Hooton suspects something stinky on the sewage story

Matthew Hooton writes:

They had me fooled.

Last week I wrote here that the Middlemore “scandal” meant a brand-new hospital in South Auckland was required.

The next day, my colleague Lizzie Marvelly wrote in the Weekend Herald that there was “shit in the walls at Middlemore” as a result of “years of drastic underfunding”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern picked up the theme, saying “the state of Middlemore Hospital … is emblematic of what we’re seeing across the board”. Consequently, next month’s Budget wouldn’t have all the goodies it might have.

The impression ministers and their media allies portrayed was something like a faecal version of The Blob. After a week of sunlight, though, something doesn’t add up.


First, Middlemore Hospital continues to function, including its highly regarded intensive care and burns units. Would such services continue were sewage really seeping down the walls as implied?

Of course they would not.

Second, no one in authority seems to have been told about the alleged sewage or even the alleged extent of leaky buildings.

Former Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has been most derided for his alleged failure to be on top of his job.

But, just two-and-a-half weeks ago, new Health Minister David Clark and local MP Louisa Wall also denied being told about the watertightness issue, let alone the “sewage-in-the-walls” story.

There is now some controversy over what Clark was told and when.

Counties Manukau District Health Board (CMDHB) didn’t mention the issue when it presented to Parliament’s health select committee in February.

So they didn’t even know about it.

The Government also confirms that Middlemore’s building problems can be fixed for just $27.5 million, less than 0.28 per cent of its $9.9 billion capital allowance for the next three years and a fraction of $298m spent on Middlemore’s new Clinical Services Block.

As revealed by the Herald, CMDHB also planned to spend $8.6m this financial year extending its innovation hub but not $7.3m to re-clad its children’s hospital. Its capital budget has been significantly underspent. This suggests a strange set of priorities if the Middlemore “crisis” is as dire as implied.

So is it really a crisis?

Is it too cynical to think the story may have been, at best, grossly exaggerated by the Government for political purposes?

No one seems to know anything about the sewage-in-the-cafeteria story, or where it came from, and no images have emerged despite even the lowest-paid hospital worker carrying a camera phone.

This is a good point. We’ve all heard about it but not seen it.

On Monday, Ardern announced her Government’s communications strategy involves drip-feeding stories of alleged public-sector underfunding by the previous Government. We can only speculate, but was the Middlemore sewage story the first?


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