National MP Hamish Walker’s fate was sealed yesterday by the party’s Southland regional chair, Rachel Bird.
She spoke to him yesterday morning and persuaded him that he had no future in the caucus and his only option was to announce his retirement at the election.
That meant the party board, which met at noon, did not have to take the draconian step of “de-selecting” him as the Southland candidate for the election.
His attempt to leak confidential medical data of Covid-19 patients had infuriated the party base, many of whom are older and regular consumers of medical services.
By all accounts, Walker did not go easily.
From Monday when he had been in negotiation with Leader Todd Muller’s office, he had brought a QC within him into the talks and, according to one source, information had to be “wheedled” out of him.
But his ultimate fate was never in doubt.
On Tuesday night the party was in an uproar, and POLITIK was told that a majority of the party’s board wanted him out.
There were complaints that Muller seemed to be dithering, but his defenders say that was partly because of the presence of the lawyers.
But at 1222 both Walker and Muller issued statements confirming that he was standing down.
As senior National caucus and party figures looked back last night and tried to assess the damage of the last 24 hours they could only wonder how it had all happened.
One thing was obvious.
The affair caught the new Leader and his team on the hop.
Alarm bells should have rung when Hamish Walker issued his press release last Thursday claiming thousands of Indians and Pakistanis were headed for isolation in Southland.
His release was not shown to the Chief Press secretary or the Leader before it went out.
But the following day Muller said he had spoken to Walker about the statement and went public saying he didn’t condone it and he refused to answer questions about whether he agreed with Labour Minister Megan Woods that it was a racist statement.
Two sources have told POLITIK he was particularly upset on the Thursday night that he was, by inference, being called a racist.
He apparently said that he found that particularly hurtful because he was married to a Maori.
At that point, the former party president, Michelle Boag, entered the picture.
She has known Walker for some years and says she regards him as a friend.
Perhaps to reassure him, she emailed him some data she had obtained in her role as acting CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust appearing to vindicate his claim that many of the Covid cases were people of South Asian origin.
The data was not sent to the trust but to her personal email.
She forwarded it on to Walker but without ever thinking he would send it to media.
Last night there were questions about how she got the data.
She told POLITIK that it was sent to her personal email from the Ministry of Health who were sending it to organisations like the Helicopter Trust on a daily basis.
Health Minister Chris Hipkins would not comment on this claim last night and a spokesperson said he would not make any comments while the State Services Commission investigation was underway.
Through the Friday it became clear to National’s staff in Wellington that Walker was becoming desperate to clear the allegations of racism.
He was persuaded not to say anything more in public, but instead, he went off and sent the confidential data that Boag had sent him to three media outlets, one of which reported that it had the material but did not divulge its content.
On Saturday, Health Minister Chris Hipkins said the leak was “totally unacceptable” and potentially criminal.
He asked the State Services Commission to work with the relevant agencies “to ensure there is a thorough investigation.”
On Monday afternoon State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, formally announced the inquiry to be run by QC, Mike Heron.
But somewhere between Hipkins statement on Saturday that he was preparing for an inquiry and Monday, Walker decided to confess and told Muller around mid-day that he was the leaker of the data to the media.
Then began what appears to have been a game of cat and mouse involving first, Walker’s lawyer and later, lawyers acting for Muller and National.
By Tuesday night, the party’s board members were already talking to each other, and the overall impression was that they would agree to de-select Walker if they were asked by Muller.
And so events unfolded until yesterday’s confrontation between Bird and Walker.
On Friday the party will open nominations for the safe National seat, which has significant boundary changes and will now be called Southland. (It has shrunk and lost large chunks from its eastern and southern coastal strips so that it is now much more focused on Central Otago and Queenstown.)
Party officials already report interest from as far away as Auckland in the seat and wealthy Queenstown fund manager, Simon Flood, is believed to be considering a run.
Locals will be hoping that after Todd Barclay’s late resignation in 2017 and now Walker, that their next candidate might last longer than one term.
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