How did the bizarre story of Hamish Walker leaking confidential Covid details to media all play out? Radio NZ’s Jo Moir dissects the latest alarming episode in NZ politics.
In an extraordinary move National Party leader Todd Muller has had one of his own MPs, Hamish Walker, lawyer up over his leaking of private details before coming clean about his involvement.
Muller revealed on Morning Report today that he was told by Walker that he was responsible for passing the private details of Covid-19 patients to the media at midday on Monday. But it was 5.30pm on Tuesday before the party went public about it because Walker had brought in a Queen’s Counsel and Muller had to work through legal processes first.
Walker’s political future looks over after Muller wrote to the party board last night expressing his disappointment in the Clutha-Southland MP’s actions. The board will meet today to decide Walker’s fate, just two months out from the election.
In the meantime, Walker has been stripped of his portfolios after he informed his leader he was responsible for a leak that is now subject to an independent State Services inquiry. But it’s difficult to see how he’ll survive this political storm when he kept his role in the leak quiet for four days.
RNZ was one of three media organisations that received personal details, including names, ages, addresses and quarantine locations, of the 18 Covid-19 active cases in the country as of last week. RNZ made a commitment to Walker before receiving the information not to name him as the source.
At the time RNZ received the information, Walker was being interviewed about a media statement he had sent out that had been labelled “racist” after it said up to 11,000 people arriving from overseas could be destined for quarantine in the south without any consultation with the community.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful that the community hasn’t been consulted on this,” Walker had written. “These people are possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea.”
In an attempt to defend his comments, Walker told RNZ he would send information showing the country of origin of the Covid-19 cases.
He said RNZ could put the information to the minister in charge of quarantine and isolation, Megan Woods, on the agreement he remained anonymous.
RNZ did not anticipate being sent such a serious privacy breach.
In Walker’s media statement yesterday he used a different explanation for leaking the details. “I did this to expose the government’s shortcomings so they would be rectified.
“The information that I received was not password protected by the government. It was not stored on a secure system where authorised people needed to log on. There was no redaction to protect patient details, and no confidentiality statement on the document.
“I made serious allegations against the government’s Covid-19 response and passed on this information to prove those allegations,” he said.
The leak goes public
On Saturday RNZ reported it had received the leaked information but didn’t disclose any of the private details or its source.
The National Party immediately responded. Leader Todd Muller declared it unacceptable and “shabby” and said he’d first heard about it through media reports. He said the breach was “quite staggering, it talks to a government that’s slipping off the side of a cliff, in terms of managing this issue, the border, the information pertaining to it.
“Is it a deliberate leak or is it accidental? It doesn’t really matter at a level … it’s loose, it’s shabby and it’s a reminder these guys can’t manage important things well.”
The party’s spokesperson for health, Michael Woodhouse, said this was “yet another serious failing” that showed the government was not capable of managing Covid-19.
For four days Walker kept quiet about his involvement, even after Queen’s Counsel Michael Heron was appointed to lead the inquiry on Monday.
It wasn’t only Walker involved though.
Enter Michelle Boag
Shortly after Walker’s statement coming clean yesterday, former National Party president Michelle Boag put out her own media release saying she had passed on the information.
Boag has resigned from her role as acting chief executive of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust as a result of leak, though she said she received the details via her personal email address.
She said she didn’t anticipate Walker would pass the details onto the media. Both Boag and Walker are now likely to face the scrutiny of Heron.
But questions remain over when they realised the inquiry underway was actually on the hunt for them.
State Services Minister Chris Hipkins probably summed it up best when he arrived at his media conference last night and started with, “ummmm, where to begin?”