Mental health another casualty of government ineptitude

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
25 June, 2021

A news item this week reported the Minister of Health was “enormously frustrated”.

We can think of quite a few in the private sector who know that feeling. There is a major difference: the Minister is frustrated with the agencies that serve him; the others are frustrated with the government’s policy ineptitude.

The list of activities now disrupted by harmful government policies include offshore oil and gas exploration, electricity, rental housing, vehicle leasing, electricity generation, pastoral farming and employment. It may include some local authorities and health boards facing forced amalgamations.

But back to the Minister. He was enormously frustrated to discover how little had been achieved in mental health since 2019. Reportedly, in answering a written parliamentary question he was obliged to reveal that of $235 million allocated in 2019 to provide new mental health facilities, only 0.2% had been spent. Less than half the $145.3 million allocated to reduce hospitalisations had been spent.

As it happens, I agree with Budget 2019 -- improving support for mental health should be a major priority. Mental health problems affect many and are devasting for wellbeing.

The problem with the Budget Speech was that it gave no reason to expect new overall spending of $1.9 billion would be effective. Are mental disorders caused by colonialisation - the current scapegoat for every ill - or by unrelated treatable neurological disorders? Does the government know or care which it is? It should. Otherwise, it will fund ineffectual programmes, in which case the less it spends the better for wellbeing.

Unwillingness to disclose relevant information is another red flag. Journalists are frustrated at the obstructionist responses to OIA requests. The Ministry of Health reportedly succeeded in excising ‘negative’ mental health outcomes from a recent much delayed annual report. Why do that if it cares about improving outcomes?

The Budget Speech reads as if taxpayer’s hard-earned money is a free resource and good intentions are all that matters. Implementation is either taken for granted or unimportant. Effectiveness is an even more distant consideration. If the programmes are ineffectual, well, ‘at least we tried’.

Even more galling, the government touted this Budget as a world-first “Wellbeing Budget”. But a deep concern for wellbeing must be accompanied by an intense focus on implementation and effectiveness. Why was the current or previous Minister not on top of either aspect?

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates