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National MP Matt Doocey at a podium
National’s hopeful mental health minister Matt Doocey (Image: Getty, additional design Tina Tiller)

PoliticsSeptember 20, 2023

Matt Doocey: From National’s ‘toxic’ years to a mental health minister-in-waiting

National MP Matt Doocey at a podium
National’s hopeful mental health minister Matt Doocey (Image: Getty, additional design Tina Tiller)

The senior National MP is in line for the new role in a Christopher Luxon-led government. He tells Stewart Sowman-Lund why it’s necessary – and how parliament is becoming a better place to work.

Matt Doocey was planning to quit politics in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Parliament, and the National Party, had become a “toxic” environment. This was at the height of his party’s leadership tensions, the Waimakariri MP told The Spinoff, and it was actually then-leader Judith Collins who talked him down from quitting. “I just said to myself, well, in any other work environment, you would leave and go to another one that was better. But unfortunately, there’s only one parliament. But I was prepared to move on, because in the end, it wasn’t something I wanted to work in.”

Three years later, a lot has changed. If current polling is indicative, National’s now on track to form the next government under Christopher Luxon – and Doocey is on the front bench of the shadow caucus. If things go to plan for the party on October 14, he’s been promised a very particular role: minister for mental health. It would be the first time New Zealand has had a dedicated minister holding this portfolio, separated from the broader health role. 

It’s a position he’s been preparing to take up for years. In 2017, he pitched the idea to then-National leader Bill English and was encouraged to “socialise” it within the party’s caucus. “[It’s] fair to say not everyone thought it was a good idea,” Doocey said. “People just didn’t think we needed a separate spokesperson in mental health, that it could just be represented through the health role. But I made a case for it. And they said, ‘OK, well, let’s, let’s go for it’.”

He’s confident that there is a need for it. Australia created a new National Suicide Prevention Office in 2021 and has an associate minister assigned to it. Other governments around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, have done similarly. In New Zealand, mental health is covered by the broader health portfolio. But Doocey said it’s now seen as a much bigger and more talked about issue, with crossover into many other areas outside the health sector.

“It’s within education, Corrections, also within housing, and pretty much every government department,” Doocey said. “So the role of the standalone mental health minister is to work across those government silos, and then to say: OK, what are we doing in education about better mental health? What are we doing within the justice portfolio of police and corrections? What are we doing within MSD and housing, and then you can start to drive that all-of-government strategy. And that’s where I think there’s real value in it.”

In the years since he first pitched the portfolio, there have been several leadership changes and portfolio adjustments within National, but Doocey’s position has never changed. He’s been the party’s sole spokesperson for mental health – the first and only person to hold that portfolio. He’s also been promoted from number 31 in 2020 to eight on the list this year, meaning he’s certain to be a core part of a Luxon-led government should National win the election. 

So how did he end up in this position? Doocey puts it down to “fate” (along with having “quite a bit of faith in myself”) but can also trace it back to a serious car accident in the mid-80s, when he was 19. The car flipped while travelling at over 100 kilometres an hour. Doocey, who was not the driver, was thrown through the back window. He hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt.

Doocey spent several weeks in hospital with head injuries, but said the possibility he may also be suffering from mental trauma was never raised with him. “I had four or five follow-up appointments all about broken bones and no one ever said, ‘you’ve had a head injury, you need to be aware of how this might play out’. And the reality is, it’s not a criticism of the staff, or of my parents back then, there just wouldn’t have been the awareness,” Doocey said. “And that led to some problems in my life. And eventually, after refusing to get help, I did it, and not only did that help build a positive relationship with my mental health, but I wanted to do that person’s job.”

From here, he trained in the field as a counsellor and worked overseas, including for the NHS. He was shoulder-tapped for a leadership programme and studied a masters in healthcare management before eventually, in 2013, returning to New Zealand where he realised he had a “yearning” to enter politics. By the next year, he was in parliament.

Doocey admitted to The Spinoff that creating a new minister role wouldn’t change anything by itself. He doesn’t want it to just be a title. Labour’s had a problem of announcing “slogans”, he said, so becoming the minister for mental health will have to mean making a real difference. “Anyone can get a job,” he said. “I suppose the real success will be using that role to actually drive through change. And what I see at the moment, if you want to look at the $1.9 billion that the government announced [for mental health], it’s very easy to announce money. But if you aren’t really dealing with structural issues in the system, that money is not going to make a real difference.”

There are three key areas that Doocey wants to tackle should he have the chance in government. They’re broad areas, but he said he would hold himself accountable against them after a term in office. One is increasing access to mental health and addiction services. Another is driving down vacancy rates and addressing the mental health workforce crisis (“psychiatry vacancies in Health New Zealand increased by 179% in the last two years, psychology 104% and mental health nursing about 124% – and that’s only in the last two years alone”). Thirdly, Doocey wants to think about how mental health education and skills training can be rolled out within schools from years one to 13, “because that’s what will equip our young people to have the skills to deal with mental health, either now or later in life”.

At a recent debate targeted at youth issues hosted by the lobby group Make it 16, Doocey, the oldest on the panel by far and in front of an audience made up largely of teens, received a lukewarm response when pitching his ideas for the mental health sector. There were some sniggers from attendees when he was introduced on stage. In front of the at times hostile crowd, Doocey was challenged on how he would address mental health issues related specifically to younger New Zealanders and across diverse cultural backgrounds. 

Doocey admitted it would be impossible for him to “represent every demographic”. He wants to empower local communities to tackle their own needs, he said. “Something that we have been very keen on is to understand how we have the ability to have what we call local solutions for local needs,” Doocey said. A hip replacement procedure is the same across the country, but the mental health needs in rural Canterbury may be very different to those facing young Māori in Auckland, explained Doocey.

Mental health discourse has become more visible within parliament over recent years. Jacinda Ardern resigned due to no longer having “enough in the tank”, a comment some interpreted to mean she was suffering from burnout. More recently, Labour’s Kiri Allan resigned from parliament following a minor car crash that followed personal struggles, including around her mental health. Some felt that National and Act were wrong to launch a parliamentary debate after this, accusing the opposition of politicising Allan’s mental health struggles. “It’s a perfectly appropriate debate to have, because this is a serious event,” National Party justice spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said at the time. 

Doocey agreed. “People need to be held to account for their roles and their behaviour,” he told The Spinoff. “And we’ve got to watch that people’s behaviour is not excused, or that mental health is used as an excuse to avoid the consequences of their own behaviour as well.”

Regardless, Doocey acknowledged that parliament was a “high-pressure environment” and was therefore always going to have “some issues” – but it was getting better. “At the moment, it’s still a bit more about mental health outside the precinct,” he said. “I think that there’s still a lot to do about how we ensure that MPs learn the skills of how to deal with a high-pressure environment.”

If he does indeed become a minister, a “key focus” will be securing cross-party support around mental health issues. He admitted the previous National government was too slow to act, but is critical of Labour for, in his view, “never” supporting a unified approach. While there is now a cross-party group, it was initially dismissed by Labour and none of the party’s ministers have ever met with it. “It’s quite under-utilised,” he said. “There’s been a level of frustration in the group that Labour has paid lip service to it”. 

He cites a positive relationship with the Greens’ Chlӧe Swarbrick as evidence he’d like to advance cross-party work in the next term of government. “If I was New Zealand’s first mental health minister, I’d be empowering that group,” he said. “I will be getting them to look at funding, looking at policy development, reviewing and investigating issues within the system. I think that would be powerful.”

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