The Week in Politics: Government struggles to explain the inexplicable

Analysis – National’s broken promise to deliver new cancer drugs raises a firestorm of anger and despair, Te Pāti Māori faces allegations that census data was misused during the election campaign and Christopher Luxon makes his first Pacific trip as prime minister.

The government faced a firestorm of post-Budget criticism this week and a string of unconvincing explanations failed to put it out.

“A cruel lie: How else do we judge National’s broken promise on cancer drugs?” Sunday Star-Times editor Tracy Watkins said in an editorial.

Cancer patients, advocacy groups, doctors, newspapers and radio and television networks followed in a surge of anger and despair.

Luxon made the pledge on 21 August last year, during the election campaign.

“Here’s the deal on cancer” he said, and went on to promise that if National won his government would pay for 13 new cancer drugs which were funded in Australia but not in New Zealand.

“Under National, New Zealanders will not have to leave the country, mortgage their homes or start a Give-a-little page to fund potentially lifesaving and life-extending treatments that are proven to work and are readily available across the Tasman,” Luxon said.

Chris Luxon and Nicola Willis join National supporters wanting 2nd Mt Victoria tunnel

A media statement accompanying the announcement included a chart showing funding would be $280 million over four years that would go to Pharmac – $70m a year starting with the 2024/25 Budget. It would be ring-fenced and would come from reinstating the $5 prescription fee for most people.

The 13 new drugs were identified.

There was no funding for them in last Thursday’s Budget.

Re-imposition of the prescription charge was included.

“We can now be quite clear about what lay behind that promise,” Watkins said in her editorial.

“It was cynical electioneering, nothing more. Because it turns out the promise was easily expendable… as National will quickly discover, it’s a story that won’t die, unlike the people it let down.”

Former National finance minister and John Key’s right hand man, Steven Joyce, described the omission as “inexplicable”.

Political analyst Bryce Edwards quoted Joyce in an article published by the Herald.

“The one significant blemish that may dog the government is its inexplicable failure to make good on its cancer drugs promise,” Joyce said.

“It seems weird that you can trumpet a massive $17 billion increase in health spending across three Budgets and yet not dedicate any of it to meeting the most public health pledge in your recent election campaign.”

Luxon tried to explain the inexplicable on Morning Report on Tuesday morning.

An announcement would be made “very shortly” and the government had been working through procurement options over the past six to eight weeks, he said.

“It has required more time than we anticipated and we’re just working out the best way to procure those treatments,” he said.

He expected an announcement would be made “certainly this year” and before the next Budget.

As it’s nearly a year since Luxon made the announcement, starting work on procurement six to eight weeks ago could go into the inexplicable basket as well.

In the Morning Report interview Luxon said there were “two parts to it as to why it didn’t make the Budget”.

“The first thing is that we had to go find the $1.8 billion for core Pharmac funding which wasn’t anticipated in the numbers we saw at election time but became apparent once we were in government,” he said.

“The second thing is, genuinely, there’s a number of options that are available as to how we best procure…”

During several interviews Finance Minister Nicola Willis also referred to the money that had to be found to fund Pharmac and the “fiscal cliffs” that Labour had left behind.

Health Minister Shane Reti had a different explanation. He said the prescription fee wouldn’t start until 1 July so the money from it to pay for the cancer drugs had still to be collected.

Reti should have insisted the promise was met.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins said National should never have promised the drugs and its failure to do so was “just cruel”, RNZ reported.

“For someone who claims to be a commercial negotiating genius, Chris Luxon seems to have missed a fairly obvious fact, that when he named 13 cancer drugs and said ‘these are the drugs we’re going to fund’ his negotiating power was somewhat diminished,” he said.

Hipkins rejected Willis’ comments that National had found unexpected expenses, including a larger cost to fund Pharmac.

That was “just absolute nonsense” he said.

“It’s very clear on a day-to-day basis now that the National Party – Nicola Willis in particular – was either too lazy or too incompetent to actually read the last Budget.

“There were no nasty surprises there, it was all transparent.”

Christ Hipkins and Labour MPs visit the Sustainability Trust following National's 2024 Budget

Bryce Edwards’ conclusion, stated in his article, was: “The reality is that the Budget was missing the promised funding for cancer pharmaceuticals because the Minister of Finance decided not to fund them for the next financial year.”

As for the unexpected cost claims, Edwards said either the Fiscal Responsibility Act was no longer fit for purpose or National hadn’t adequately examined the books during the election campaign.

Edwards said National now seemed to be saying it was about to announce significant changes to the Budget, which was possible but not a good process.

“If National was committed to buying the cancer drugs but this was held up by trying to find the proper procurement process, as indicated by Luxon, they should still have been able to include the funding in the Budget,” he said.

“Luxon can’t seem to explain why they haven’t.”

‘A strange policy, with a lot of fish hooks’

The procurement issue mentioned by Luxon, and a possible reason why it may become a problem, was referred to in an article published by Newsroom and written by Professor of cancer medicine at Otago University Christopher Jackson.

“Pharmac is by law independent from their minister when it comes to which drugs they fund,” he said.

“National knows that, because John Key campaigned on funding Herceptin in the 2008 election campaign and then had to set up a separate funding mechanism outside Pharmac when he got into government.

“So it was always a strange policy, with a lot of fish hooks.”

Jackson also took issue with the “fiscal cliff” and unexpected funding requirements.

“Willis said they had no money after Labour left a ‘fiscal cliff’. She argued that Labour only funded Pharmac in four-year blocks and they had to restore baseline funding.

“I find that argument unconvincing, as funding Pharmac in blocks is politics as usual – Jonathan Coleman (former National health minister) did the same in the 2016 Budget and Helen Clark’s government did the same before that. It’s no secret that it’s funded this way and it’s a typical political trick of announcing ‘new’ funding for Pharmac when it’s really continuing existing funding.”

Jackson helped write a report in 2022 about the gap in medicines between New Zealand and Australia, and in a Stuff interview something came up that could be another factor in the procurement issue that Luxon referred to.

“That list of 13 is already three years out of date,” he said.

“(The list) absolutely and utterly must be (updated). It’s bonkers to use that list when its three years old and out of date already because the world has moved on in the last six months, let alone the last three years.”

Jackson agreed with the point made by Hipkins about negotiating positions.

“They announced in advance what the drugs would be, which means that no drug company is going to give you a good deal if they already know they have the guaranteed funding,” he said.

It’s fortunate for the government that Parliament adjourned after the Budget and won’t be back until 25 June, or it would have had a torrid time facing questions this week.

Even so, it can be expected that one of the first questions on the first sitting day after the recess will be: “When is the government going to deliver the 13 cancer drugs it promised?”

Allegations on Māori census data

Manurewa marae CEO Takutai Moana Natasha Kemp.

Te Pāti Māori this week became embroiled in allegations involving the misuse of Māori census data.

The Sunday Star-Times broke the story: “A Te Pāti Māori MP and the marae she once ran are at the centre of claims that private information collected during the census was used for political campaigning,” Andrea Vance’s report wrote.

Tākutai Moana Natasha Kemp was Manurewa Marae’s chief executive until she stood down after beating incumbent Labour MP Peeni Henare by 42 votes in the Tāmaki Makaurau electorate.

The marae was part of a drive to promote last year’s census and the report said a number of former marae workers had alleged that hundreds of census forms collected at the marae were photocopied and retained.

They alleged data such as personal contact details, household occupancy and birth rates were entered into an online database and sent to the Waiparera Trust.

“They (the former marae workers) believe that information was then used to target Māori electorate voters in the Tāmaki Makaurau electorate,” the report said.

Te Pāti Māori president John Tamihere runs the Waiparera Trust, a social services charity.

He strenuously denied the allegations and said they were driven by “complainants with a gripe”, the report said.

Census data is intensely private and Statistics NZ, the government’s official data agency, is investigating the allegations.

Te Pāti Māori, like Tamihere, has strongly denied the allegations.

On Wednesday Vance reported new allegations personal information collected for the Covid-19 immunisation programme was used for political campaigning.

“A complaint was laid with the Electoral Commission in November by the Labour Party, which referred a breach of electoral laws to police,” the report said.

The Manurewa Marae was at the forefront of Auckland’s vaccine rollout.

On Thursday RNZ reported the Office of the Privacy Commissioner was considering a possible response to a potential privacy breach at Manurewa Marae during the election.

The office said the claims touched on sensitive personal information provided in the context of assured trust and confidentiality.

It has asked various government agencies for further information.

Luxon, speaking from Fiji, didn’t rule out a public inquiry into the census data allegations but said the current investigations must first run their course.

He would then assess whether further investigation was required.

ACT leader David Seymour said the inquiries needed to be completed quickly.

“Either serious wrongdoing has occurred or a political party has been unfairly maligned,” he said.

Pacific tour may be relief for PM

New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka have met ahead of their bilateral. Rabuka gave Luxon, a Crusaders fan, a Fijian Drua shirt which Luxon took in his stride. Luxon gifted Rabuka with a Hoehner harmonica, one of only three in New Zealand.

The prime minister’s Pacific trip might have seemed like welcome relief from the uproar over cancer drugs.

He left on Tuesday, first flying to Niue where he met Premier Dalton Tagelagi and announced New Zealand would invest $20.5 million in a new, large-scale renewable energy project.

Luxon flew on to Fiji where he met his Fijian counterpart Sitiveni Rabuka.

Following that meeting he announced nearly $27 million for projects in Fiji and said the two countries had set a goal of boosting two-way trade to $2 billion by 2030. It currently stands at about $1.4 billion.

Luxon also announced a change that would allow Fijians to enter New Zealand without a transit visa.

“Many Fijian nationals travel through New Zealand to reach other destinations in the Pacific and around the world – we expect this will have a positive economic impact for the region,” he said.

*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.

According to the news on Radio New Zealand

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