Christopher Luxon confuses Health NZ Te Whatu Ora with Ministry of Health when putting comms staff in firing line

Christopher Luxin has confused Health NZ Te Whatu Ora with Ministry of Health when criticising them over the number of comms staff they employ.
Christopher Luxin has confused Health NZ Te Whatu Ora with Ministry of Health when criticising them over the number of comms staff they employ. Photo credit: Newshub

By Phil Pennington for RNZ

The National Party keeps firing away at the government over the rising spend on contractors in the public service.

But its scattergun approach in the fraught health sector has shot wide of the mark, with both Christopher Luxon and his deputy getting mixed up between the ministry and Te Whatu Ora.

This was Luxon on Morning Report on Wednesday when asked which jobs he would cut to make his promised savings of $400 million, partly to redirect into early childcare rebates.

"Here's a good place to start, right, we've got the Ministry of Health.

"We've got 200 people on a communications team inside the Ministry of Health, it's grown to 200 people. That is a hang of a lot of communications consultants and at the same time they then go off and hire separate PR firms to continue to perfect and communicate their messages."

A few hours later, in a select committee appearance by WorkSafe, National's Paul Goldsmith took aim at a second agency.

"The topic of the day is around consultants and WorkSafe, for example, has seen an increase of $13 million in consultants and contractors in the last three years."

WorkSafe's annual review shows almost $20m spent on contractors (including consultants and professional services) last year, up from $7m three years before.

WorkSafe told the select committee it had no choice but to spend the extra on expert legal advice and a big IT upgrade.

At the same time, at another select committee across the corridor, National's Simeon Brown was beating the same drum, characterising it as a double blowout of more public servants plus more contractors across the entire public service.

"You've had an increase of 14,000 more core public servants ... so the amount that's being spent on salaries has increased even faster, so the reality is you've had a blowout in both areas," Brown said.

Listening to that, Public Service Commissioner Peter Hughes said the commission was doing the job the government asked for several years ago, to get the balance right - that even though the total spend on contractors had kept going up in real terms, as a proportion of public service wage costs it had mostly been dropping.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Health was leaping to its own defence, saying it does not have 200 communications staff, only 30.

Luxon was asked later about this by RNZ.

He repeated that the ministry had 200, "according to Rob Campbell", noting Campbell was the chair of Health New Zealand and "that's where the 200 number came from".

But Health NZ Te Whatu Ora is separate from the Ministry of Health.

In an opinion piece on Monday, following his sacking from Te Whatu Ora's board, Campbell said the agency he used to lead had "rafts" of over 200 comms people.

Luxon's deputy Nicola Willis was asked about it too, and she too said the Health Ministry had "a huge number" of comms people.

Advised it had only 30, she responded, "There are only 30? Well, why is Rob Campbell saying there is 200? Maybe people are hiding behind different job titles".

The 30 figure was confirmed in the Health Ministry's annual review.

But so, too, was a massive rise in contractor spending - it had risen by six times in two years, pushed by Covid-19, to $150m.

As for Te Whatu Ora, which runs the hospitals and inherited their comms teams, was Rob Campbell right? Just how many comms staff and contractors does it have?

"We do not know," it told RNZ.

This was because it was still working on combining almost 30 organisations into one.

It was starting to look at how many comms people it needed, it said.

It added that it does know how many comms contractors it has hired - 26.