Southern MP heard over noise of Budget

Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker leads a  maternity services protest march in Lumsden. PHOTO:...
Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker leads a maternity services protest march in Lumsden. PHOTO: MANDY COOPER
In Budget week it is really quite an achievement to get anything other than the country's finances on the national political agenda.

But that is exactly what Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker managed, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had to take five minutes out of her weekly post-Cabinet briefing on Monday to talk about maternity services in the Northern Southland town of Lumsden.

If the good folk there had their way, Amanda McIvor would have given birth to son Levi at the town's primary birthing unit.

However, as part of a region-wide rearrangement of maternity services by the Southern District Health Board, several weeks ago Lumsden Maternity Centre became a maternal and child hub, meaning expectant mothers such as Ms McIvor had to give birth elsewhere.

Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern answers questions on maternity services in Lumsden. PHOTO: NZME
Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern answers questions on maternity services in Lumsden. PHOTO: NZME
Her second choice was Invercargill but on Sunday young Levi, with no thought for anyone's well-laid plans, instead arrived in an ambulance on the side of the road, as his mother had been travelling to Southland Hospital.

This is something supporters of the Lumsden centre have predicted for months would happen.

Through sheer fluke, Levi arrived just days after the SDHB provided Parliament's health select committee - which is still deliberating on Mr Walker's petition to save the maternity centre - an analysis which suggested such a birth would be a rare event.

Hence on Monday, Finance Minister Grant Robertson, there to answer Budget questions, was left standing to one side ignored by the press gallery as the Prime Minister was instead quizzed about the situation in little old Lumsden.

Her answers were illuminating.

Ms Ardern revealed that some months ago she had requested information about what was going on in Lumsden.

At that point the fate of the centre was a strictly local issue, but the Prime Minister's political antennae seemingly spotted the potential for trouble ahead.

That she chose to look at it herself shows the breadth of view Ms Ardern takes.

It would be interesting to know if Health Minister David Clark asked Ministry of Health officials to take another look at the SDHB maternity services review before or after the PM decided to cast her eye over the situation.

Either way, Dr Clark was bound to accept the advice of his ministry that the SDHB's review was carried out correctly.

On Tuesday, Dr Clark was facing questions in the House from Mr Walker on what services had replaced the Lumsden centre - and through gritted teeth said he intended to discuss the issue further with the SDHB.

Sarah Dowie
Sarah Dowie
Back to Monday's press conference, though, where Ms Ardern expressed a happiness to take another look at the Lumsden situation.

Quite what that means exactly who knows, but it may well suggest that the local MPs on the health select committee can vote as they choose on the matter of Mr Walker's petition.

Labour Invercargill list MP Liz Craig and New Zealand First Central Otago list MP Mark Patterson have faced a catch-22, with local political interests on one hand and the prospect of handing National with what its political rivals will perceive as a victory on the other.

Ms Ardern's statement that she was ``happy to again look at the make up of services'' may well give those MPs licence to support Mr Walker's petition, saying that to do so would be a Prime Ministerially-endorsed insurance policy to make sure women and children were getting the services that they needed.

Whatever the fate of the petition, Mr Walker's stocks have risen considerably. While he can get over-emotive at times and has occasionally taken this debate down blind alleys, Mr Walker has been a passionate advocate for his constituents and generated far more attention for Lumsden's pregnancy rate than could be expected from a first-term MP.

Identity crisis

On Tuesday, National Dunedin list MP Michael Woodhouse asked the Minister of Health if he agreed with Dunedin North MP David Clark's 2017 statement on how much money district health boards needed to keep running.

Sadly Dr Clark, who two years later is, of course, the aforementioned Minister of Health, did not exploit the humour of the question to extol the wisdom or otherwise of his opposition self.

Planes, trains, automobiles

The latest parliamentary travel expenses have been disclosed, and contain few surprises.

Southern MPs are almost always near the top of this list for the obvious reason that they live further away from Wellington and serve larger electorates.

Hamish Walker, representing the largest general electorate in New Zealand, topped the local table at just over $25,000, closely followed by Rino Tirikatene, whose Te Tai Tonga electorate is the nation's largest, with $23,000.

Interestingly, Invercargill MPs Sarah Dowie and Liz Craig's totals were only $743 apart; do they ever split the cost of a cab?

Hola amigo

It turns out that Sarah Dowie is, obviously, chairwoman of the Latin American Friendship Group.

At the recent Argentina Day celebrations at that country's Wellington embassy, the Invercargill MP bumped into Mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt.

Who knew Invercargill was that cosmopolitan, but it turns out a fair few South American students are studying at SIT.

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