Week in Politics: National charges in over hospital waiting times

7:24 pm on 28 October 2022
Labour Minister Andrew Little

Health Minister Andrew Little has been under intense pressure to justify the state of the health service after Labour's terms in government with a deadly crisis unfolding across the country's ED departments. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Analysis - Another week of bad news for the government as hospital waiting times hit the headlines and National charges in, fair pay legislation is passed by Parliament but it won't last long if Labour loses the next election, and the 12 things National will scrap if it wins.

Last week it was the cost of living, this week it has been the state of the health system and hospital waiting times.

They're both bad news for the government and there's no quick fix for either.

A third death began the spate of reports which forced Health Minister Andrew Little to defend the health system, RNZ reported.

The first was at Middlemore in June and the second was in Christchurch last week - both patients initially left emergency departments due to long wait times.

The third was a four-year-old boy who died in Wellington Hospital last month. His parents went public this week, questioning whether he would still be alive if medical staff had acted with more urgency.

The boy's case was extensively reported and is under investigation.

Attention was focused on ED waiting times and the background is this: In 2009 the then National-led government set a target of 95 per cent of patients being admitted, discharged or transferred within six hours.

It set other health targets as well, but that was the one that gained most attention. The then health minister, Tony Ryall, put the hard word on district health boards and kept them under the hammer.

In June 2020 the nationwide figure was just over 90 per cent and its now down to 76 per cent, the Herald reported.

Labour opposed the targets when they were introduced, saying they forced hospitals to throw resources at them at the expense of care elsewhere. It dropped them when it came to power but waiting times continued to be measured.

That's what has given the opposition a big stick to beat the government with, and National's leader Christopher Luxon wielded it this week.

National Party Leader Christopher Luxon

National leader Christopher Luxon is taking full advantage of the state of the health service. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"I think we've gone from something like 9 per cent of people waiting more than six hours to see an emergency department to now almost a quarter of New Zealanders having to wait more than six hours," he said.

The government had overseen "five years of utter failure" he claimed.

It wasn't just waiting times. Luxon also cited the time it takes for a first specialist appointment and the four months or longer he said it took for first surgeries.

Little was asked if he would resign in a year's time if ED waiting times had not been fixed, RNZ reported.

He replied that the public would get to have its say at the 2023 election.

Indeed it will, and National will make sure it's an election issue.

For months ministers have been saying the pandemic had stripped hospitals of resources, the winter was one of the worst on record for respiratory infections, Covid-19 was still hitting staff numbers, and the previous government under-funded the health system.

Little said this week record numbers were turning up at EDs.

"Our EDs are on the receiving end of record presentations this year - over 100,000 in June; over 100,000 again in August - and I stand behind and stand with the amazing health workforce that we have providing care to people," he said.

With Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern away in Antarctica this week, acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson was in the hot seat in Parliament when Luxon launched his attack.

Luxon to Robertson: Is he aware that in the six years before his government took office, the proportion of ED patients seen within six hours was never less than 91 per cent - a figure Labour hasn't achieved throughout the seasons now for four straight years?"

Robertson: "What I am aware of is a health system that we inherited that was in a complete mess, with underfunding of mental health, underfunding of public health, and underfunding of primary care. That is actually what we inherited. We know that there is always more to do in our health system, but this government can stand proud on a record of funding that his party can't."

Luxon doesn't buy underfunding by the previous government as a reason for what's happening now, and he doesn't think the public will either.

"Does he really think that, after five years in government, Kiwis being denied healthcare because of dangerously short-staffed emergency departments are going to buy his desperate attempt to blame previous governments for failures that are happening on his watch?" he asked.

Robertson replied buy saying the number of doctors and nurses had increased 20 per cent under Labour.

Deputy leader of Labour Party Grant Robertson

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson says Labour can be proud of its health record. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"They (Kiwis) see a health workforce where we're actually funding the building of health infrastructure instead of the National Party who had zero dollars for two consecutive years for health infrastructure. We know it takes long-term, sustained investment to build a health system and that's what we're doing."

Fair pay legislation passes

Parliament passed the Fair Pay Agreements Bill this week but its life could be short - National has said it will repeal it if it wins next year's election.

It's the biggest change in workplace laws in 30 years and it has Labour's stamp on it all the way through.

It sets up the framework for collective bargaining across occupations - like cleaners, supermarket workers and security guards - rather than just between unions and employers.

Negotiations with employers could be initiated by 1000 employees or 10 per cent of the workers

"The sands of power are shifting between workers and their bosses," Newshub reported.

"But that could all be undone if National gets into power."

Labour MP Michael Wood

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

During the third reading debate Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood said the bill was all about where Labour stood.

"It is about the most basic and longstanding of Kiwi values: the value of a fair go. That is where we stand and that is what fair pay agreements are about - the basic ability to have a fair day's wage for a fair day's work," he said.

National's Scott Simpson was lead speaker for the opposition.

"I want to make it very clear… a re-elected National government will, as a priority, repeal this piece of legislation," he said.

"It is fundamentally flawed. It is bad for New Zealand. It is bad for New Zealand business. But what's worse is it is bad for New Zealand employees and workers. They will be the people who are worst off as a result of this legislation."

Simpson said that for 30 years New Zealand had benefited from a "nimble, flexible and exciting" industrial environment.

"With this piece of legislation they want to take us back to the 1970s... and I remember how bad it was when trade unions dominated the New Zealand economic situation," he said.

"This is really not about fair pay agreements, it is about mandatory union deals."

The bill was passed with support from the Greens and Te Paati Maori. ACT joined National in voting against it.

National's hit list

It's becoming difficult to remember all the rules, laws and policies that National has said it will repeal, reverse or scrap if it wins the next election but Stuff has been keeping track and published a helpful list this week. Here it is:

  • The top tax rate, introduced by Labour - 39 per cent on income above $180,000.
  • The Maori Health Authority. "Speaking to party faithful in June, leader Christopher Luxon promised to close the Maori Health Authority if elected," Stuff said.
  • Fair pay agreements. The bill that has just been passed by Parliament.
  • Three Waters. The huge project that will hand water infrastructure from councils to four entities. The government intends passing the legislation before the election.
  • The RNZ-TVNZ merger. National's broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee said the new entity would be bad for other media companies and freedom of the press.
  • The Income Insurance Scheme. Paid for by employer and employee levies, it's designed to provide 80 per cent of someone's pay for up to six months if they lose their job.
  • The Auckland Regional Fuel Tax. Labour introduced it in 2018 to fund local infrastructure.
  • Auckland Light Rail. Labour is committed to building the link between the airport and the city at a cost of at least $14 billion. National has said it will scrap the project unless construction has already been contracted.
  • The Three Strikes Repeal Bill.
  • The Bright Line Test Extension.
  • The Clean Car Discount.
  • The Plain Language Act.

Women hold majority in Parliament

When Soraya Peke-Mason was sworn in as an MP this week New Zealand reached a parliamentary milestone - for the first time in history there were more women than men in the House.

Parliament will achieve gender equality when Labour list MP Soraya Peke-Mason is sworn in on 25 October, 2022.

Parliament achieved gender equality when Labour list MP Soraya Peke-Mason was sworn in. Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

Peke-Mason replaced former Speaker Trevor Mallard and there are now 60 women and 59 men. One seat is vacant - Hamilton West after Gaurav Sharma resigned. A by-election is to be held on December 10.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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