Minister of loud ties and safe hands

BRAT PACK: An early photo of Bill English, left, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith, and Tony Ryall.
BRAT PACK: An early photo of Bill English, left, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith, and Tony Ryall.

Health Minister Tony Ryall politically anaesthetised a tricky portfolio for the Government, writes Vernon Small.

HIS shirt-and-tie combos are so loud you can hear them from the next room, but Health Minister Tony Ryall has never been one to speak off-message, even on the day he announces that his 24-year career as a politician is coming to an end.

His "brave" dress sense - with advice from his wife ("and of course I take it") - is a good icebreaker, he says.

But if his wardrobe is challenging he is also the Cabinet minister from central casting for a party leader: a safe pair of hands and a natural front-bencher, but with no overt signs he has ever coveted the leadership.

For Prime Minister John Key his performance as a health minister in the last few years alone has justified his pay. Few scandals have made the front page as he anaesthetised a portfolio that has traditionally been the biggest pain in the side for National governments.

His critics say he is too meddling, extending his reach down into the second and third management rungs of the public health system. And he made as many friends as enemies by slipping unannounced into hospital emergency departments to check out the service.

One part of his political weaponry is a relentless - almost metronomic - repetition of key messages, whether it is in the health area or his state-owned enterprises portfolio.

The Government's sale of state assets has delivered far fewer retail investors, and dollars, than hoped. State coal company Solid Energy fell over on his watch - and fell off the sales programme.

Yet Mr Ryall remains upbeat, lauding the $3.9 billion raised so far. He must have said "mum and dad investors" more often over the past few years than the number of retail investors lining up for the last bite of the cherry - the watered-down float of Genesis Energy.

Listen to Mr Ryall though, and the whole exercise has been a roaring success.

Possibly his proudest achievement is an increase in elective surgery.

The numbers have increased from 118,000 in 2007-08 to 158,000 last year, but critics - and not just opposition MPs - say those figures tell only half the story.

His opposite number, Labour's Annette King, has been trotting out tales of Johnny-from-Kaitaia in dire need of a hip replacement. But could they get on the waiting list? It's difficult to tell, Mr Ryall has said, because it was "incredibly difficult to measure".

Ms King is by his count the fifth opposition spokesperson he has faced and he rates Ruth Dyson as the hardest working of all. "And that will probably mean the end of her career now."

So far none has managed to whip up the "botched operations and poor health service" stories that dogged the Bolger- Shipley government at the end of the 1990s. If John Key has reason to thank Mr Ryall for that, he is happy to return the favour.

He says Mr Key is "smart, empathetic and driven" and the two have never clashed. "I don't think I have ever come across in my 24 years in Parliament an individual who understands the public and issues that concern them more than him."

National's popularity today is a far cry from his personal low point in 2002 when it crashed to a humiliating defeat under his friend Bill English - who with Roger Sowry and Nick Smith made up the youthful new face of National - the "brat pack"- back in the early 1990s.

When Don Brash replaced Mr English he demoted Mr Ryall, only to promote him again later.

But after all the ups and downs of his career, Mr Ryall believes he leaves the country a healthier place.

His measure of that is faster cancer treatment, breast cancer patients do not routinely go to Australia, emergency departments are working well, and the elective surgery numbers.

The immunisation rate for two-year- olds is up from 67 per cent to 93 per cent and there is virtually no gap between ethnic groups.

So what next for the man who came into Parliament as a 26-year-old in 1990 and has spent almost half of his life as an MP? He says he has no specific job in mind but is eyeing a role in the private sector - and is spruiking his CV. More than once he mentions how much he has learned during his time as commerce minister and latterly with state-owned enterprises.

It is a fair bet Mr Ryall's bold wardrobe and measured style is destined to go from the Cabinet room to the boardroom after this year's election.

The Dominion Post