Analysis – National’s Christopher Luxon moves quickly to defuse what could have been a vote-losing disaster while Health Minister Andrew Little’s problems just keep piling up. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks at a NATO summit in Madrid and goes to Brussels where an historic free trade agreement with the EU is unveiled.
A five-word Facebook post by a National MP put the party in a political red zone this week and party leader Christopher Luxon had to move quickly to defuse a potentially disastrous, vote-losing situation.
“Today is a good day” Simon O’Connor posted after the US Supreme Court overturned the ruling which gave women the constitutional right to an abortion. It had been in force for 50 years.
O’Connor is a devout Christian who spoke strongly against abortion when Parliament decriminalised it in 2020 and made it a health issue.
The MP clearly didn’t realise what dangerous territory he was in, but Luxon did.
He asked O’Connor to remove the post, saying it was “causing distress” and didn’t represent the position of the National Party.
Luxon said in a statement: “These laws will not be re-litigated or revisited under a future National government and these health services will remain fully funded.”
He couldn’t have been more explicit than that, you would think, but Acting Prime Minister Grant Robertson found ways to cast doubt on the commitment.
At Monday’s post-cabinet press conference Robertson said Luxon had in the past referred to abortion as “akin to murder”.
“What we have here is an opposition leader who clearly has a view that he holds on this, which he is now spinning to say that he promises not to take away those rights” he said.
Robertson said he could understand why people might be sceptical about that “given what he has said in the past and given that over half his caucus actually voted against that bill.”
O’Connor apologised to his colleagues at Tuesday’s caucus meeting, later telling media he hadn’t been gagged and had recognised the need to remove the post before Luxon called him.
“I am a great advocate for free speech but all rights have limits and in this case the nature of the comments – the distress, the hurt – this has to stop and I can’t be facilitating it.”
He said comments on his post had become toxic and unhealthy.
Amy Adams, justice minister in the previous National government, explained just how bad it could have been for the party.
Any party that failed to stay clear of attempting to reform laws governing abortion rights would find themselves in “a very dangerous position politically,” she said on Morning Report.
“New Zealand would, I believe, be utterly outraged and unaccepting of any suggestion of a question of a change to them.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reacted quickly to the Supreme Court ruling, describing it as “incredibly upsetting”.
She said the government had decriminalised abortion because women had a fundamental right to choice. “To see that principle now lost in the United States feels like a loss for women everywhere.”
Health Minister Andrew Little, already under intense pressure over stressed-out hospitals, burnt-out GPs and staff shortages, had to answer questions this week about a letter written a year ago by all 20 district health boards warning of a staffing crisis.
They said the sector was on the brink of falling over if overseas staff were not incentivised to work in New Zealand and asked for urgent changes to immigration rules.
It was addressed to Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) chief executive Carolyn Tremain. Immigration is part of her department.
“You will be aware that our hospitals are also experiencing very high levels of occupancy at present and some sites are even in ‘code red’ where they are deemed to be at extreme levels,” the letter said.
“We are very concerned about this situation and for the potential for further deterioration if there are no changes to assist with at least securing the existing workforce.”
National’s health spokesman Shane Reti said lack of action following the letter demonstrated a failure to ensure health care was available to everyone in New Zealand.
“After receiving the letter warning of a looming storm about to hit the health sector, Andrew Little decided to ignore it and pushed on with his health restructure,” he said.
“Now we are dangerously 4000 nurses short and have a health sector slowly falling apart at the seams.”
This was a big enough deal for the Herald to publish a front page lead story headlined ‘Code Red – DHBs warned Govt of critical workforce issues a year ago’.
The report said that since the letter was written the situation had deteriorated because of the “twindemic” of Covid-19 and winter flu cases.
Little fronted media and said Reti was wrong, RNZ reported.
He said Reti had mixed up the letter’s specific concerns about MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine) places for health workers with general concerns about the workforce.
Little said he only became aware of the letter when it was released in an Official Information Act or OIA request a couple of months ago.
When he found out about health employers’ struggles to get workers across the border in October he stepped in to guarantee them access to 300 MIQ rooms a month, he said.
“Even though, during the course of the Covid pandemic, we’d had well over 5000 health workers across the border, certainly by last year the health employers were finding it difficult to secure places,” he said.
“I was helping health employers, including DHBs, getting people across the border.”
Little repeated assurances he gave last week that the health system “as a whole” was managing.
On Thursday, discussing the new national agency Health NZ on Newshub’s AM Show, Little made the comment that hospital demand was “dissipating” as wait times in EDs (emergency departments) started to fall away.
That caused outrage, Newshub reported.
An Auckland hospital worker called Steph told the AM Show the minister’s suggestion was “an absolute lie”.
“Corridors are full, wait times are crazy, elective operating lists have been cancelled because of bed shortage,” Steph said.
The prime minister was far away from it all, in Europe attending a NATO summit meeting in Madrid and then on to Brussels where a free trade agreement with the EU was being nailed down.
New Zealand is a partner, not a member, of NATO. Ardern was invited to attend along with the prime ministers of Australia, Japan and South Korea.
She used her speech to NATO leaders to push New Zealand’s “fiercely held” independent foreign policy while also condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine as an affront to the world, RNZ reported.
A full report about her speech is on RNZ’s website.
In Brussels, Ardern and EU president Ursula von der Leyen announced a free trade agreement (FTA) had been finalised.
“It delivers tangible gains for exporters into a restrictive agricultural market,” Ardern said.
“It cuts costs and red tape for exporters and opens up new high value market opportunities.”
As with all FTAs, the devil is in the detail and all the details are in RNZ’s full report.
In Parliament legislation that bans major supermarkets from blocking their competitors from accessing land to set up new stores was passed into law this week.
The new law bans restrictive covenants on lands and exclusive covenants on leases, as well as making existing covenants unenforceable.
It’s the first in a suit of measures targeting the supermarket duopoly after the Commerce Commission found competition in the retail grocery sector was not working, RNZ reported.
New Justice Minister Kiri Allan announced proposed changes to electoral law which will require parties to publish the identity of any donor who gives more than $5000 a year. The current threshold is $15,000.
Parties will also have to make public their financial statements, the number and total value of non-anonymous donations below $1500, and the proportion of total donations that are non-monetary.
Allan told Morning Report it was hoped the changes would lead to increased transparency and increase trust and confidence in the funding of the political system.
She said a recent study by Victoria University found 70 percent of respondents didn’t trust where the funding came from.
Opposition parties have come out against the changes and Allan said the government would go ahead without their support.
A bill would be introduced soon and the changes would be in place for next year’s election.
Rapid-antigen tests were in short supply to begin with and the government was condemned by opposition parties for failing to get enough of them.
Not any more. A Stuff in-depth report headlined ‘Oh RATs!’ revealed the government spent more than $1 billion on 180 million RATs but after a mad rush very few people now seem to want them.
They’re stacked in a huge warehouse in Christchurch.
*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament’s press gallery, 22 years as political editor of NZPA and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.