Beleaguered Labour MP David Clark resigned as health minister during a press conference at parliament this morning. Alex Braae reports.
With just 78 days to go before the 2020 election, health minister David Clark has resigned from the position of health minister. He will also be resigning from all of his cabinet roles.
At a press conference at parliament, he said he had given it his all, but it had become clear to him that continuing in the role had become a distraction for the government’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“I’ve always taken the view that the team should come first…so I’ve made the call that it is best for me to stand aside,” he said, with the focus shifting from managing the outbreak to containing it to the border.
He paid tribute to health workers at the frontline, who he said had “kept all of us safe”.
He said it was now the time to hand over to new leadership. The position will now be filled by current education minister Chris Hipkins until the election.
“Post-election I intend to reassess who is best placed to take the health portfolio forward,” said PM Jacinda Ardern, in a statement. There was no word from either on infectious diseases physician and researcher Dr Ayesha Verrall, who was was recently announced as a Labour candidate with a plum spot on the list.
Clark’s resignation follows a string of controversies that began during the level four lockdown period. He was forced to admit that he had gone mountain-biking, in possible contravention of the rules around limiting activities that could cause injury. That story broke on April 2, exactly three months ago today.
Shortly afterwards it was revealed that Clark had driven his family from his home in Dunedin to Doctor’s Point Beach, 20 kms away, while the lockdown was still in place.
At the time, he offered his resignation to the prime minister but it was not accepted on the grounds that it would have caused significant disruption during a global emergency. Ardern said that in normal circumstances, she would have accepted it. However she heavily demoted him down the cabinet rankings, and stripped him of the associate finance portfolio.
There had also been questions raised during the level four lockdown as to why Clark based himself in Dunedin, rather than remaining in Wellington to help manage the pandemic response.
In recent weeks there have been controversies over the quarantine system at the border, and a series of blunders. Clark was criticised for appearing to not take responsibility for those, instead passing the blame to director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
At today’s press conference, Clark put on record that it had been “an honour” to work alongside Bloomfield, who he described as “an exceptional public servant”.
Clark also outlined areas of his tenure that he was proud of, including increasing pay of nurses, establishing a new cancer agency, and making large investments in health infrastructure. He also said he took pride in his work around equity in health, and provision of mental health services.
“But it has not all been plain sailing,” Clark said, and that he takes full responsibility for all decisions and mistakes made in the portfolio over his time in the role.
Clark said he remained committed to serving as the MP for Dunedin, which he says he will still be contesting as Labour’s candidate against National’s health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse.
In her statement, Ardern said that Clark had contacted her yesterday to offer his resignation again, and she had now decided to accept it.
“David has come to the conclusion his presence in the role is creating an unhelpful distraction from the Government’s ongoing response to Covid-19 and wider health reforms.
“It’s essential our health leadership has the confidence of the New Zealand public. As David has said to me the needs of the team must come before him as an individual.”
In reaction, Act leader David Seymour was quick out of the blocks with criticism of the government, tweeting “the PM was happy with a health minister who left the Beehive for the greatest health crisis in a century, broke the public health rules twice, and blamed the guy who did his job when it all went wrong. Even then, he had to sack himself.”