Greens pressure Government on mental health after Swarbrick takes portfolio

Chloe Swarbrick.
Chloe Swarbrick. Photo credit: Supplied

The Green Party is signalling an intent to zero in on the Government's mental health promises.

The mental health portfolio has been shifted from Julie Anne Genter, Associate Minister for Health, to Chloe Swarbrick, who has no ministerial portfolios.

That means the Greens will be able to lobby the Government more effectively on promises made to them in the confidence and supply agreement, instead of taking the diplomatic approach of a Minister inside the Government.

The National Party goes further, saying taking the portfolio outside the executive signals frustration at the Government's mental health response one year in.

National says the Government's using its review of the mental health system to delay making big decisions - which presumably comes with big spending - in the area.

The Government says that's nonsense, of course.

"I reject outright National's accusation that we have delayed work on mental health. Their criticism is a bit rich given their lack of action while in government for nine years," Health Minister David Clark said. He says the Government put $200 million into DHB mental health services in Budget 2018, and put mental health support into Christchurch schools.

The confidence and supply agreement with the Greens makes a huge promise in the mental health area - to "ensure everyone has access to timely and high quality mental health services, including free counselling for those under 25 years".

How do the Greens interpret that promise?

It seems impossibly large.

"It means what it says," Ms Swarbrick says, speaking from her office in Bowen House.

"It is a big commitment, and we recognise that. It's one that I personally am deeply invested in, and not one we make lightly."

The Government announced a pilot trialling free counselling for under-25s in the Budget 2018. Does that mean the "free counselling for those under 25 years" aspect of the confidence and supply arrangement is fulfilled?

"No," Ms Swarbrick says. "When we are talking free counselling, it must be fit for purpose, high-quality, from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South."

Mental health struggle 'makes me normal' 

Ms Swarbrick is one of those rare politicians who have spoken about their own mental health.

She told Vice in 2017 as a teenager she struggled with anxiety and depression.

There's a downside to sharing such things, but Ms Swarbrick says it's important for politicians to remove "the façade", to be more relatable.

"I have been told I am crazy, I'm loopy, that I shouldn't be anywhere near decision-making. Always from people online."

"It's not something that makes me special, but something that makes me normal. These kinds of issues are pandemic in our society," Ms Swarbrick said.

It explains some of the drive to take the portfolio, but not the strategy. Ms Genter was given the Associate Health portfolio, but mental health itself is not one of her responsibilities - that sits with Health Minister David Clark.

So why shift the portfolio to a non-minister?

"[Ms Genter] was not in a position to utilise the flexibility the confidence and supply arrangement affords us, which is not just to support the Government; to collaborate with the Government, but to constructively critique the Government.

"We see it as a major focus inside our confidence and supply agreement... this is essentially a move to ensure we deliver on that."

In other words, this means the Greens can more openly lobby the Government on that big mental health promise.

National's mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey says that decision to distance mental health from the executive likely comes from a place of frustration at a lack of Government action on mental health.

"I'd probably draw a bow that they are not happy with mental health themselves, and they are giving it to someone who has got the articulation, the credibility and the ability of being someone outside the executive to actually start asking some questions," Mr Doocey told Newshub.

"I would say... people are starting to get just a bit frustrated, and I think they are sensing that. Chloe comes across to me as someone who is quite connected. She'll be sensing that."

Mr Doocey says there's a perception the National-led Government didn't care about mental health.

"It became a metaphor for a Government that had stopped listening and stopped caring," he told Newshub.

Should the National Government have done more on mental health?

"We should, and we've said that since the election. I don't agree with the perception we stopped caring," Mr Doocey continued.

"The problem is people saw the perception, and it became a reality - and we were slow to address that. That became quite a politicisation of mental health."

He says National's 17 mental health initiatives announced in August 2017 were comprehensive but undersold.

"What we didn't do is get to that point early enough or sell them better. People weren't interested in the fiscal amount - they were interested in what they would do, and we should have done a better job selling them."

There's now been a tiptoe forward.

Two months ago, Mr Doocey wrote to coalition partners asking for cross-party co-operation on mental health.

"People want to see collaborative working on two issues in New Zealand, and that's climate change and mental health," Mr Doocey told Newshub.

On Thursday, he met with Ms Swarbrick. Mr Doocey said the Greens are on board with cross-party co-operation on mental health and New Zealand First will "join if the other parties join," Mr Doocey said.

"Now it's just left to Labour."

Dr Clark says he'll "respond formally shortly."