SO the worst-disguised government intention of this year has been enacted, and the Hawke's Bay District Health Board has been given the sack. As the Minister always intended. Why did it happen, and what may it mean for us?
Officially, the reasons given included poor financial performance, the minister's "increasing lack of confidence in the board's integrity" , and "in-fighting".
Many district health boards have failed to keep within their financial terms of reference, but no other board has been sacked.
"Lacking integrity?" Heaven knows, I've clashed often enough with the board over years of fighting for better health services. But unlike its predecessor in the 1990s, the present board does not deserve to be accused of any lack of integrity.
What's more, when during the last half dozen years I have met lack of integrity - and I have - it has come out of Wellington.
It wasn't the DHB that repeatedly set up meetings in poor faith and then cancelled them at the last minute, or rendered them useless by not doing what they said they would. It was ministry officers working under Government direction.
It wasn't the DHB that appointed to the board a Wellingtonian, Peter Hausmann, who had inevitable conflicts of interest. It was then Minister of Health, Annette King.
It wasn't the DHB that didn't answer letters and questions from groups and individuals, even mayors, but the minister.
It wasn't the DHB that failed to provide answers required under the Official Information Act in timely fashion, but ministers of the Crown.
It wasn't the DHB that left Hawke's Bay health consistently chronically underfunded, but the Government. If we are going to talk integrity, let's look at the devious process the minister has now used. We voted in the new board only late last year. Has the minister even met it - or its chairman, Kevin Atkinson, for that matter?
When an elected body is held up to public derision, forbidden to defend itself in public, and given just four working days to answer major charges, with its chief executive strangely absent on "stress leave", where is "integrity" in the process?
The other official reason given for the sacking is in-fighting. Actually, the board has been remarkably united in the face of adversity.
The reasons for the sacking lie elsewhere. They lie with the Hausmann conflict-of-interest affair, where an elected DHB acted with transparent propriety.
Too many strands lead back to the minister. The arrogance of power does not like criticism. The board has been sacked because it has in good conscience done what it believes to be right, and as a result has dared to criticise government misjudgment. For that, it should have been applauded rather than sacked, just as the "whistle blower" deserved promotion rather than to lose her job. What purpose can DHBs serve if they are simply to rubber-stamp ministerial wishes?
But there's more. Ask yourself this. Why is the minister acting now, when the board's case against Mr Hausmann is not resolved? Could it be that Cabinet doesn't want the board to have access to the documents and legal funding needed to prove its case?
Far too many chains stretch back to Wellington and the cabinet office. Chief executive Chris Clarke, who has complained to the minister and has in turn been criticised by the board, formerly worked in Helen Clark's office. He would have had a major say in the appointment of Ray Lind, Annette King's husband, as his number two.
Mr Hausmann was appointed to the board by Annette King. Ray Lind, on leaving the DHB, has gone to work for Mr Hausmann. New minister David Cunliffe, rather than sit down with the elected board, has chosen to listen to Clarke and Hausmann.
When a minister steps in amid a case potentially highly embarrassing to the Government before the findings are out, there may indeed have been a failure of "integrity". But not by the board.
Mr Cunliffe's action means we are denied the democratic representation for which we voted so recently. Still more alarming was the minister saying on television that he "can't guarantee health services won't be cut".
Hawke's Bay has consistently lost out over the years. That is a major reason the present board has not had greater success despite being well led. It has also been handicapped by the inept performance of its predecessor in the 1990s, which failed to provide key planned facilities and left it saddled with poor, irreversible commercial decisions.
We simply cannot afford further cuts. Given past history, Napier will be watching with particular anxiety. However, hopefully it should not be affected. Chris Clarke, as well as the now displaced elected board, publicly stated last year he could "absolutely guarantee" the continuance of the Wellesley Road Centre after the expiry of its lease, and present acting chief executive Win Bennett said this week there is no intention to cut services.
More revelations lie ahead of us. Particularly interesting was the statement in last night's Hawke's Bay Today that there have been two drafts of the report at the centre of the court action, with significant differences between them. Hawke's Bay people will want to know much more about those changes - and how they came to be made
We must learn from this debacle. Before the election, every political party should say what steps it will take to ensure either that DHBs be given genuine autonomy, or that the minister and Ministry of Health accept full responsibility for all local level health decisions and implementation. At present there is no accountability.