National’s Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker (Photo: Radio NZ, Rebekah Parsons-King)
National’s Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker (Photo: Radio NZ, Rebekah Parsons-King)

The BulletinJuly 8, 2020

The Bulletin: Hamish Walker, former Nat president in disgrace after Covid leak

National’s Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker (Photo: Radio NZ, Rebekah Parsons-King)
National’s Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker (Photo: Radio NZ, Rebekah Parsons-King)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Scandal for MP after leaking confidential Covid data, new bookings for return to country put on hold, and Islamic Women’s Council release evidence of being ignored.

We now know exactly how the leak of private information of all active Covid-19 patients happened. National MP Hamish Walker, representative for Clutha-Southland, has admitted to being the person who tried to take that private information to media organisations – all of which made an ethical judgement not to publish it. A breaking news report on this all was filed last night by our political editor Justin Giovannetti.

Walker received the information from former National Party president Michelle Boag, who got it in her capacity as the (now resigned) CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. Boag apologised to her former colleagues at ARHT, and said she “did not anticipate that Hamish would choose to send it on to some media outlets  but I am grateful that the media involved have chosen not to publish the 18 names that were contained within it.” It isn’t exactly clear why she chose to share it with Walker, but Business Desk has a report including some of the pair’s links in the past.

And just to reiterate: An MP attempted to use the private information of very unwell people for political gain. Walker put out a statement and apology denying that he ever intended for the patient details to be made public, and did so to “expose the Government’s shortcomings so they would be rectified.” Essentially, Walker claimed to be a whistleblower – but if that were the case, he could simply have blown the whistle, rather than attempt to create an embarrassing story for the government.

National MPs in recent days have been gleefully jumping on this story as a blunder to be exploited – for example health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse said “this is unconscionable and unacceptable that those suffering from the incredibly dangerous virus now have to suffer further with their private details being leaked.” As commentator Ben Thomas argued this morning, it is unlikely that senior MPs had any idea it was about to blow up like this. Party leader Todd Muller issued a statement yesterday saying that it was an “error of judgement” from Walker, and that he had been stripped of his portfolios.

For what it’s worth, that is about the extent of the direct powers Muller holds as party leader. Speaking to the AM Show this morning, Muller said he found out on Monday at lunchtime, and said he made it clear to Walker that he expected the inquiry to be given that information. He delayed going public so that Walker could “connect with our chief press secretary and chief of staff,” before it became clear that an inquiry would happen, and all involved would need legal advice. He also said that he had written to the National Party board “outlining my concerns” – the subtext of that is that it is the board that has the power to deselect him. He also said that Boag’s actions are “appalling”, and that was “another question the board could reflect on.”

Privacy commissioner John Edwards put out a very simple statement in response. “Outrageous, unbelievable, indefensible,” he tweeted. But is it also potentially a criminal matter? Walker said he had received legal advice “that I have not committed any criminal offence”. Edwards made further comments to the NZ Herald, and while he couldn’t comment on that legal advice, it may be in breach of the Privacy Act. “There is a Queen’s Counsel appointed to investigate the whole circumstances of the matter and he will be able to consider some of those questions more, whether there are charges that can be pursued and I look forward to his report.”

And what about that investigation into how the confidential data came out in the first place? That will continue, health minister Chris Hipkins said last night. Radio NZ reports he described the situation as “disappointing”, and said it had the “whiff of dirty politics” about it. But apart from that, it was fairly straight down the line, saying “it’s important that Michael Heron [the QC running it] has the opportunity to complete that investigation.” Anyone with further information has been urged to come forward.

Just quickly, a message from The Spinoff’s managing editor Duncan Greive: 

“The arrival of Covid-19 and lockdown changed The Spinoff, transforming our editorial to focus on the biggest story of our lives, taking a small team and making it a seven day a week news operation. But it also fundamentally changed us as a business, too. Prior to the crisis, around 20% of our editorial costs were funded by our Members. Now, that figure is north of 50%. If you’re already a member, please know that all at The Spinoff are incredibly grateful for your help. If you’re not, and would like to contribute, please consider doing so – support is important to our ability to cover the next phase of the crisis, in all its complexity.”

That news yesterday afternoon took a lot of focus off a major border decision from minister Megan Woods. Because the managed isolation facilities are basically full, New Zealanders won’t necessarily be able to book a flight back, under an agreement between the government and Air NZ to manage the flow of arrivals. We had a report on this in our live blog yesterday, and PM Ardern argued that it didn’t create any issues with the Bill of Rights, as people were still had a right of return – they just needed to wait. Todd Muller by contrast said it did breach their rights, reports One News, as “New Zealanders if they want to come home should be able to come home full stop.”

Meanwhile, there was an update on the issue around those in the country on temporary visas. The Indian Weekender reports that those in such a situation whose visas were due to expire this year will get an automatic further six month extension. Immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway says it is a short term change “to support temporary migrants already onshore in New Zealand and their employers, while also ensuring New Zealanders needing work are prioritised.”

The Islamic Women’s Council has presented evidence that their warnings of growing danger were ignored for years before the March 15 attacks, reports Josie Adams for The Spinoff. In particular, the group noted that the government and public service had blithely brushed warnings aside – in some cases nobody bothered to take minutes at meetings between the group and government officials. They also spoke about how those at the top contributed to a climate of harassment and suspicion of Muslims, for example when former PM John Key made false and damaging claims about so-called ‘jihadi brides’ – a statement that he has never apologised for.

Another old rubbish dump has been exposed, with debris now seeping into a river, reports Radio NZ. Gisborne District Council staff have been out at Te Araroa, next to the Awatere River, in an area that has seen heavy rain over the past two weeks. It is still too early to say how much got into the river, but it is not expected to be as significant as the Fox River debacle last year.

A sad bit of news for our cousins in Australia: Melbourne is going back into a six-week lockdown, because of an alarming explosion of community transmission in the city. The Age has reported the views of experts, which are that infection rates were on track for 3000 a day by the end of July if a lockdown wasn’t put in place. There are currently 772 active cases, and dozens of hospitalisations – the public is also being warned that new deaths are unfortunately inevitable.

A new report on Auckland’s port has recommended that it move south to Manukau, rather than north to Whangārei. Newsroom has covered the reaction to the report which is currently before cabinet, and Auckland mayor Phil Goff says some of his concerns about the move north have now been vindicated. On the other hand, others involved in the original Upper North Island Supply Chain report have absolutely gone in against this one, with chairman of that taskforce Wayne Brown providing some particularly spicy quotes.

Yesterday morning two leading Brexit campaigners claimed they’d be campaigning at the election on behalf of NZ First, with the aim of “mischief, mayhem and guerrilla warfare”. As this was quite an explosive claim, and had been reported by the political editor of the Telegraph (one of Britain’s papers of record) naturally our political editor Justin Giovannetti picked up on it. That drew the ire of Winston Peters, who issued a statement disavowing any and all prospect that his party had hired people from this group, or that any would be turning up in New Zealand to campaign – that statement can be read here.

A note on the title of Peters’ release: They’re not ‘Spin-off allegations’ as he puts it – they’re direct quotes from leading Brexiteer Arron Banks, a man with whom Peters has been “happily sharing thoughts and ideas on international matters” since 2016, according to a recent tweet. The inconsistency there was elaborated on in this follow up story.

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So Delish! (Styling and photography: Jane Yee)

Right now on The Spinoff: Michael Andrew reports on a protest in Auckland against the rise of right wing nationalism in India – more on that below. Jo Waitoa makes an excellent contribution to discussions around parliamentary and political culture, particularly in Māori participation in politics. Gareth Shute writes about Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust launching its own gallery on Auckland’s Karangahape Road. I interview an expert about how exactly the internet works, and why it’s such an important piece of physical infrastructure. And Jane Yee has given a delicious review of a new cookbook by a prominent social media influencer.

For a feature today, a confronting piece about the disturbing ways social media can be turned towards hate and violence. It is no secret that communal tensions have been very high in India over recent years. What this piece from Wired’s Mohammad Ali makes clear is that a combination of extreme nationalistic rhetoric and ready access to coordinating technology is raising the stakes, and excacerbating the damage. Here’s an excerpt:

Premi’s cadres in the Shamli unit of the Bajrang Dal were now focused mainly on the fight against love jihad. In practice, this amounted to a bizarre, Stasi-like effort to micromanage the dating scene in a town of 100,000—and to stamp out religious miscegenation at first flush. They ran an extensive surveillance operation, they said, using Facebook and a network of on-the-ground informants.

The social media arm of the dragnet was run by a lanky, bearded teenager named Himanshu Sharma, who sat cross-legged, a cushion resting between his back and the wall. On Facebook, Sharma said, he and his team had infiltrated hundreds of groups and friended thousands of people, trawling for Muslim men who flirted with Hindu women in Shamli. “We monitor everything, including which user ID is making what kind of comments on Facebook,” Sharma said. “They are not subtle in expressing their emotions, and that makes our job easier.” Sometimes, he said, he and his team use fake accounts with female names to draw men out. While he spoke, his smartphone buzzed constantly with notifications.

The concept of SANZAAR could be on the verge of coming to an end, according to a bombshell report from Newshub’s Ollie Ritchie. It would basically mean that national rugby unions would end up on their own, rather than as part of a wider Southern hemisphere bunch. It’s really unclear what that would mean for the financial state of the game, but there has been plenty of speculation already that South Africa (Super Rugby’s big moneymaker) is not far away from throwing in with Europe.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme

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