Being My Brother’s Keeper – The Public Health Sector that Never was.

Several days ago was the 139th anniversary of the birth of Michael Joseph Savage, the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand. Savage’s Labour administration is credited with the creation of the welfare state in New Zealand.

Several days ago a friend of mine was watching ‘Sicko’, Michael Moore’s expose of the American Health system. She commented about the favourable aspects of our health system as a consequence. While, these two events might appear unrelated, it set me thinking about the original intentions of Labour and of Savage in the health sector and how those intentions never came to pass.

For the original intention of the senior members of Labour’s first administration was to actually create a comprehensive, universal and fully publicly funded health service, just like the NHS in Britain. From its earliest years, Labour had consistently promoted a comprehensive and fully state funded health system which was accessible to all people and, likewise, it did so in its 1935 manifesto. This health service would cover all aspects of a person’s health from GP visits to surgery, from dentistry to optometry. It was all to be freely available to people and it would all be funded from the taxpayer’s purse.

Such was the belief that Labour was going to replace the existing medical system upon its election in 1935, that as Janet Frame records in ‘An Angel at My Table’ her father burnt all the family’s doctor’s bills. This was a scene that was repeated elsewhere in New Zealand. People had complete confidence in the new Government’s commitment in this area.

In Government, Labour moved swiftly and appointed one of its new members, but someone with some interest in the area, Arnold Nordmeyer (later Minister of Finance in the 2nd Labour Government), to chair the Select Committee looking at proposals for a National Health Service. Nordmeyer was ably assisted by his friend and later Minister for Health, DG ‘Doc’ McMillan in proposing the new service. McMillan also had the benefit of being a Doctor and having been in private practice before being elected to Parliament. Both McMillan and Nordmeyer were supporters of a comprehensive and state funded health system. Mary Logan in her biography of Arnold Nordmeyer, ‘Nordy‘ notes that Nordmeyer and McMillan had even won support from Walter Nash, Labour’s Minister of Finance for a completely public funded health system.

The other trump card that Nordmeyer and McMillan had was the support of Prime Minister Savage. Along with Labour’s commitment to implementing social security, Savage took an active interest in the organisation and outcomes of this ‘new’ health service. He perceived it as an integral part of Labour’s social security system and another step toward creating a society which catered for all people from ‘the cradle to the grave’.

But, the one person that they could not convince was Deputy Prime Minister, Peter Fraser. Fraser had close contacts within the British Medical Association (BMA) and consistently thwarted attempts to impose a comprehensive system. Fraser’s opposition and that of the BMA finally angered Savage to such an extent that there was, as Gustafson records in ’From the Cradle to the Grave,’ a ‘showdown’ in the Prime Minister’s office between Savage and the Head of the BMA.  The BMA told Savage that they would oppose the new system to their utmost. In response, Savage stated that the Government would treat the BMA Doctors as being ‘locked out’ and that the Government was committed to implementing its policies to the betterment of the people and as a result it would hire immigrant Doctors if necessary to ensure its policies were enacted. A furious Savage then walked out of the room leaving an apologetic Fraser.

Of course, Savage died in 1940 of cancer and his desire of a universal state funded health system died with him. As Prime Minister, Fraser struck a deal with the BMA for a more limited scheme which allowed Doctors to be subsidised by the state. It also set the standard for the private sector to operate in cooperation and later, competition with the state sector. In the 1980s and 1990s this commitment to public health service was scaled back even further with funding to the public sector cut, the public sector corporatized and the private sector making great gains in the supply of health services.

Presently, Labour is involved in a debate over its leadership. However, of real importance to me is who picks up the mantle for supporting similar policies such as those that I have detailed. Labour needs people who have the same steely forthright resolve as Savage in this regard and a commitment to implementing policies that benefit all in society. Currently, I don’t see any Labour MPs who are being touted as potential leaders at the moment making that commitment. That is, however, not to say that they will arise.

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One Comment on “Being My Brother’s Keeper – The Public Health Sector that Never was.”

  1. Quentinn says:

    Sharp eyed people will have noted that I had written that it was the 100th anniversary of Savage’s birth. In fact, Savage was born in 1872. Well spotted. My mistake. The only explanation I can offer dear reader is the flu and writing this last thing at night.


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