Curly questions as Parliament counts down

Penny Simmonds, on the hunt for answers. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT NZ
Penny Simmonds, on the hunt for answers. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT NZ
Things can get a bit hectic as Parliament nears the end of its time.

Not only does a government want to make as many law changes as it can before it possibly loses the right to change the law, MPs want to progress their own Bills or raise their profiles at just the right time.

But in the middle of all that palaver, Parliament has certain pro forma things that need to be done, most notably complete the Appropriate (2023-24 Estimates) Bill debate.

In what is either an essential exercise in fiscal accountability or a wasted hour of yelling - take your pick - ministers for portfolios which spend public money have to answer questions about how that money has been spent.

The government is obviously a believer in leaving the best until last, this week serving up Education Minister Jan Tinetti, Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni ... and hardly least, Oceans and Fisheries Minister Rachel Brooking, for the House’s delectation.

National Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds was especially delighted to see Ms Tinetti, as she had several burning questions she wanted answers to concerning the early childhood education sector, and particularly home-based providers of that service.

You may recall, back in the far from heady days of Mr Robertson’s "don’t frighten the horses" Budget, that one of its few significant policy initiatives was a $1.2 billion extension of its fees-free ECE education policy to provide 20 hours’ free for 2-year-olds.

Which sounded great, until the sector had the temerity to suggest not only had the policy not been particularly well thought out, but also that rather than being of financial benefit for providers, it actually was not, mainly because the recommended ratio of teachers to 2-year-olds (about 1:4) was wildly different from the ratio which most centres could achieve and still be financially viable (about 1:8).

This particularly affected smaller, home-based providers, and Ms Simmonds quickly noted more than 50 such cottage firms had closed in the first five months of this year.

"It's a little bit premature in some respects, because we're well aware of the issues," Ms Tinetti responded.

"I will say that my associate minister, the Hon Jo Luxton, has had some really good discussions with members from the early childhood education community over the short time that she has been associate minister and in that role.

"We have sought advice from home-based around home-based and what we can be doing there. We're currently working through that advice."

However, unsurprisingly, Ms Simmonds was not prepared to take that for an answer and wait for the advice to be worked through.

"Is the minister able to give some sort of indication of timing and amounts of funding? Because the word we are getting from the home-based providers is that by the end of this year there will be none left."

Which was why, Ms Tinetti said, they were working through that advice "in some haste" so as to ensure the government was not causing unintended consequences "at this time" ... leaving unsaid anything about the processes at that earlier time.

Ms Simmonds was not done though, moving on to pay parity, a much-deserved but also potentially quite costly expense for providers.

"Can the minister give some more certainty to the sector around pay parity funding so they can be sure it's not going to impact negatively on either the centres or families with children in the centres," she asked.

On this, at least, the two MPs could agree - that pay parity was very important and that a teacher was a teacher no matter what sector they were working within.

The government wanted to make sure well-qualified ECE teachers were being well remunerated, Ms Tinetti said.

"Full pay-parity rates matched the kindergarten funding rates and will be available from 1 November 2023."

Liz Craig asked about eye health. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Liz Craig asked about eye health. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Not long after Ms Tinetti left the chamber it was Health Minister Ayesha Verrall’s turn for a grilling from an Invercargill MP, in this case Labour list MP Liz Craig.

Given their shared party affiliation this was a much gentler questioning, although given the previous day Dr Craig had to absorb the crushing news that she had received a position on her party list low enough to make re-election very difficult indeed, she could perhaps have been forgiven for being a bit more pointed.

Her query was about waiting lists, long a bugbear in the South.

"There were some recent announcements around cataract surgery. Being from down south, I hadn't quite realised just how many more points those residents in the Southern region needed to get cataract surgery than some of those further north. So I'd just like to hear a little bit more about what investments in Budget 2023 are being put in place to ensure that we can get equity around the country in terms of cataract surgery," Dr Craig said.

Dr Verrall acknowledged that cataracts had been a "persistent inequity" in the health system.

"Literally, in Dr Liz Craig's part of the country, and in Canterbury, people would have to be legally blind before they were able to qualify for publicly funded surgery for their cataracts, whereas in other parts of the country surgery could be done much earlier, because that was just the difference in how the DHBs chose to, or had to, allocate their funds," Dr Verrall said.

"Being able to allocate some of the funds that were prioritised to waitlists towards the initiative of getting over 3000 additional cataract operations done has meant that, over time, we can progressively bring that threshold back to the place where it is the same across the country, because that is fair and what every citizen and taxpayer in New Zealand should be able to expect."

That small win might not be enough to carry Dr Craig to victory on October 14, but in a tough week every little bit helps.

Statler and Waldorf

National MPs Scott Simpson and Stuart Smith have developed quite the double act during deliberations on the government’s RMA reforms, their banter traversing everything from the reasons behind the Gulf War, to the virtues of John Key as prime minister, to the quality of organic fruit.

At least this week Dunedin Labour list MP, and associate Environment Minister Rachel Brooking, could tell the pair apart: "I'll go first to the Hon Scott Simpson's question. Good to see you're not sitting next to Stuart Smith tonight."

The whoopsies did affect assistant Speaker Jenny Salesa though, who tried to give Mr Simpson a call which should have gone to Simon Court.

Party time?

The Opportunities Party released its party list yesterday, and there is an outside chance of another, unexpected, Dunedin MP. Its hard-working Dunedin candidate Ben Peters — one of TOP’s best-performers in 2020 — is ranked at three. Should TOP leader Raf Manji win the Ilam seat, in which he has a decent chance, or the party crest 5% — and it was at 4% in the latest Roy Morgan poll — then Dr Peters would be an MP.

Lucky dip

Good news for Ms Simmonds on Thursday when her Medicines (Exemption for Authorised Prescribers) Amendment Bill was drawn from the biscuit tin during the ballot for replacement Members Bills.

However, she will no doubt be ardently hoping she does not get to introduce it, preferably via the means of National becoming the government and her being appointed a minister.

Either way, she will no doubt retain an interest in ensuring the likes of nurse practitioners dispense unapproved medicines brought in to New Zealand as substitutes for approved medicines.