Hayden Munro: Health, transport and housing … playing catch-up with the bills

OPINION

We have a really bad habit in this country of kicking hard political problems down the road, by which time they are much worse.

But there’s some positive signs that might be beginning to change.

Take health spending, for example.

Grant Robertson’s revelation that he intends to pay off existing DHB health debt puts an end to a disgraceful saga that stretches back decades.

In an interview last week, Robertson confirmed that a major chunk of this year’s new spending will be to wipe the hundreds of millions of dollars of debt accumulated by the boards around the country.

That debt is the result of persistent underfunding in our health service – something we’ve been papering over by essentially having the DHBs borrow money to cover the cost.

It’s worth spelling out explicitly what happened here: year after year politicians put less money into the health system than they knew was needed to pay for the care New Zealanders received.

In doing so, they forced DHBs to borrow money to make up the shortfall.

The health sector, caught between cutting services that save lives, and putting those services on the credit card, chose the credit card.

And why?

It was because politicians knew they could get away with setting budgets that were too small and kicking the can down the road because it made for good politics.

They could pass the problem on to the future for someone else to deal with, ironically couching what they were doing in the language of fiscal discipline and responsibility.

It meant they got to stand up in election debates and campaign on “keeping a lid on spending”, “finding efficiencies” and “making room for tax relief”.

So, all the while, the unpaid bill only got bigger and bigger.

Not to mention the human suffering of people who missed out on the operation they needed, or who got their cancer diagnosis too late because the money just wasn’t there to fund the service.

This year, Robertson is making the brave decision to call time on the charade and has decided to pick up the tab he’s been left with.

His decision means the newly established national health service, Health NZ, will start with a clean slate, without having to inherit the debts that have piled up over the years.

Robertson clearly believes Kiwis have seen through the old approach and are ready for something different.

And if you look around the country now, it’s not hard to see why.

On issue after issue, an unwillingness to invest money when it was needed has left us facing worse problems later.

We didn’t build enough houses and now we have a housing crisis that’s the number one cause of domestic inflation. We wanted to keep council rates low so we didn’t invest in our pipes and now every week there’s a new story about infrastructure failing or people getting sick.

We didn’t want to invest in public transport and now our cities are choking on congestion.

People are seeing that if you ignore problems, they get worse in the long run.

That’s why Christopher Luxon is having so much trouble selling his big idea of tax cuts for those earning $180,000 a year. His interviews on the subject have been a shambles – leading journalists are now asking if he got the top job too soon.

With all the big problems facing the country right now, it just doesn’t seem like the most urgent thing we need is a $270,000 a year tax cut for the CEO of Air New Zealand.

In fact, it smacks of exactly the type of short-term philosophy that led to many of these big problems building up in the first place.

Because the experience of our health system is that while you can kick the can down the road for a while, eventually the bill comes due.

Hayden Munro was the campaign manager for Labour’s successful 2020 election win. He now works in corporate PR for Wellington-based firm Capital Communications and Government Relations.

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