The National Party has sent a letter of warning to the Auckland District Health Board, saying it has received reports the board intends to promote Government achievements before the election.
In the letter sent to chief executive Garry Smith and obtained by the Herald, National Party health spokesman Tony Ryall threatened a "significant political issue" would result if the board generated too much good news over the election period.
Mr Ryall told the Herald he had "heard suggestions" the level of pro-active good news would be beyond normal levels.
Mr Ryall said he wasn't concerned about the health board reporting on their activities, but it was his intention "to remind them of the rules".
"I think in this stage now, when we're so close to a general election, it's not appropriate for district health boards to try and promote activities closely associated with the Labour Government."
ADHB chief executive Garry Smith said he was not aware of any truth to the allegations. He said the health board would not change any practices as a result of the letter, and would continue to abide by official guidelines.
Health Minister David Cunliffe castigated the letter yesterday, calling it an attack on freedom of speech and a "blatant act of manipulation and cowardice".
Mr Ryall had no right to dictate to health boards what they could or couldn't tell the public, he said.
"It's the most craven act of political interference that I have ever witnessed," Mr Cunliffe said. "I will not seek to politicise the health sector, and nor should the Opposition."
State Services Commissioner Iain Rennie told the Herald state servants were expected to behave impartially at all times.
He said they should continue to inform New Zealanders of their rights and obligations during the pre-election period, but should do it in a way that avoids any perception of political bias.
He would not comment on whether Mr Ryall's letter was appropriate.
Otago University associate professor of law and electoral law expert Andrew Geddis said the public still had a right to know about their health system in the run-up to the election.
That such news could benefit the Government was natural, he said.
"Anything that Government money buys in the public health sector is a public good which will reflect well on the Government that provides the money. That's just impossible to get away from."
It was right to say the health boards shouldn't be expressly trying to drum up stories that reflected well on Labour as a Government, he said, but a restriction on making public statements "can't extend to releasing information about how the district health board is performing per se".
Mr Cunliffe said district health boards could report operational matters throughout the election period.
"Threatening DHBs with making good news stories a political issue is ridiculous. Every day tens of thousands of Kiwis use health services in this country. They deserve to know what's happening in those health services, bad or good."
National health spokesman Tony Ryall to the Auckland District Health Board:
You will be aware that we are now in the pre-election period where there are rules about how state sector organisations will behave. You will also be aware that it would be totally inappropriate for your media people to be pro-actively working to generate positive news coverage to benefit the Labour Government during this period. Revelations of such would become a significant political issue.
Health Minister David Cunliffe:
What does the National Party want? Does it expect highly important cancer screening programmes to stop advertising simply because it might be seen as positive for the Government. This is shameful.