Divisive surgeries debate alarms Deputy PM

Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: RNZ
Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni has said that the surgeries debate was loaded with innacuracies. Photo: RNZ
The tone of New Zealand's political debate has echoes of most divisive election in recent memory - the infamous 2005 campaign, Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni says.

Parliament descended into farce this week, with Greens leader Marama Davidson ejected during a debate on ethnicity being used as a factor to determine when New Zealanders receive surgeries.

It is the latest racially-tinged issue to dominate campaigning for the October 14 poll following debates on bilingual signs and Māori power-sharing for water assets.

This week, it was revealed two Auckland hospitals have implemented a multi-faceted algorithm to determine access to non-urgent surgeries.

While clinical need remains the dominant factor, treatment is also determined by wait times, regionality, deprivation and ethnicity.

Clinicians have promoted Māori and Pasifika - to a degree of one or two points out of 100 - above other New Zealanders on the basis it helps close damning health inequities and the life expectancy gap.

The right-bloc parties of National and ACT have roared disapproval based on a principle of equality.

"The idea that any government would deliberately rank ethnicities for priority for surgery is offensive, wrong and should halt immediately," National health spokesman and Whangarei-based Māori GP Shane Reti said.

The Greens and Labour, along with the College of Surgeons, back interventions to fix health inequities, although Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has ordered a review into the measure to ensure "we're not replacing one form of discrimination with another".

National does not have a policy to target health inequities, instead vowing to improve wait times and outcomes for all.

Opposition Leader Chris Luxon told RNZ on Wednesday he did not believe Māori were systemically disadvantaged in the health system.

Ms Sepuloni, New Zealand's first deputy prime minister of Pacific origin, told AAP the surgeries debate was loaded with inaccuracies.

"We're not saying that they will be put ahead of anyone who has higher clinical need," she said.

"It's recognition of the fact that there are inequities and some people have not been given access to the health support that they need.

"That's evidence-based.

"This has been turned into Māori and Pacific getting preferential treatment.

"That's certainly not the case."

Māori MPs from the right-wing ACT party used Question Time on Tuesday to ask the prime minister whether he believed they deserved to be bumped up waiting lists ahead of non-Māori patients.

Ms Davidson interjected, saying "the nature of these questions are absolutely intended to raise racist opinions", before being booted from the house by Speaker Adrian Rurawhe.

Ms Sepuloni said racially charged campaigns were "not new" in New Zealand.

"It certainly feels heightened at the moment and in 2005 it was heightened with Don Brash, his Orewa speech and the positioning they were taking at the time," she said.

National leader Don Brash made combating "racial separatism" the cornerstone of his leadership in 2005.

In a landmark 2004 speech in Orewa, north of Auckland, he railed against "the grievance industry" and the "trend to embody racial distinctions into large parts of our legislation".

"Government funding is now influenced not just by need, as it should be, but also by the ethnicity of the recipient," Mr Brash said at the time, making the same point as Mr Luxon.

Ms Sepuloni said there were "certainly similar narratives" to 2005.

"Of course I dislike it ... many of us come from communities where we have mixed heritage and so we don't just sit on one side," she said.

"We're trying to make decisions based on the evidence in front of us, not turning one person against another or one community against another.

"I can't stand that."