The leak, we discovered last night, was the work of a first-term MP and a veteran National Party operator. What does it mean for the pair, and for the party, asks Ben Thomas.
The latest whodunit in New Zealand politics was solved last night in a flurry of releases, as National’s Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker and former party president Michelle Boag admitted their respective parts in a senseless and damaging privacy breach which saw Walker pass on details of 18 active Covid patients to media last week.
Walker said he supplied the details, which he had obtained from “a source” on to various media outlets (who refused to publish details), a privacy breach that sparked an inquiry by former Solicitor-General Mike Heron QC. National leader Todd Muller released his own statement, reprimanding Walker for his “error of judgment”. Minutes later, Boag admitted she had received the information legitimately as acting chief executive officer of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust (which runs the Westpac Rescue Helicopter), and improperly passed it on to Walker.
The privacy breach is appalling. There is absolutely no public interest in knowing the names and details of people with Covid-19 who are taking all the correct steps in quarantine.
Walker claimed in his apology that he had intended to “to expose the government’s shortcomings so they would be rectified”, apparently referring to the lack of password protection on the data. But the privacy breach was not caused by the government, it was caused by Boag. If Walker wanted to prevent further breaches, he could have whistleblown on Boag to her own organisation.
This is the second – and by far most serious – headache Walker has caused his party. Last week he warned about hypothetical quarantine arrivals from “India, Pakistan and Korea” (apparently up to 11,000 of them) in the South Island, in a media release that was not signed off by National’s leader’s office and was understandably condemned as racist.
Walker has been stripped of his Forestry, Land Information and Associate Tourism portfolios. Boag announced she had resigned as interim chief executive officer of the ARHT. But that is unlikely to be the end of the matter.
Walker has twice now proven himself incapable of good or even normal judgment in the space of a week. Muller risks looking weak after Ardern and the Labour Party Council acted swiftly to cut a candidate for years-old Islamophobic tweets over the weekend. Expelling him from caucus would be messy since he has already been confirmed as National’s candidate in Clutha Southland for the election. The National Party board will face huge and legitimate pressure to reopen nominations for the seat and replace him as a candidate.
Boag remains on the board of the ARHT, where she will continue to receive confidential information from health authorities, a serious reputational and security risk for the trust. She is also a member of the National Party’s Auckland Central electorate committee, the marginal seat held by Nikki Kaye, and tolerating her remaining in this position risks tarnishing the National deputy leader. If she won’t resign, the board would be justified in acting to revoke her membership.
There will inevitably be questions about who else knew what, and when. They must be asked, although at this stage there is no obvious cause to doubt Muller when he says he was kept in the dark.
For Walker, this could yet be a career-ending misstep, with the added adrenaline of possible criminal charges. You wouldn’t trust a fall guy in the face of that to keep it quiet if their leadership were also involved. The leader of the opposition can’t offer a soft landing, via board appointments and cushy jobs, to buy agreeable silence the way a prime minister might.
It’s hard to imagine that National health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse was in the loop, either. He is an experienced enough politician to know the blowback from such a botched political hit. If they regarded it as a valuable scoop, a senior figure would have used the information.
Instead, it is more likely the garrulous and popular Walker, an assiduous networker around parliament’s press gallery and other media, saw an opportunity to improve his relationships with journalists and with a senior figure from the party (Boag). Like a school child trusted with a secret, his first instinct was to tell people he knew it.
Even worse, according to RNZ’s Jo Moir this morning, Walker initially approached media with the leak not to make any lofty point about data protection as claimed yesterday, but to try and support his earlier PR botch-up by supplying, essentially, “foreign-sounding names”.
Boag, meanwhile, has refused to be drawn on why she gave the information to Walker, claiming only that she had not intended for him to give it to the press. That motivation – and what political advantage she thought was to be gained – will remain a mystery, at least until she has to front up to Heron’s inquiry.