With just 29 days to go, health is shaping up as one of the hot topics in the sprint to election day. Facing unrest about DHB funding and long waiting lists, the Government is defending its track record while opposition parties hone in on the sore point.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has looked shaky in recent months as talk of a funding crisis within the system takes root.

The need for more action on mental health has become a rallying cry for the Opposition, while the bungling of Ministry of Health funding amounts in May’s Budget led to an embarrassing apology.

Voters can expect the conversation around health to only intensify in the coming weeks.

Dunedin will get a new hospital, regardless who wins

A few days ago, Prime Minister Bill English announced the Government would build a brand new hospital for southern New Zealand.

The news should have been welcome, but regardless he ended up getting chased out of the press conference by a group of protestors.

Before his escape, he revealed the preferred method of funding the project would be a Public Private Partnership (PPP) to help reduce costs.

Today Jacinda Ardern announced in Dunedin that Labour would also build the new hospital, but using existing funds rather than a PPP arrangement.

The hospital is expected to cost $1.4 billion, and Ardern said construction would begin in her government’s first term.

“This is a project that is long overdue for Dunedin. The hospital at present is dangerous and unsafe for staff and patients. Most of the existing buildings would not survive a severe earthquake,” she said.

“Things are so bad at the moment operations have to be delayed because of the leaks when it rains. Dunedin Hospital is no longer fit for purpose.”

She told media the PPP model had proved disastrous for the London health system and only slowed construction down.

Labour would look for a new central city site to build the new hospital, she added.

Make the tourists pay

Flanked by Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, Prime Minister Bill English has announced international visitors who want to enjoy New Zealand’s “Great Walks”, such as the Milford Track, will soon be paying double.

The plan to make tourists pay more was first revealed by Newsroom in June.

The walks have become immensely popular with bookings essential, but English said they still made a loss of about $1million a year.

Barry said the increase would bring in more than $4m in revenue each year but she did not believe the price increase would affect tourist numbers, with one of the aims being to direct people to some of the less popular walks through price differentials.

English said he did not believe an increased visitor levy at the border was necessary to deal with the rising number of tourists.

“We’ve been addressing the pressure points there through the Tourism Infrastructure Fund…I’ve been impressed particularly with the way the councils in the South Island have adapted to the strong growth,” English said.

The duo also announced that funding for volunteer conservation groups would be boosted from $4.6m to $10m a year, to help groups such as those fighting wilding pines and trapping predators expand their operations.

Labour to pay for Harbour Bridge Skypath

Auckland’s proposed walking and cycling path across the Harbour Bridge would be government funded if Labour is successful at the election.

The Skypath has had a troubled development process, facing opposition before running into trouble when major partner Downer Group withdrew from the public-private partnership (PPP) with Auckland Council earlier this year, calling it “too small and unique” to work.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges threw the project a lifeline, however, hinting it could be funded out of the Government’s Urban Cycleway Programme, although he was still keen to see if a PPP could be made to work.

Labour’s transport spokesman Michael Wood has pledged up to $30m to build Skypath, which would clip onto the side of the Harbour Bridge.

Wood also announced that the $100m Urban Cycleways Fund would be renewed for a further three years and a new ‘Active Neighbourhoods’ fund introduced to encourage walking and cycling at a local level.

More troops for Afghanistan

The Government has approved a NATO request for additional military support in Afghanistan.

New Zealand’s contribution will increase by 30 percent, with three extra personnel joining the New Zealand Defence Force’s current 10-person team.

The current team members, who are all non-combat, are working as mentors and support personnel at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul. Two of the extra personnel will be based at mission headquarters in the city while one will be at the Academy as a physical training instructor.

Defence Minister Mark Mitchell said New Zealand had been contributing to Afghanistan’s stability since 2001 and remained committed.

“A deteriorating security situation has prompted the international community to refocus its efforts. Countries around the globe are making decisions to increase contributions to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorist organisations.”

Yesterday Jacinda Ardern said she was not privy to the same information as the Government regarding Afghanistan, but felt uneasy about the prospect of sending additional troops.

Questions remain over stadium funding

We’re all in full election mode now with lots of goodies being rolled out to middle New Zealand, although there remain doubts about some.

Bill English announced yesterday National would contribute $120 million to the preferred option of a 30,000 seat stadium for Christchurch that has a roof and a retractable pitch. That option comes with a price tag of $496 million, but questions have emerged this morning about whether the Christchurch Council can afford its share and whether the stadium can actually get built.

The Council has committed $253 million, so there remains a $123 million gap that would have to be bridged with an increase in rates of up to $120 per ratepayer per year by 2026, the Press reported this morning.

That gap may not last for long. Jacinda Ardern is set to visit Christchurch on Sunday and is expected to also pledge funding for the stadium.

The pressures in Auckland

National is also splashing the cash in Auckland’s schools, with the narrative around the population surge and over-crowding forcing some quick policy making on the run from Education Minister Nikki Kaye.

She indicated last week she had asked officials to look at expanding the voluntary bonding scheme that pays teachers $14,000 after five years at a school. It was launched in 2009 and had previously only been for ‘hard to staff’ schools.

Yesterday, school principals were told by the Ministry that the scheme had been expanded to all schools in Auckland, RNZ reported this morning.

Kaye was reported as saying the money offered would be less in Auckland and was part of a $20 million sum allocated to help schools find teachers in Auckland.

Hosking’s ‘correction’

Meanwhile, the kerfuffle continues over Mike Hosking’s incorrect advice on Wednesday night that voters could only vote for the Maori Party if they were enrolled in a Maori electorate.
He corrected that in a less-than-gracious fashion last night.

“Now last night in a throw-away line I appear to have confused the Maori Party around the rules of voting in MMP,” Hosking said on Seven Sharp.

“What I was suggesting, what I was meaning, was that the Maori Party, as their representation stands, is an electorate party. In other words they are only in Parliament because they won an electorate seat. Therefore what I said in referring to voting for them was to vote for them in a Maori electorate you had to be on the Maori roll, which is true,” he said.

“Now the fact that anyone can vote for them as a list party I automatically assumed we all knew, given we’ve been doing it for 20 years for goodness sake and it went without saying. So hopefully that clears all of that up.”

Maori Party Co-Leader Te Ururoa Flavell was less than impressed, tweeting last night: “Unreal. An apology that wasn’t, and clarification that never came.”

Coming up…

Bill English is visiting Queenstown and Wanaka later today for campaign events ahead of National’s formal campaign launch in Auckland on Sunday.
Jacinda Ardern is in the South Island in coming days, with a visit to Dunedin scheduled for today and a visit to Christchurch on Sunday.

August 31 – The first leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 4 – Then TV3 has its leaders on September 4. The leaders then travel from Auckland to Christchurch for the Press/Stuff debate on September 7.
September 7 – The Press/Stuff leaders debate will be held in Christchurch
September 11 – Polling booths open for early voting.
September 20 – The final leaders debate on TVNZ.
September 23 – The General Election.
October 12 – Winston Peters has said he will make a decision about which party he ‘crowns’ to be in Government by October 12, which is when the writs with the final election results are returned.

Updated: 2.30 pm

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