Shane Te Pou: Labour policies both bold and bewildering


When you’ve spent as much time as I have in and around the hurly-burly of politics, you learn to make sense of even the most egregious actions. You might, for instance, detest Judith Collins’ recent manoeuvres on race – and the logic underpinning them will in my view prove flawed over time – but there is no mystery as to why she has chosen that route. Even when a political calculation seems misguided, short-sighted, obscenely cynical, or just plain wrong, it typically makes sense on its own terms.

The motives of politicians are rarely difficult to discern, boiling down for the most part to self-interest – they’re far more likely to leave you shaking your head than scratching it.

That’s what was so unusual about last week’s public-sector pay freeze announcement. It wasn’t just that I didn’t agree with the decision – that happens from time to time, even with a Government whose direction I broadly support – it’s that I can’t make any sense of it.

Perhaps Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s coming Budget may flesh out the rationale behind the freeze but, as it stands, it strikes me as a bewildering misstep on both substantive policy and narrow political terms.

Three questions at least demand answers. Who exactly, at this moment, is clamouring for a return to austerity politics? How can the modest fiscal savings involved possibly offset the obvious political costs of inflicting an effective pay cut on tens of thousands of frontline workers who, after all, comprise a significant chunk of Labour’s base? And perhaps most importantly, how does this not critically – and needlessly, I would argue – undermine efforts across government to address a vast array of challenges across health, education and social service delivery?

The pay freeze, however disappointing, shouldn’t deflect entirely from an emerging picture of policy boldness. After a first term constrained by coalition deals and perceived “working group” inertia, big reforms of late across health, local government and industrial relations suggest the Ardern Government is done with cautious incrementalism.

Of these, health is clearly the most vexed challenge. But I cannot recall a time when the portfolio was in such assured hands; nor a time when such leadership is so desperately needed. Andrew Little, Peeni Henare and Dr Ayesha Verrall are a powerhouse triumvirate, together bringing decades of political experience and policy expertise to bear.

The decision to abolish DHBs in favour of a central NHS-style model, along with the creation of a Maori Health Authority, was met with something close to exhilaration among people I know in the sector, Māori and Pākehā alike.

Talk about “separatism” misses the reality that the status quo already produces vastly disparate outcomes, not just in ways that can be captured by reliably negative statistics – but in the day-to-day experiences of the health system.

A friend of mine related to me how a Māori friend of hers received treatment for cancer at the same time as her Pākehā father, coincidentally in the same ward. “One minute, I was treated deferentially as one patient’s daughter,” she told me, “and the next, visiting my friend, we suddenly encountered rules and regulations seemingly designed to keep whānau at bay”.

Does that mean Kiwi health workers are racist? Of course not. But, when it comes to the way we deal with health crises, divergent cultural practices nonetheless create barriers and, for too many Māori, result in a resistance to treatment.

Maori-led decision-making is the pragmatic path forward. As for National’s knee-jerk response to the health reforms, I’m disappointed but not surprised.

Predictions are a perilous business for newspaper columnists, but I’ll make one right here: The National Party’s current commitment to reverse the health reforms will be long forgotten by the time the next election rolls around. They will soon find the constituency for reinstating district health boards is vanishingly small.

Meanwhile, minister Kiri Allan’s ongoing health crisis as she fights cervical cancer has helped bring these issues to the fore. It’s a testament to her gifts as a leader, evident long before her diagnosis, that she is using her very personal crisis as a means to prevent disease and save lives.

Verrall’s timely announcement of more than $100 million in cancer-fighting initiatives, including the deployment of self-administered cervical screening, is a huge step forward.

Along with the powerful testimony of leaders like Kiri Allan, investments like this give current and coming generations of women and girls reason to believe we can all but eradicate preventable cancers through prevention and awareness.

As we await Grant Robertson’s Budget, I’ll be curious to see which of two apparently conflicting impulses comes to the fore: the small-bore austerity of the pay freeze, or the bold reformism we’ve seen in recent months from Andrew Little, Michael Wood and Nanaia Mahuta. My earnest hope is that the latter prevails.

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