A minister of health with a humility bypass creates a problem for Jacinda Ardern – especially when he’s contrasted with Ashley Bloomfield, writes Toby Manhire.
With the cadence of a fingernail sliding down a blackboard, David Clark spent much of yesterday declining to accept responsibility. Speaking with Lisa Owen on Checkpoint, he spent several minutes refusing to accept so much as a whisker of the stuff. The serious error that saw just about every person – 51 of 55 – permitted to exit managed isolation early do so without a Covid-19 test was the responsibility of the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said Clark. Bloomfield had accepted the responsibility, so that was the responsibility taken care of, leaving none of it left for him. It was an operational matter. Are we clear?
If that exchange was painful to endure, the Newshub clip was agony. As Clark detailed the responsibility situation (it was Bloomfield’s), Newshub camera maestro Billy Paine panned to the director general of responsibility himself, standing a couple of feet behind the minister. Bloomfield’s expressions rarely give anything away. Here it was a painting of – I don’t know. Betrayal? Fury? Bafflement? Maybe he’d just remembered he’d left his lights on.
It is true, of course, that Bloomfield had accepted responsibility for the mistakes. But responsibility is not an unshareable concept. Difficult to share: gummy bears, scooters, the human soul. Easy to share: responsibility. Take some! Get in! Of course I take responsibility – I take it enormously seriously, I take responsibility for the health system as a whole, and I will do everything in my power to make sure mistakes such as these do not happen again.
No doubt Clark feels on thin ice after admitting to being “an idiot” and getting bounced down to the bottom rank of Cabinet for breaking the lockdown rules. That must have sucked. But accepting some ministerial responsibility doesn’t mean resigning – it is necessarily something that is proportional to whatever it is for which responsibility is being taken. And the principle of ministerial responsibility does not magically exclude “operational matters”. A 2013 Labour Party press release from then shadow leader of the house and now speaker Trevor Mallard welcomed a speaker’s ruling on parliamentary questions with the headline, “Ministers are responsible for operational matters”.
“Operational matters” aren’t a get-out-of-responsibility-free card. “Operational matters” can be substituted in most sentences for “things that happened”.
Usually invoked in relation to police or justice matters, the concept is useful to determine when a politician should stay the hell out of an “operational matter” to avoid inappropriate influence. If Clark had been meddling in operational matters to the effect that he peered through the window of the Pullman Hotel to make sure Barry had returned a negative test before nipping out to a funeral on day eight of his stay, I don’t think anyone would have much minded. Turns out, in fact, Clark has not once – not once – visited an isolation facility in person. Truly he is unblemished by the operation.
If it were just for the obstinacy and oddness, it may not be so bad. Even the impression of a spot of buck-passing might blow out like the next plume of Wellington fog. But one does not simply walk into a press conference and abdicate any responsibility while Ashley Bloomfield is standing right there. This is, after all, a man rumoured to walk daily to the city from Eastbourne, directly across the harbour.
For all the kitsch veneration, of course, Bloomfield is no saint. On his watch we’ve seen the NZ Covid dome spring colander leaks. The contact tracing tech isn’t good enough. He’s proved a master at not quite answering the question (“what I can say is …”). But would you swap him? It’s hard to imagine a clearer communicator, a more informed, tireless, calm, reassuring and, frankly, wise person to helm the health response to this monumental crisis – a response that has left us one of the few places in the world that have the luxury of freaking out about even faint possibilities of the coronavirus leaking into the community.
And ask yourself this: have you ever seen Bloomfield point even a pinky of blame at someone else for anything that has gone wrong? He was left embarrassed by the two women who tested positive after driving from Auckland to Wellington without being tested, the incident that broke the dam of stories about the failures in the isolation system. Embarrassed, chiefly, because their story, which he confidently presented as complete, was not complete after all. You’d hardly have blamed him if he’d scolded them, even in a small way. Many of us would have. He did not. Not once have I heard him get salty about the efforts of ministry staff or DHB snafus. He just wouldn’t. For the minister, it doesn’t make a great contrast. (Also, and this is not a joke, Bloomfield is an accomplished mountain biker.)
The Stickybeak/Spinoff poll that ran across the weekend found 45% of people reckoning the events of last week warranted a “senior resignation”. We didn’t ask who, but I’m going to take a wild guess and suggest that most wouldn’t have picked Dr Bloomfield. For Clark, the writing looked mostly on the wall the day the prime minister said she’d have fired him if they weren’t in the middle of a crisis. It’s unimaginable that he’d get the health portfolio back were Labour re-elected. The more pressing question for the prime minister is whether he’s a liability on the campaign trail. An urgent operational matter to attend in Australia, perhaps, returning a fortnight before election day.