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Mike King with his hand on his chest wearing an I Am Hope hoodie
Mike King (Image: Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 24, 2024

Our mental health crisis, and the $24m questions

Mike King with his hand on his chest wearing an I Am Hope hoodie
Mike King (Image: Getty Images)

Gumboot Friday pocketed a significant budget boost this week, writes Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin, but concerns have been raised over transparency. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

In case you missed it

The government’s budget announcement on new mental health funding was somewhat buried on Wednesday owing to the subsequent news that first home grants would be dumped. So, today we’re going to return to the subject of mental health and, as promised in yesterday’s Bulletin, look at it in a little more depth. To get you up to speed, the government this week confirmed that Budget 2024 will come with $24m for Mike King’s Gumboot Friday. It was a pledge made by National and New Zealand First in their coalition agreement, which stipulated annual support of $6m for the initiative. As reported by The Post, the new funding will go to King’s I Am Hope foundation to deliver free counselling for young people aged five to 25. King promised that none of the money would go to himself and “every single cent” would help bring onboard another 300 counsellors to add to the charity’s current pool of 555. But since the announcement was made, questions have been asked about why King’s charity was chosen.

What’s the backstory?

King, a comedian and TV personality, launched Gumboot Friday through his I Am Hope charity in 2019, the same year he was named New Zealander of the Year. It’s an initiative to help link young people with free counselling services funded through donations, with regular “Gumboot Fridays” held where people are encouraged to wear gumboots and donate a gold coin. That same year, the former Labour government unveiled a $1.9bn investment in mental health, which later attracted controversy over why it was taking so long to be spent. This in-depth report by RNZ’s Anusha Bradley looked at where that money went. King, and others, claimed the fund had been poorly managed, and he became a vocal critic of the former government and the Ministry of Health over not giving financial support to his charity. In 2021, reported the Herald, King urged the government to fund the initiative, saying he would continue fighting for the “kids [the Ministry of Health] doesn’t care about”. King returned his NZ Order of Merit for services to mental health awareness in the same year. Later in 2021, former health minister Andrew Little announced a one-off mental health fund of $1.2m that would specifically target two groups – Gumboot Friday and a suicide prevention charity for construction workers – each of which received  $600,000.

Questions over why Gumboot Friday was chosen

In 2021, a two-part report from BusinessDesk looked at why Gumboot Friday picked up money from that one-off fund despite not qualifying for earlier financial support from the Ministry of Health. As Oliver Lewis reported at the time, government agencies – like the Ministry of Health – are required to follow strict procurement rules to ensure public money gets spent fairly. There was concern from some in the ministry, Lewis reported, that the targeted funding for Gumboot Friday may have been a result of political and media pressure. Because the $1.2m fund was a pilot programme, usual government tender processes didn’t need to be followed. In 2022, a follow-up report from Lewis revealed that a ministry executive had warned the Labour government that the optics of providing money specifically for two charities may cause “some reaction in the public arena”. Since last year’s coalition promise was made public, the question over why Gumboot Friday was chosen for a funding boost has been asked again. In parliament last month, Labour’s mental health spokesperson Ingrid Leary asked minister Matt Doocey whether a “transparent process” was followed in deciding to support Gumboot Friday. Doocey, in response, said he would “expect” that to happen. King told reporters this week that his charity would be the “most transparent organisation out there”, reported The Post. Leary, however, maintained that funding the initiative in “this way” was wrong. “This diminishes trust in the public sector, erodes the confidence of other providers, pitches Gumboot Friday against other similar organisations and can distort the market to the point where other providers may pack up and go home,” she said.

Yesterday, Stuff’s Paula Penfold reported on links between Gumboot Friday and the National Party after it emerged the current chair of I Am Hope had donated $7,000 to the party in 2023, and $20,000 in 2020. The charity’s recently departed CEO had also sought National’s candidacy in Botany (the seat now held by Christopher Luxon) in 2019. Luxon strongly rejected any conflict of interest, blaming Labour for pushing the concern. “It’s outrageous and ridiculous, frankly, if the Labour Party want to make that accusation. Mental health is not something that you politicise,” the prime minister told media.

The perception of conflict

Penfold has a follow-up report this morning, focusing on the origin of a figure cited this week by Luxon, Peters and Doocey. All three said I Am Hope provided a “social return on investment” of $5.70 for every $1 invested. As Penfold reported, that figure came from a report prepared by Impact Lab, a company co-founded and chaired by ex-PM Bill English. “All roads seem to lead to the National Party,” said Labour’s Ingrid Leary. Doocey denied any conflict, telling Stuff he received a range of advice and was comfortable with the Impact Lab analysis. It’s not the only question being asked about potential conflicts this week, with the Herald’s David Fisher reporting that Act MP Todd Stephenson has investments in pharmaceutical companies while working as a private undersecretary to David Seymour, the minister with responsibility for Pharmac. Questions have also been asked about under-fire MP David MacLeod’s role on the select committee scrutinising the fast-track bill while receiving a donation from a company that may benefit from the law. The government has defended its MPs in these circumstances. As for the mental health policy, Doocey pointed to the fact it was New Zealand First policy to fund Gumboot Friday. Winston Peters called the announcement a “serious investment in a frontline service” and said the government would not be “throwing money around like an eight-armed octopus”.

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