Luxon hints at Dunedin Hospital announcement at Wānaka meeting

by Kim Bowden - Jun 16, 2023

Christopher Luxon has revealed to Wānaka voters an election promise may be on the way regarding Dunedin Hospital.

Asked what commitment a National government would make to the new hospital project forced to downsize to meet budgets the would-be prime minister said he and health spokesperson Shane Reti would be announcing something "very shortly".

The comments were made at a town-hall style meeting at the Wānaka Events Centre last night (Thursday) as part of the National leader's Get New Zealand Back on Track tour.

His view: the government has taken far too long to get the project off the ground and that has meant compromises.

"It has gotten more expensive and as a result they've downsized the spec and scale of it."

He says he empathises with frustrated southerners, and his party has policy in the pipeline seeking to address concerns.

"I can't announce anything to you tonight, but I will tell you we will be announcing something very shortly, Shane Reti (National's spokesperson for health) and I.

"So if you could just hold fire for a couple of weeks, we'll have more to say about it."

He says he has visited the hospital and understands the challenges that are there, but any announcement will come as part of a package addressing country-wide investment in hospital infrastructure.

"Because I don't just want to go around saying 'yes' to a whole bunch of stuff when I need to put it in a frame and make sure that when I say 'yes', I can actually follow through and actually deliver."

In December, cost-cutting design changes were announced for Dunedin's new hospital due to a funding shortfall of $90 million, despite an additional $110 million being approved for the project. 

Healthcare was a hot topic at the Wānaka meeting, with Mr Luxon's recap of his party's proposed bonding scheme for nurses and midwives securing his first round of applause for the night.

Following on from the Dunedin Hospital question, Mr Luxon was asked how any government he leads would ensure there are enough healthcare professionals where they are needed.

Opposition leader Christopher Luxon pulled an unexpectedly large audience to his public meeting in Wānaka last night (Thursday, June 15), with a last-minute scramble to relocate to a bigger space.

A Wānaka resident told him stretched resources in Dunedin led to her sick husband receiving a letter from Te Whatu Ora informing him of at least a three month wait for an appointment. 

"And when it is melanoma, that is just a death sentence."

She says while "you can build the biggest hospital in the world, you've still got to fill it with people who are going to service our region".

Mr Luxon replied saying "the workforce and the infrastructure go together, and the workforce is the biggest problem across the whole of the healthcare system".

He slated the current government for refusing "all of last year" to put internationally qualified nurses on an immigration fast track.

"And all of us would look at that and say, 'the problem is you've got a 4,000-nurse why hasn't that happened?'."

He made no apology for talking healthcare targets, saying "targets save lives".

"We've lost focus of that. I think all that bureaucracy in Wellington is actually walking in there doing a whole bunch of other stuff, but we actually want everybody to understand their job, nine to five, is to improve those health outcomes."

Wānaka builder and mental health campaigner Glen Thurston asked Mr Luxon what he would do to combat the country's "mental health crisis".

Top of the leader's list: creating a "dedicated minister of mental health".

He says National MP Matt Doocey would be "excellent" in the role.

"He's passionate about suicide prevention as his motivation for coming into parliament...Having leadership, having someone on the ministerial table talking equally about that in the same way we talk about physical health, I think, will be really important."

Mr Luxon's prepared speech stuck to core policy issues: fixing the economy, law and order and improving health and education, as it did in Queenstown three weeks ago. 

Not surprisingly, many of his anecdotes were the same too - immigrant dairy owners the victims of consecutive ram-raids, whose five-year-old son’s bedroom is a sleeping mat behind the shop counter; communities where gang members outnumber local policing staff; the budgeting service appointment he sat in on for an Auckland family with parents working multiple jobs to stay afloat, unable to pay children's sports fees; and the distressed mother whose concerns about her pre-teen's lack of success at school were dismissed by his teacher as he's just a boy, and he'll come right in a couple of years.

There were jokes abut him being there "in the flesh" and not being AI - a reference to revelations some of his party's campaign advertisements used AI-generated images.

"If I was AI-generated I'd be taller and hairier, I suspect."

As for the wintry Wānaka night, he said was happy others were obviously feeling the cold too and it wasn't just him "being a soft Aucklander".

He had to deal with ongoing heckling (none of it related to being an Aucklander) on topics including vaccination mandates, United Nation's conspiracy theories, and his party's "cowering" response to last year's protestors at parliament.

His repeated response: "We can disagree without being disagreeable".

He also fielded questions about who he could work with in government, and he committed to the possibility of partnering with the Act Party, whose leader David Seymour is, he says, quite literally his neighbour in the Auckland suburb of Epsom.

"We've got a good personal relationship, which I think would be helpful, giving us good, strong, stable government, very united on actually getting the country turned around and getting things done."

There was a last-minute scramble to re-direct the hundreds-strong audience into the main auditorium at the events centre, when it became obvious the smaller space booked by the party wouldn't cut it.

National's candidate for the Waitaki electorate Miles Anderson, looking to take over the seat being vacated by retiring Waitaki and National MP Jacqui Dean come the election, says the original room hired was big enough for 120.

"It was quickly apparent that room was going to be overflowing with people."

He says the large number of attendees mirrored the situation a few weeks back at a meeting himself and Mr Luxon fronted in Alexandra, as well as others hosted by his National colleagues throughout the country.

"People want to hear our message. People are looking for change...Not just in this area, it's happening everywhere."

Read more: Luxon Queenstown speech - housing crisis 'insane' as land is available

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