There are many more gifts awaiting the prime minister (Image: Tina Tiller)
There are many more gifts awaiting the prime minister (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPoliticsJuly 2, 2024

The government has discovered Pharmac. What should it find next?

There are many more gifts awaiting the prime minister (Image: Tina Tiller)
There are many more gifts awaiting the prime minister (Image: Tina Tiller)

Having found an answer to their cancer drug-funding predicament, Luxon and co may be happy to learn of some other useful tools hiding in plain sight.

Nicola Willis had hardly finished saying “fiscally responsible” when the criticism started flowing. Somehow her 2024 budget had neglected to fund 13 cancer drugs National had promised before the election. It was just temporary, the minister explained. But cancer patients were for some reason relatively impatient. They wanted their drugs “soon” so that they could “not die”. 

Besides money, the thing standing in the way of an emergency fix was procurement. “What we’re working on is how we procure,” prime minister Chris Luxon told RNZ. “Those procurement processes are quite complicated.” His administration sweated through a parade of nightmarish headlines for what felt like years as it worked to address the issue. Then during last Monday’s post-cabinet press conference, a breakthrough. Luxon stood on stage and told journalists his administration had realised the government’s drug-buying agency Pharmac might be good at buying drugs. They’d been trying to work outside its systems to acquire the 13 drugs, he explained. But then a flash of inspiration struck. “As we came to government it became pretty obvious we’ve got a good model,” he said. “Why would we want to create a second model?”

Eureka. The solution was hiding in plain sight all along. But Pharmac is hardly the only existing process or institution the government might not have realised could help it solve its problems.

Chris Bishop wants to fix the housing crisis. He’s promised to eliminate the social housing waiting list and outflanked Labour by calling for continued reductions in property prices. In his eyes, the way to put housing within reach is to build more than we ever have before. He’ll be pleased to learn the perfect legislation to achieve that aim is already in place. The 2021 Medium Density Residential Standards allow people to construct up to three townhouses on almost all the land zoned for housing in our biggest cities. One of its authors, Nicola Willis, calls it a “historic commitment that will help put new rungs on the property ladder, placing it in reach of more people, and rebuilding hope for the next generation”. Those benefits are locked in. The only way to sabotage them would be to introduce new rules allowing councils to opt out of the legislation, and there’s no way a pro-housing minister like Bishop would do something like that.

Housing minister Chris Bishop and prime minister Christopher Luxon at parliament in March (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

While he’s enshrining the MDRS, Bishop might consider enabling Kāinga Ora to continue its record-breaking build programme instead of commissioning a highly contestable report on its finances for $238 a word while the agency pauses big public housing projects and sells land.

Our leaking, poo-spewing pipes also pose a long-term problem for the government. Thanks to councils keeping rates artificially low for decades while letting everything that’s not a convention centre or a sports stadium rot in the ground, the repair bill for the country’s water infrastructure is now visible from space. National’s “Local Water Done Well” legislation aimed at addressing the issue is currently hampered by the fact that it appears to be sending our smaller councils bankrupt. Though they likely deserve that fate, one compromise solution could be found in the pages of something called the “Affordable Water” legislation proposed in the last term of government. It may not deliver councils the same level of local control, but that hasn’t mattered when it comes to speed limits, planning, Māori representation, consenting or taxation.

Similarly, it appears a deal might already be on the table for some new ferries that don’t veer off course and crash into the walls of Cook Strait. All the government would have to do would be to not scrap the deal without an alternative plan, or even guaranteed cost savings, in place.

Other solutions to pressing problems could be right under the government’s nose. Māori health provision remains a vexed issue, with Māori living shorter lives and getting less timely care on average. The government is currently building a new bureaucracy inside Te Whatu Ora to address those problems at some expense. But that might not be necessary. A look through the history books shows something called the “Māori Health Authority” had already been set up to deal with long-term health inequities. Hopefully it hasn’t been disestablished. 

Just like the Pharmac model, some of these solutions have their issues. But they could also be cheaper, and in some cases, more effective than trying to invent a solution from scratch. Maybe if the government took advantage of some of the work already in motion, there’d be more money and time left over to do stuff like fund community food banks, give disabled workers the minimum wage, save some species from going extinct, or even just rescue the incorrectly labelled “blind” frog Freddie. I love that little guy, and I hope he gets the care he needs. Maybe Pharmac can help.

Keep going!