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Pork barrelling from the Nats

Written By: - Date published: 9:26 am, November 5th, 2008 - 26 comments
Categories: corruption, election 2008, national - Tags:

One of the virtues of New Zealand government has long been that we avoid US-style pork barrel politics. The Government sets the direction of policy and priorities but doesn’t interfere with specific projects. The principle is that the experts, not the elected officials, should decide the details of specific projects. For instance, the Government might decide it wants more investment in roads or roads in a particular region, but it is the independent New Zealand Transport Agency that decides on which project to construct, in which order, and with which details in order to meet the Government’s objectives. No ‘bridge to nowhere’ for us.

Not only is is just a plain good idea to have the experts making the decisions, it also removes an avenue for political corruption.

So, it is very worrying to see National making pork-barrel promises. The Nats are going around promising specific road projects will be built, meaning they may have to override the NZTA. They are even editing the details of these projects – adding a tunnel to one. I think we can all agree that its better to have engineers, not politicians, deciding if a tunnel is needed on a road project.

The promise to fund Plunketline means overriding the transparent and independent contracting process by which Plunket and other organisations compete for funding. I always thought the Tories were against the Government choosing winners but, more seriously, when the politicians decide which charities get the limited pool of money it is an invitation to cronyism and corruption.

This disturbing willingness to over-ride independent bodies and experts for petty political gain doesn’t end at roads. National is promising to fund 52 weeks treatment of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, which is currently funded for nine weeks. In doing so, they would have to change the legislation that makes PHARMAC independent and ignore the medical experts. PHARMAC said that is they were given the $40 million it would take to fund Herceptin they would use it fund other drugs, which would be able to deliver greater health benefits to more people at the same cost. Given limited resources, PHARMAC wants to get the best bang for the public buck. National would override that decision because Herceptin is a good populist issue (as you would expect, breast cancer has a lobby group that sufferers of other conditions can’t match).

National sees votes and, so, is willing to sacrifice quality and independent decision-making in the use of public money. That would lead to bad decisions being made and more wasteful government spending. It is something people on all sides should oppose.

26 comments on “Pork barrelling from the Nats”

  1. Janet 1

    Promising to fund Plunket line is another. There is a transparent and contestable contracting process for such things precisely so there can’t be political interference. I’m waiting for the Auditor General to have something to say about this. May be waiting a long time though.

  2. oh yeah. added it, thanks janet.

  3. Vinsin 3

    It’s a real shame that these knee jerk populist issues get such traction with people. Pharmac and Plunket, who can disagree with funding these for longer without being labeled either anti-family, or anti-women’s health.

  4. toad 4

    I hate to have to remind readers at The Standard of this Steve, but what about Labour’s commitment to fund the Penlink Roading Project from Auckland’s Regional Fuel Tax.

    Seems just as pork-barrel to me as some of the Nats’ roading proposals, and another reason to Party Vote Green.

  5. higherstandard 5


    The medical experts – The Oncology subcommittee at PHARMAC recommended the full 52 weeks course.

  6. Crank 6

    How about the Green’s $1 billion home insulation pork barrel in return for supporting the ETS.

    [I’m not sure you understand the definition of pork barrelling. What independent expert decisions are overridden by the insulation fund? Why isn’t home insulation justified as a policy? SP]

  7. vidiot 7

    Steve – you missed these promises:

    • Introduce a “voluntary bonding” scheme which offers student loan debt write-offs to graduate teachers who agree to work in hard-to-staff communities or subjects.

    • Updating and publishing the economic and fiscal forecasts to gauge the true state of the government’s books and determine the on-going effects of the international economic crisis.

    • Amend the Education Act 1989 to increase the current fines for parents of truant children from $150 and $400 for first time and repeat offenders respectively, and allow the Ministry of Education to take prosecutions.

    • Open the books on the true state of hospital waiting lists and the crisis in services.

    • Establish a “voluntary bonding scheme” offering student loan debt write-off to graduate doctors, nurses, and midwives agreeing to work in hard-to-staff communities or specialties.

    Talk about a hidden agenda.

  8. Steve Pierson said “National sees votes and, so, is willing to sacrifice quality and independent decision-making in the use of public money. ”

    Whereas Labour sees votes and breaks the law to get them in the ballot box


  9. dave 9

    The promise to fund Plunketline means overriding the transparent and independent contracting process
    Its not transparent. Or independant.

  10. Good post.

    Toad’s criticism of the Penlink project is appropriate. It is a PPP for a culdesac and does not make any sense apart from in the minds of some Rodney Councillors.

    Key is really going to distort things if he insists on certain projects going through. For a start if I was a tenderer and I knew that the project was going to go through no matter what then I would set my tender really high. Some of the projects are that big that there will be something for all of the major contractors.

    The really disappointing thing is that the current system has tried to take away political influence. Projects are measured against discrete criteria including value for money, community benefits and contribution to sustainability. To say that you will build one means that a potentially far superior project will fail.

    Also the current system is very poor in recognising the benefits of walking and cycling projects. Health benefits and the degradation of increased car usage to communities are not taken into account.

    Hercepton funding is a similar issue. The benefits from a thousand glue ear operations to quality of life may exceed the benefits of one course of hercepton which may not work. Sorry it sounds very ghoulish but these are the trade offs and decisions that have to be made. For a politician to specify support for one drug smacks of emotional populism and is completely counter to a logical rationing of scarce resources.

  11. Matthew Pilott 11

    vidiot – those aren’t examples of pork barrelling. What is your point? Irrelevancy for levity? It ain’t working. Maybe look up what a subject is about if you have no idea, as is clearly the case here.

  12. Daveski 12

    In any case, it would be a lot easier to simply develop policies that you control directly and aim at your voters such as writing off interest on student loans.

    Seeing you are firmly against “political corruption”, I look forward to you next post on political appointments to boards and other quangos. Mind you, I see your point – you want to keep Mike Batman as busy as possible so he does as little damage as possible to Labour’s chances.

  13. Toad. I’m not fimiliar with penlink, I’ll have to ask my contacts in NZTA about it. but i’m as anti new roading as you are.

    HS. sorry, I remember experts saying 9 weeks was basically as good but I’ll take your word and amend the post. The point stands that the PHARMAC would prefer to use limited resources on more effective drugs.

  14. higherstandard 14

    No problem – the whole saga with Herceptin would take too long to go through – another time perhaps.

    Edit – Mickey, the glue ear thing is the kind of example that PHARMAC likes to make it is however completely fallacious.

  15. Matthew Pilott 15

    Higherstandard – I recall anothe comment from you struck me as very interesting – you wer ecriticising pharmac’s buying criteria as excessively cost-based (so crudely summarise).

    I suspect that there is some truth in that, but we can probably all agree the best thing to do would be to change pharmac purchasing criteria through an open (and professional) process, instead of a politician saying “pharmac will buy this drug because I say so”.

  16. Daveski 16

    Got to say I agree with MP.

    I’m happier with major infrastructure projects been decided based on politics and a plan for the country but not pharmac decisions.

  17. Ianmac 17

    Remember that Key will instruct Kiwisaver to invest 40% in NZ projects. This overturns the independence that the trustees have previously had to choose the best investments for best returns. 23% at the moment in NZ

  18. Kerry 18

    i suppose we shouldnt be too hard on the Nats….its not their fault they simply have no idea on how to run a country, or for that matter how to run anything.

    Nats = home of the bewildered!!!

  19. insider 19

    If you want pork barrel look no further than the railways. Labour’s ace negotiators have lost us $50 a year each in its reduced asset value less than six months after its purchase, and there are further reductions to come says Cullen. Brilliant leadership!


    There is not a lot of evidence that the 1bill home insulation scheme will do much for for energy or health. An Otago health study showed insulation increased room temperatures by only 0.6 deg. There was a lot of self reported perceived improvement in health but not actual medical evidence to back it up, and the temp increase is apparently marginal in health terms so any health ‘improvement’ could have been a placebo effect.

    A cost benefit study showed a reduction in power consumption of only 350kwh a year for a cost of $1800 to upgrade insulation. That is a cost saving of 350 x 21cents or $75 a year. There are also plenty of examples of where increased insulation has not reduced heating energy consumption at all. Insulation also has a limited life and combine that with the need to replace it due to other renovations that may occur over its lifetime, it is marginal whether this ‘investment’ will actually produce a benefit.

    [lprent: yes?? Can’t remember writing anything about this]

  20. Matthew Pilott 20

    Insider – which study were you talking about? This one mentions “insulated houses were shown to use about a fifth less energy than uninsulated houses.”


    “People felt in better health and had half the number of respiratory symptoms. Children in insulated houses had half the number of days off school and, overall, there were fewer admissions to hospital for respiratory conditions.”

    From what I’ve read I thought it was a fairly clear-cut example of a good investment.

  21. Evidence-Based Practice 21

    Re the herceptin thing. It is complicated. It is an example of drug company lobbying internationally with powerful allies in local oncology and so-called consumer groups – so they are not independent experts but are instead highly conflicted..

    The drug companies have only offered two options for countries to buy it -either 9 weeks or 12 months – no other options – with heavy company lobbying for 12 months. So best practice evidence can only look at these options, and because many countries (esp those where there is considerable govt interference in decisions) have taken the 12 month option that is what most current research reports cover. There is an international study going on in to the 9 week option that NZ has signed up to and will reneg on (giving us a bad name) if the Nats over rule Pharmac on this.

    It is also extremely expensive and will use up a large proportion of the cancer drug budget so something else (or several other drugs) will have to go. But the evidence so far is that it is successful (ie keeps women alive a bit longer – not a cure) in only a small proportion of women who have HER2 breast cancer, which is only a small proportion of the total. But it has serious side effects re heart conditions. I wouldn’t be surprised if the is a big legal backlash once the side effects for the longer course are fully realised in long term research.

    I see in the New Scientist that in the US many women take it even though they are not HER2 positive, just because of the effects of lobbying. It is seen as a desirable drug.

    So we need to look at who is promoting it here and ask why, and what is in it for them.

  22. higherstandard 22


    Your monicker is a joke

    Don’t suggest local oncologists are stooges for Roche this is demonstrably untrue.

    The vast amount of clinical trial data available and the balance of evidence for Herceptin is in relation to 12 months therapy – that is what oncologists have based their recommendation for the 12 month course on.

    If Herceptin is funded for the 12 months course under the nats the money will not come out of the existing funding for cancer medications but will be additional funding made available to PHARMAC/DHBs.

    Treatment is given with the intent of it being curative in early barest cancer which is where the 9 week vs year long course is under debate – it is not curative in advanced/metastatic breast cancer this is irrelevant as it has been funded in this indication for some years.

    Cardiac side effects are rare and certainly far more rare than the risk of relapsing after adjuvant therapy. Relapsing after adjuvant therapy for early breast cancer usually comes with a very poor prognosis.

  23. insider,

    Do tell us more about private asset values and public asset values?

  24. Evidence-Based Practice 24

    H/S I did say that most of the reports are about the 12 month option because that is what most countries have been forced to opt for – so that is what they have data for.
    And where is the additional funding for PHARMAC coming from to pay for this, and it will be several million dollars a year? I haven’t heard that Nats promise this or say where it will come from.

  25. Swampy 25

    Your claim that agencies are independent of the government is purile nonsense. All the agencies like Transit have a board in part made up of Labour Party people who are obviously there to represent the Labour Party viewpoint on those boards, which means they are not independent. If Labour respected the independence of these agencies people would be appointed with no known affiliations.

  26. vidiot 26

    So back on to them Pork Barrels, how is it that Labour never asked Treasury to do (or did) any costings for their Universal Student Allowance promise ?


    Oh god, was Winston right ? http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz-election-2008/news/article.cfm?c_id=1501799&objectid=10537418

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