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Watch: Nicola Willis defends cancer drug u-turn, says Govt will honour promise

Claire Trevett,
Publish Date
Tue, 4 Jun 2024, 1:56pm

Watch: Nicola Willis defends cancer drug u-turn, says Govt will honour promise

Claire Trevett,
Publish Date
Tue, 4 Jun 2024, 1:56pm

Finance Minister Nicola Willis is continuing her Budget sales job in Christchurch today as the Government comes under pressure for its failure to fund its promise for new cancer drugs.

Willis addressed media after speaking to Business Canterbury this afternoon about the Budget she unveiled last Thursday.

On cancer drugs, Willis would not say whether her commitment to make a decision on funding the drugs would mean they were available by the end of the year, saying the commitment was to fund them and more announcements would be made soon.

“We will be making that announcement shortly.

“There is some complexity to how those medicines are approved, how they are procured and the order in which that happens.

“I note there is no other political party that is prepared to make that commitment. We made that commitment and we intend to deliver on it.”

She said there were ways to do that without up-ending the entire Pharmac system and they were working through that.

Willis again defended the tax cuts, saying while wealthier people might not need them, they would make a difference at the supermarket checkout for the middle income households who the Government was targeting.

In response to Labour’s criticism of Budget cuts for housing and Kainga Ora, Willis said the Government was committed to getting more houses built and improving Kainga Ora’s efficiency. She said she had asked the acting chair of KO if he thought the savings set out were deliverable and he had thought they were.

On housing supply, Willis said the Government had funded an extra 1500 new homes through community housing providers. While that was different to Labour’s approach of using Kainga Ora for housing supply, she said the Government was not happy with KO’s performance.

A Taxpayers’ Union Curia snap poll taken immediately after the Budget showed respondents thought the Budget’s contents were “okay” and most people were content with the size of the tax cuts offered. Those tax cuts were passed into law under urgency late last week.

However, there has been a weekend of criticism for not including National’s election campaign promise to fund 13 cancer drugs in the Budget – and an open letter this morning from a raft of cancer advocacy and treatment groups is urging the Government to rectify it.

This morning, Labour leader Chris Hipkins also took aim at the Budget’s failure to deliver on cancer drugs.

“I think Christopher Luxon and Nicola Willis, who went up and down the country promising New Zealanders access to those cancer treatments during the campaign, are simply cruel in making a promise and then not delivering on it. It is not a commitment they should have made in the first place, but having made it, they should have made sure they delivered on it. They haven’t done that.”

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon has flown out for a visit to Niue and Fiji, but earlier told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB that the Government was working to deliver on its promise to fund 13 new cancer drugs.

He expected an announcement “well before the end of the year” – despite Health Minister Shane Reti saying last week that it would be at least a year before the funding was there.

Luxon said he wanted to reassure patients and their families that it was still a priority. ”We are going to do it, we are going to deliver on it, it’s a promise we have made.”

He blamed the hold-up on the need to bolster Pharmac’s funding by an extra $1.8 billion to keep its current services going, as well as the complexity around the process of drug purchasing.

Hipkins visited the Sustainability Trust to highlight a scaling-back of the work that could be done in insulation and energy efficient measures for lower income households in the Warmer Kiwi Homes programme.

Hipkins said the Government had not considered the consequences of their decisions.

Labour also took aim at Budget cuts in the housing area. Housing spokesman Kieran McAnulty said Labour had identified $1.5b in cuts.

“There is $1.5b less for building and maintaining public houses, which will slow the progress we’ve made as a country to fix the housing crisis. The Government has cut $435m from the Kāinga Ora house build programme and over $1b from the maintenance fund,” McAnulty said.

“The National Party did this last time. Public houses got so run-down that a big investment was needed to do them up, and instead of fronting up what was needed, they sold the houses off instead.”

‘We will meet that commitment’

In her speech, Willis highlighted the Budget’s funding increases for health and for new measures including extending breast screening and paying for security guards at emergency departments.

She referred to the criticism of the Government around the cancer drug promise.

”I can assure you we will meet that commitment.”

She said she expected to have more to say about that soon. However, she said first the Government had to secure the funding needed for life-saving treatments purchased by Pharmac, saying the Budget had to “fill funding holes left by the former Labour government.”

She said infrastructure was a big priority, critical for economic growth.

”More than $68b is forecast to be spent by Government on infrastructure over the next fives years.”

She said 2024 was expected to be a record year for spending on infrastructure and the Government had topped up the budget for it by an extra $7b.

She said Shane Jones $1.2b regional fund was “ready to go” and had already identified projects for resilience after major weather events.

On law and order, she pointed to funding for new police and to up-size Waikeria prison.

On the tax cuts, she said the package was fully funded so would not be inflationary.

When Willis was asked whether the tax cuts were the best use of money at the moment, she said an extra $20 - $40 a week might not have been what the business audience in front of her were looking for.

“But come with me and talk to the people I met on the campaign who said that it would be the difference between being able to pay the bills and going into overdraft.”

She said the target was very much middle-income workers who were now paying a lot more tax as a proportion of their income than they had been because of bracket creep.

Willis said they did look at a tax-free threshold, but it cost a lot and benefited those on very low incomes – she said the priority had been “middle” income workers, so had opted to shift existing thresholds instead.

Claire Trevett is the NZ Herald’s political editor, based at Parliament in Wellington. She started at the Herald in 2003 and joined the Press Gallery team in 2007. She is a life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

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