Peeni Henare wants to be the next Minister of Health - here's what he'd do

Labour MP Peeni Henare says he wants to be the next Minister of Health so he can "redesign the health system" in a way that doesn't leave Māori behind.

The Associate Health Minister hasn't been a regular sight on TV during the pandemic, sticking to his home turf of Tāmaki Makaurau far from the televised daily briefings, which are usually held in Wellington. 

"I myself was on lockdown here in Tāmaki Makaurau, and I don't consider myself an essential worker like our nurses and front-line workers," he told Newshub Nation on Saturday, "but I've been more than involved in the communications, as well as meeting with the likes of the Māori medical experts group, iwi leaders, community leaders on these matters so that we can better serve our whānau...

"I also didn't want to abandon my constituents by heading to Wellington. I think I was best able to serve them by being here, talking with the community, engaging with them and then feeding them."

This week the New Zealand Medical Journal published a couple of damning reports into the state of the New Zealand health system when it comes to serving tangata whenua. The first looked at data on outbreaks of COVID-19 overseas, specifically at how it's affected disadvantaged and minority communities, and applied it to New Zealand - concluding that an uncontrolled outbreak would kill Māori at rates 50 to 150 percent higher than other ethnicities.

The second found people who report being discriminated against when trying to access healthcare are more likely to have poorer health outcomes.

"Racism is a determinant of health that has a negative impact across a broad range of health outcomes in New Zealand", and it was mostly targeted at "indigenous and minority ethnic groups", the research found.

Peeni Henare
Peeni Henare. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Henare told Newshub Nation the Government has put "quite a large amount of money" into Māori-specific health initiatives, through the Ministry of Māori Development and Whānau Ora for example.

"That's going to the social support that whānau need right now. It goes through via Whānau Ora commissioning agencies, then it goes into Māori providers in our community. 

"They're the ones with the reach out to our families, and they provide support not just for the individual but for the entire family, which the report you highlighted shows that you must focus on the whānau in order to deal to some of those inequities. If you don't and only focus on the individual, you'll see the problem grow."

Previous Health Minister David Clark was criticised for not being a part of the televised briefings. His excuse was similar to Henare's - he was doing the work from his home electorate in Canterbury. The current Health Minister, Chris Hipkins, has fronted regularly - but he's based in Remutaka, just north of the capital. 

With the unique threat COVID-19 poses to Māori, Henare said he would "take on board" criticism of his absence. 

"I'm happy with the Māori engagement that we've had, and I do hear some of the criticism that I wasn't standing next to the Prime Minister, but you don't need to do that to have effective communication. And I've been more than happy with the communication we've had to date."

Hipkins, who already has the large and challenging role of Minister of Education, is only meant to be a temporary Minister of Health, with a replacement expected to be announced after the election - if Labour returns to power. 

"I will be giving it my all up until the election - what happens after that is a question for the Prime Minister," he told Newshub in July. 

Henare, not presently in Cabinet but responsible for Civil Defence, Youth and Whānau Ora, is sticking his hand up. 

"I'd say to the Prime Minister, look, we have an opportunity here to do something rather special to recreate and redesign the health system. Māori are at the forefront of inequities, therefore, Māori, I think, should take a lead in making sure we have a redesign of the health system that best suits our people."

That could involve a separate new Māori health agency. 

"We've been working with the Waitangi Tribunal claimants on that matter, and we've said that we're committed to working towards a Maāori health authority. The devil is in the detail there... I certainly don't favour bureaucracy. I certainly don't favour that. I'd like to see more resources going into those vulnerable communities, like the Māori community, and I believe that a track towards a Māori health authority will do that."