprehensive of the policy packages Labour ran on.
They were among the very few policies that Labour did not send out to "working groups" for further work and analysis before starting to implement them.
The KiwiBuild policy was formed by former Housing spokeswoman Annette King in 2012, but Twyford took it over soon after when then leader David Shearer gave him the Auckland-focused portfolios of housing and transport.
In the five years before the 2017 election, Twyford refined and updated it ready to take into the election.
The starting signs for KiwiBuild were hopeful. About 50,000 people flocked to express an interest, and there was much hoopla around the sale of the first homes in Papakura.
Some of the problems have been addressed, and some within Labour are hopeful that the new KiwiBuild head Helen O'Sullivan could turn things around.
O'Sullivan has taken over from Stephen Barclay, who resigned in somewhat dramatic circumstances.
But every minister also knows that ultimately it is the minister who is – and should – be held accountable.
-First elected in 2008 as a List MP after standing in the North Shore electorate.
-Elected as Te Atatu MP in 2011 after departure of Chris Carter.
-Auckland born and raised, Twyford lives in Te Atatu.
-Married to Joanna, a nurse. Has a son, Harry, now 29.
-His 2008 campaign manager was Barbara Ward, who now works for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Ward is the partner of Twyford's fellow minister – and former flatmate – David Parker.