Going round a mulberry bush with hospital funding queries

The new Dunedin hospital. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
The new Dunedin hospital. PHOTO: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Regular readers may recall a month or so ago Southern Say highlighted the many attempts by our local MPs to get any inkling of an indication at all from Health Minister Shane Reti that he will deliver on National’s campaign pledge to restore the plans for the new Dunedin hospital (mostly) to the way they were.

Labour’s southern MPs have asked about this many times, even though it is a double-edged sword - their party signed off on the original cuts to the detailed business case after all. Although they then reversed most of them when sensing just how strong a backlash they were incurring.

Taieri Green list MP Scott Willis has no such inhibitions however, having not been in Parliament, let alone in government, at the time.

He has fired off many written parliamentary questions about this to Dr Reti and followed up in the House on Tuesday during the health portfolio section of the annual review debate to ask Dr Reti, again: "will the minister honour National’s promise to a fully-funded Dunedin hospital and ‘deliver all the beds, operating theatres, and radiology services that Labour removed’," as the minister has said.

Right behind him, Ingrid Leary reiterated Mr Willis’ concerns and asked Dr Reti if he planned to come to Dunedin to gain a deeper understanding of the project? Although given how close Dr Reti came to freezing solid when he was last here, having neglected to pack a winter coat, the answer may well be "not any time soon".

Sadly for both MPs, Dr Reti was no more inclined to answer their questions than any of the many other times he has been asked them: "With a view to Dunedin hospital, over the period in review, I believe the most substantial thing that happened around about December 2022, as I recall, was a reduction in scope, I want to say by about $200 million, including removal of I think it was the CT scanner, but it could be the MRI scanner. That was the most substantive thing over this period in review regarding Dunedin hospital."

Mr Willis was not done though, and he took the cudgel up again during Wednesday’s general debate.

"National talked so big in 2023 about its promise to build the Dunedin hospital so needed by the deep South. Since forming the government, however, National and this government seem happy to renege on their promise to Dunedin and the South," he said.

"I have asked repeatedly whether this government will honour its promise to fully fund the Dunedin hospital and deliver for the deep South. Dr Shane Reti promised to deliver all the beds, operating theatres, and radiology services that Labour removed in 2023, and each time I have asked questions of this government about funding, I’ve been brushed off.

"I’ve been brushed off on every question about funding the Dunedin hospital, yet as Te Whatu Ora - Health New Zealand’s briefing to the minister in December last year said, completion of the inpatient building in 2029 as planned is reliant on additional funding."

The government has already upped the hospital budget, but the odds are very small that this will be the last top-up the project needs. Anything Dr Reti might say now would almost certainly be Budget-sensitive.

But there are ways around this. A jaunty "the member will just have to wait for the Budget" would suffice.

But until that subtle hint is offered, or May 30 rolls around, whichever comes first, Mr Willis, Ms Leary and the rest of us will just have to wait impatiently.

When your luck is out

It has not been a week for Act New Zealand Southland list MP Todd Stephenson to look back on with fondness.

It began with the attorney-general’s section 7 report on his coming Parole (Mandatory Completion of Rehabilitative Programmes) Amendment Bill being released which - unsurprisingly - found that his Bill likely breaches the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act on several fronts.

Now this is not necessarily going to preclude Parliament passing Mr Stephenson’s Bill - it has backed many a law which has failed a section 7 vetting - but it should indicate that some heavy redrafting will be required to at least attempt to address concerns about issues like arbitrary imprisonment.

But the real clanger was his decision to pick up the phone to answer some questions from Newsroom contributor Steve Braunias with his Act arts spokesman’s hat on.

The resulting Q+A was read by many, mistakenly, as being akin to the satirical secret diaries which Braunias writes, the latest of which can be seen at the top of this page. The words "train wreck" do not undersell it, as the arts spokesman struggled to recall any actual art he had seen or read recently.

A valuable lesson, therefore, for Mr Stephenson on the need to prepare for what seems to be even the most benign of interview requests.

He at least had a sense of humour about his artistic penchants though, telling the House when asking Question No 10 on Tuesday that he would spare MPs from hearing him singing his inquiry about improving Kiwis’ access to medicines.