Time for Craig to make her mark in health arena

Newly minted Parliamentary Private Secretary for Health Liz Craig addresses the House during the...
Newly minted Parliamentary Private Secretary for Health Liz Craig addresses the House during the second reading debate on the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Bill. PHOTO: PARLIAMENT TV
There have been many mysterious things about Labour’s response to Covid-19.

But one of the more perplexing ones has been its decision to seemingly sideline its Invercargill list MP Liz Craig from any central role in the fight against the pandemic.

As her title, Dr Craig, amply signifies, the two-term backbencher knows her way around a stethoscope.

A public health physician, her specialty — and the field in which she received a Dunedin School of Medicine research award — is child poverty and its impact on health outcomes: a subject close to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s heart.

An immediate appointment to the health select committee in 2017 made sense, but after the 2020 election victory the ceiling of Dr Craig’s elevation was the chairwomanship of the committee.

Ayesha Verrall
Ayesha Verrall
In the meantime, rookie MP Ayesha Verrall was parachuted straight into Cabinet.

This is not to say that Dr Verrall was not exceptionally well-qualified for her job — a well-credentialled public health physician with expert knowledge of disease outbreak management assuredly would come in handy during a pandemic — but it did rather leave the more senior politician kicking her heels in the corridor.

However, that all changed this week with the elevation of Dr Craig to sub-Cabinet rank, as the newly minted parliamentary private secretary for health.

A PPS’s job is to offer advice and assistance to their relevant minister or ministers: Dr Craig will be at the beck and call of Health Minister Andrew Little and his associates Peeni Henare, Sua William Sio and Dr Verrall.

It is not quite the next best thing to being a minister — that would be an associate or a parliamentary under-secretary role, such as Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene has — but in a rank-conscious environment such as Parliament it is another handhold up the greasy pole.

It also gives Dr Craig the chance to make an appreciable difference in an area in which she is passionate and to address some of the concerns which prompted her to abandon academia and enter politics.

Quite how her role will work and how various sector responsibilities will be allocated is still to be determined, but with the Government’s health reforms looming on the horizon this is a handy time to bring in some strength off the bench.

Ironically, having been passed over for promotion at the start of this parliamentary term may have been a blessing in disguise for Dr Craig.

Although her time in charge of the health select committee was occasionally contentious, it did afford her the opportunity to meet the leaders of all sector groups and to hear the views of health consumers from around the country.

Add in time served on the special select committee set up to consider the health reforms legislation, and the associated chance to hear everyone’s cares and concerns all over again, and Dr Craig steps in to her new role well-informed and well aware of the challenges ahead.

Coincidentally, on Thursday afternoon Dr Craig was next speaker on the call sheet when the second reading debate on the Pae Ora (Healthy Futures) Bill, as the health reforms are formally known, resumed.

Rather than rattle the sabre however, Dr Craig gave the sort of speech she so often does in the House, a sensible recitation of what the select committee had heard.

More relevant, perhaps, was her contribution on Tuesday during health’s half-hour of fame during the annual review debate.

There, she highlighted the issues involved with making a smooth transition from 20 DHBs to Health New Zealand and the Maori Health Authority, a transition which several notable health commentators very much doubt will be a smooth one.

"We heard [from the Ministry of Health] that the timeframe for implementing the transition was sufficient, because there was really good national governance and oversight in place, and they were working well with DHBs and with other stakeholders," Dr Craig said.

That is as may be, but Dr Craig will soon have to pivot from simply repeating what others have said about government policy and become a full-throated and whole-hearted advocate for those changes.

As she went on to note, there were also issues raised at the health select committee about mental health provision, the role of drug buying agency Pharmac, the vexed area of cancer care, and the role of the New Zealand Blood Service and the transfer to Organ Donation New Zealand.

In her few available minutes, Dr Craig did not get to touch on primary care, health workforce planning, allied health provision, safe staffing on wards, immunisation rates or myriad other things.

Oh, and lest we forget, there is the not inconsiderable matter of the ongoing pandemic — which put a stop to last week’s Southern Say — to be going on with.

Health is an enormous area, and it needs an enormous overhaul to deliver the care New Zealanders expect and deserve.

Now, it is up to Dr Craig to make her mark.

Testing times

Joseph Mooney
Joseph Mooney
An MP who did use Tuesday’s annual review debate to make a point was Southland National MP Joseph Mooney.

His party’s associate tourism spokesman, Mr Mooney was not going to let the half-hour allotted to the tourism sector go to waste.

As has been traversed in Southern Say before, Mr Mooney’s electorate is among the worst-affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns: as he noted, the lower South tourism workforce has dropped by more than 50% in the past two years.

He then cited that day’s Otago Daily Times, in which the Hilton Queenstown general manager lamented the massive shortfall of willing workers in the sector, and asked Tourism Minister Stuart Nash what he was going to do about it.

Mr Nash’s reply that he acknowledged the issues and that was why businesses had been offered $5000 for advice $5000 to implement it did not wash with Mr Mooney, who went on to paint a picture of snow-covered skifields with no-one there to greet adventure seekers.

He then doubled down with a withering summary of the auditor-general’s report into the operation of the Covid-19 short-term absence payment scheme, as it applied to the tourism sector.

Mr Nash’s response, that no-one had known how the pandemic was going to play out and the scheme had been devised to get money to struggling operators as soon as possible, was a reasonable one.

However, Mr Mooney had made his point too: that his constituents continued to suffer and that the record low unemployment figures hailed by the Government earlier that day were not quite as rosy as they might seem.

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz

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