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?

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.

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

Even this week, former CMDHB chair Lee Mathias told RNZ she didn't know about leaking sewage. Chief executive Gloria Johnson had earlier confirmed there had been a problem with sewerage pipes a couple of years ago and wondered if it might be found with other pipes in the future. She knew nothing of RNZ's suggestion sewage had leaked into the cafeteria.

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

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.

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.

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?

Even the dodgiest characters in the Key Government's dirty-politics machine might have demurred.

Previous governments have used a sense of crisis early in their terms to make a case for reform.

The new Government faces no such crisis so it seems it has decided to invent one. Its purpose is not to launch a reform programme, but to explain away its impossible fiscal position caused by its failure to budget for contingencies, its near-adoption of National's debt targets and its ruling out most tax increases.

Its problem is compounded by proceeding with idiotic new spending like the $1.6b to make the first year of tertiary education free, to protect millennial students from the horror of taking out interest-free loans for the 25 per cent of course costs not already covered by taxpayers.

There is a genuine issue with New Zealand's health assets. Treasury reported last month that 19 per cent are in bad shape, with $14b needed for maintenance over the next decade.

It is fair enough for the Government to highlight specific examples of where this $14b will be spent. But it is a different matter if it plans to establish a dirty-politics machine to feed invented stories to friendly journalists to smear both the previous Government and providers of health, education and welfare services.

And it only makes it worse if the intended conduits for such misinformation are not fringe bloggers like Cameron Slater but news organisations such as RNZ and the Herald.