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Commerce minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Commerce minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsJuly 3, 2020

The health minister just quit amid a huge health crisis and no one is freaking out

Commerce minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Commerce minister David Clark (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

With Covid-19 raging overseas but quiet at home, the view at the Beehive is that it was time for a health minister less prone to gaffes, reports Justin Giovannetti.

New Zealand’s coronavirus response has been lauded around the world and yet, in the midst of a worsening global pandemic, the country’s health minister has resigned without causing much of a fuss.

In most countries during the era of Covid-19, the sudden departure of someone in David Clark’s position would be a disaster. The loss of a captain in the midst of a storm. Instead, Clark’s eventual fall was both expected and unanimously welcomed in parliament.

A mountain bike made the minister’s resignation likely, the wheels of a bus made it inevitable. On Thursday, Clark admitted that he was a liability to the team of five million. He said he’d become an “unhelpful distraction” and resigned.

The minister’s departure contrasts with public support for the government that has been near-stratospheric. A poll conducted by Stickybeak for The Spinoff in late June found around three-quarters of New Zealanders approve of the government’s handling of Covid. That number followed two weeks of bad news for the government, including a series of failures and back-pedalling.

The path to Clark’s resignation began during lockdown. He flouted the country’s lockdown rules to go for a mountain bike ride. The breach was discovered by a sleuth who took a photo of van parked at a trail head. The Toyota van was emblazoned with Clark’s face. Later he took his family to the beach.

Clark offered the prime minister his resignation in early April. While Jacinda Ardern turned him down at the time due to the health crisis, she said she would sack him if she could.

The minister then largely disappeared from the public eye as New Zealand eliminated coronavirus in the community. Like many other public health officers around the world who have risen to rockstar status, Ashley Bloomfield became the face of victory.

Nearly three months after he first offered the prime minister his resignation, Clark threw the director general of health under the bus.  Asked by reporters whether he would be taking any responsibility for a series of failures at the country’s border facilities, Clark repeatedly indicated that Bloomfield had accepted responsibility and apologised for the health ministry. He had nothing to add. Bloomfield was standing behind the minister at the time. A video of the emotions on the director-general’s face as Clark pinned the blame on him went viral.

The National party labelled it a public “humiliation” of the public servant who guided the country’s Covid-19 battle. National leader Todd Muller branded Clark a “non-essential worker.” A week later, Clark is gone.

There might be a role for him in cabinet after the election, but it won’t be in health, according to Ardern.

“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,” said Ardern. Although the prime minister typically calls him Doctor Clark, his doctorate is in theology.

With the greatest health crisis in a century still burning around the world, Ardern had been preparing for Clark’s departure for weeks. He was stripped of responsibility for the border facilities. That went to Megan Woods, the government’s duct tape minister who is dispatched to fix all problems. The assistant chief of the New Zealand Defence Force was brought in to back her up and bring military efficiency to health’s blunders.

Much of the coronavirus response is now dealt with by Woods and Bloomfield. The two will now be joined by a new health minister in Chris Hipkins.

In any regular government, health and education are two of the most important portfolios. That’s doubly true in a Labour-led government looking to make big changes in both sectors. Hipkins now controls them both, as well as state services, while also being the house leader. The house leader is responsible for actually getting bills through the house and keeping Labour’s MPs working. It can be a demanding job that requires persuasion and deal-making.

With his three hats on, Hipkins will now control two of the government’s three largest ministries, responsible for about one-third of overall spending. Asked how he can oversee the health ministry when he has no experience in health, Hipkins’ reply was to the point: He didn’t have any experience in education either.

The new health minister could fit under the category of a professional politician. He’s been in politics since he sat on student council at Victoria University. Before being elected to parliament in 2008, he served as an adviser to Helen Clark and other Labour MPs.

His entire professional life can be seen as training to control the government’s legislative agenda and one-third of its responsibilities in the midst of a global crisis.

Ardern’s government has been criticised for being light on talent. The argument goes that there’s the prime minister, a talented communicator known worldwide, and then a half-dozen ministers she trusts. But outside of that core, the government struggles. On Hipkins’ appointment, National MP Chris Bishop had this to say: “One minister for both health and education. Oh and leader of the house. Kinda says it all really about this government doesn’t it?”

It seems unlikely Hipkins will retain the health portfolio after the September election – the prime minister wouldn’t promise on Thursday that he’d keep the job if Labour is re-elected. Instead, he was been brought in to stabilise the situation. A caretaker.

What comes next might be something different. National has already indicated that they’d name a senior minister to take over the Covid recovery. Amy Adams was promoted to third place in the party and made czar of the Covid recovery. With coronavirus cases still increasing around the world, it seems possible a future government will steal National’s idea. If they keep power, Labour might need to add one or two ministers to that inner circle to make it happen.

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