The tweet that sparked racism row in Parliament between Marama Davidson and Nicola Willis

A tweet by Greens co-leader Marama Davidson, accusing National MP Nicola Willis of using "racist and classist undertones" when discussing emergency accommodation, led to a showdown in Parliament. 

It began with Willis asking Davidson about the Government's Homelessness Action Plan and how she aimed to reduce the ballooning use of emergency accommodation such as motels, as Associate Housing Minister responsible for homelessness. 

"We are focusing on prioritising people into transitional housing where there are further wraparound social supports provided," said Davidson. "It is not a priority to keep people in emergency housing situations; we know that is not acceptable. I want all families to be living in safe housing situations."

The discussion heated up when Willis, National's housing spokesperson, asked Davidson if she stood by her comments on Twitter accusing her of using "racist and classist undertones" when raising public safety concerns about emergency accommodation. 

It came after Willis told reporters earlier this week she did not feel safe walking around in central Wellington anymore, after police acknowledged the capital was "over-represented" in incidents of assault and disorder.

Willis blamed an "explosion" in emergency housing and a growing gang presence in the area, and said she would be calling a public meeting on possible solutions.

Davidson said on Twitter she didn't appreciate Willis' "stigmatising" of people who are homeless or living in emergency accommodation. Davidson said while Willis feels unsafe walking through the CBD, she stops to hear people's stories.

"I have walked past Wellington central areas many nights and one night in particular one of the men recognised me and yelled out. It was one of the social housing residences for men. I went and sat with a group of them and had a good chat. I was the better for it," Davidson wrote. 

"I guess what I'm saying is, we need to be mindful of the racist and classist undertones that she is running her 'safety' narrative on. That won't help me in my work to transform the system and our country's culture towards an Aotearoa that is safe for everyone."

Greens co-leader and Associate Housing Minister for homelessness Marama Davidson.
Greens co-leader and Associate Housing Minister for homelessness Marama Davidson. Photo credit: Parliament TV

Davidson told Willis in Parliament she stood by her comments on Twitter.

"Yes, I absolutely stand behind every word that I discuss on my social media platforms," she said. "If we continue with a narrative that doesn't understand the systemic causes, we will go no further in progressing the reduction of crime."

Willis asked Davidson if she was accusing New Zealanders who raise concerns about their safety in relation to increased numbers of people in emergency accommodation as being racist. 

"I am accusing a member, a National member of this House, of attempting to stigmatise a group of people with little access to power and resourcing, of attempting to whip up stigmatising and dehumanising narratives around groups of people who need our support, around groups of people who need us to address the systemic causes of crime," Davidson responded. 

"Yes, I am accusing a National member of raising that dehumanising narrative."

National's housing spokesperson Nicola Willis.
National's housing spokesperson Nicola Willis. Photo credit: Parliament TV

House Speaker Trevor Mallard said MPs' tweets are their business. 

"Many of us will have made tweets on occasions that do not contain parliamentary language or contain suggestions which are allowed outside the House. Other people can say it and we can say it outside, but we can't say it inside," he said. "That's the way that our rules work."

Newshub revealed that in the three months to December 2020, the Government spent a whopping $82.5 million on emergency accommodation, compared to $6.6 million during the same period in 2017.  

Rental prices are out of control, leaving many to seek emergency accommodation. The nationwide median was up 10 percent in the past year to $495 million, according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). 

The Government announced last month it delivered 1000 more transitional housing places, bringing the total number to 3972, compared with 2113 in November 2017. It promises to deliver more than 18,000 public and transitional housing places by 2024. 

But there are currently more than 22,500 people on the public housing waiting list, making the additional 1000 spots a "drop in the bucket" according to Willis, and only 40 percent of the places are newly built houses.  

At the same time, the number of homes being snapped up by investors who already own multiple properties is also going up, figures released by analysts CoreLogic show.