Minister assailed by hospital passes

David Clark
David Clark
Being the Minister of Health has long been regarded as one of the most thankless jobs in government.


Health is a portfolio where Murphy's Law operates untrammeled: if it can go wrong, it will.

In recent weeks Dunedin North MP David Clark may well have been reconsidering his much professed enthusiasm for the health role after being swamped with a flood of negative headlines.

In no particular order, and having probably missed a few, recently Dr Clark has had to stave off awkward questions about the non-appearance of the Government's promised cancer plan, the amount of funding available to drug-buying agency Pharmac, spiralling district health board deficits, and ongoing issues with maternity services in Northern Southland.

He also had to endure a stinging speech from outgoing Association of Salaried Medical Specialists union head Ian Powell, who a fortnight ago told a dentistry conference that one of Dr Clark's main achievements in office had been to make himself look responsible for much of what he had inherited from the previous government, likened him to Pontius Pilate in his handling of the resident doctors pay dispute, and told Dr Clark to "borrow Popeye's spinach and toughen up".

With friends like that, who needs enemies?

Unfortunately for Dr Clark, he has those too, notably his long-time Dunedin North rival and opposition health spokesman Michael Woodhouse.

Last Thursday one of the many, many written Parliamentary Questions Mr Woodhouse fires off for David Clark to answer finally struck paydirt, with the revelation that a report on DHB deficits arrived in the minister's office on June 21 but did not actually make it in front of Dr Clark's eyes until August 1.

Mr Woodhouse's claim Dr Clark had sat on a report chock full of bad news for six weeks received plenty of air time, and got a second gust of wind when the report was finally issued publicly late on Friday afternoon.

As West Wing devotees will know, this is called "taking out the trash"; it is a tactic the Government also employed earlier this year, when long overdue DHB deficit figures were released, issuing them at the same time as the Press Gallery was at the release of the tax working group report.

However, Friday's last-minute delivery did not stop the Southern DHB's $40million deficit and the combined national deficit figure of about half a billion dollars making headlines.

This is a number Mr Woodhouse has been pushing for some time, and he accepted confirmation with due humility.

Michael Woodhouse
Michael Woodhouse
Going by her demeanour at Monday's post-Cabinet press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was not best pleased though, saying she would "not wish to speculate" on comments the deficit report had sat in Dr Clark's office for six weeks until she spoke to him, while shuffling her papers and looking for a quick exit.

At Question Time the next day, Ms Ardern offered a far from rousing brush-off to National leader Simon Bridges' queries on the timing of the release of the deficit figures, saying it was a question for the Minster of Health.

Dr Clark was up 15 minutes later, and tried valiantly to make the best of a bad situation by saying that while he did not see the actual report until August 1, he was "well aware of its contents beforehand".

This had the virtue of being true - the dire financial state of DHBs is no mystery to Dr Clark - but did little to deter Mr Woodhouse, who summed up with: "When it comes to DHB financial performance, is he completely disinterested or completely disorganised?"

Dr Clark, as he has most Question Times since its debut in December 2017, rolled out his "nine long years of neglect of the health system" line.

Almost two years later, even if it has substance behind it, this is becoming grating; in addition, claims of neglect ring hollow when basic paperwork is seemingly not being routinely managed.

On its response to the mental health inquiry and now on its cancer plan, Dr Clark has said the Government is taking its time to get things right.

It is incumbent on him to show it is time well spent.

"Junior from the Deep South"

As predicted in last week's Southern Say, it did not take long for New Zealand First leader Winston Peters to launch right back at Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker.

Fresh off a plane and still jet-propelled after Mr Walker's claims last week that Mr Peters reneged on a pledge to support an amendment to Mr Walker's KiwiSaver Bill, Mr Peters devoted much of his Wednesday general debate speech to his new plaything.

Condemning "thoroughly disreputable behaviour" by "some virtuous clown", Mr Peters warned "if you want to attack me, get your darn facts right".

Pull up a comfy chair and make some popcorn, this Bill's third reading should be great theatre.

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