National must honour hospital promise

It is ironic the government, which says it is all about getting things done and fast-tracking big infrastructure projects, remains eerily silent on details about the Dunedin hospital rebuild.

Last July we had the now Prime Minister Christopher Luxon, flanked by now health minister Shane Reti and the then Dunedin-based list member of Parliament Michael Woodhouse, proudly promising to reinstate 23 inpatient beds, two operating theatres and a PET scanner.

"We’re going to build this hospital back to the specification that was originally intended, in terms of giving us the capacity we need, and that we will need for the future with the generations to come", Mr Luxon said.

Shane Reti and Christopher Luxon in Dunedin last July. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Shane Reti and Christopher Luxon in Dunedin last July. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
The accompanying media release said this commitment would cost $29.5 million and would be fully funded as part of the government’s programme of capital investment.

In that statement, Mr Woodhouse referred to six long years with almost no progress.

"National knows how to get things done, and it is past time to accelerate this painfully slow-moving project."

However, since the election in October, the government seems to have lost sight of the accelerator pedal. It has been tight-lipped about its plans for the rebuild, despite our reporters’ persistent questioning.

We had hoped the Budget would provide some clarity, but although Budget documents show more money has been allocated to the project to address cost pressures, there is no indication of how much.

It is our understanding the cost of the rebuild may now be around $2 billion.

Budget documents also refer to remaining significant financial pressures on the project, driven by construction sector inflation, scope changes, and the relative isolated location of the project combined with a small base of suitable contractors.

Finance minister Nicola Willis told Parliament recently the rebuild had gone "terribly wrong".

She has also spoken of the need for the government to get fiscal discipline in place for such projects — get the design and location right, work with construction partners to manage costs well, think through all the implications of a build, how it will be serviced and whether it will present the best value for money over its life course. Ms Willis said such discipline was not in place in the  management of the Dunedin hospital project.

Was that preparing us for another change to the expected scope of the project?

Infrastructure minister Chris Bishop added to the uncertainty, and the concern about the government inheriting a project that was off-track, when he was in Dunedin last week.

Yes, there will be a new hospital, but the government was being cautious, he told us. Mr Bishop, the Minister of Health and unnamed key colleagues were considering advice for the next step for the hospital.

Quite what anyone is supposed to make of that we do not know.

Some city councillors are uneasy about it, indicating a willingness to crank up the "They Save-We Pay" campaign if the promised reinstatements do not happen.

If the government had some good news on anything health related, Mr Bishop’s visit would have been the ideal time to trot it out.

It had spent the week reeling from the fallout from its failure to include funding in the Budget for its promise to fund 13 named cancer drugs. Increasingly, it looks like a promise foolishly made without any real idea of the logistics involved.

If the government now reneges on its election promise to restore beds, operating theatres and a PET scanner to the Dunedin hospital rebuild, it will enhance its reputation for blithely saying one thing to garner support and then doing another.

Blaming anything that might have gone astray with the project on the previous government is unlikely to convince those who want the hospital built with the promised facilities, and clarity about the whole complex.

The National-led government must honour its pre-election commitment without any more weasel words.