National’s new leader, Todd Muller, faces his first big test in the job today as the pressure goes on him to fire Clutha-Southland MP, Hamish Walker.
National Party members were reported by senior officials last night to be “seething” over the revelation that Walker had leaked confidential medical information about Covid-19 patients.
“They want him out,” one of the party’s most senior officials told POLITIK.
But Muller, made a non-committal statement on Walker’s future and even in his own “mea culpa” statement, Walker was still trying to justify his actions.
Even worse for Muller, there is a strong suspicion that the reason the data was sent to Walker was to support his claim that it was Indians and Pakistanis who were clogging up the managed isolation facilities.
Muller’s refusal to condemn Walker – or to fire him – left the door open for Labour to accuse National of reverting to “dirty politics”.
“It does have a ring of dirty politics to it,” Health Minister Chris Hipkins said at a hastily arranged press conference last night.
“And I think that would be very sad for the forthcoming election campaign.”
Muller’s statement simply acknowledged that Walker had confessed to leaking the information and described it as an “error of judgment” – a phrase usually used for relatively inconsequential slipups in politics.
“I have expressed to Hamish my view that forwarding on this information was an error of judgement,” said Muller.
“While I wait for the result of the inquiry, I have transferred his Forestry, Land Information and Associate Tourism portfolio responsibilities to Ian McKelvie.
“Given this matter is the subject of an inquiry, I will not be making any further public comment.”
This was a far cry from what Muller was saying over the weekend before he knew it was a National MP who had leaked.
He told RNZ the original delivery of the information to three media outlets was “quite staggering; it talked to a government that was slipping off the side of a cliff, in terms of managing the issue, the border, the information pertaining to it”.
“If they can’t manage personal information, bluntly, they can’t manage the border, and they can’t manage the country,” he said.
“These guys need to step aside and let a competent government take over.”
But even last night Walker was attempting to defend his actions.
“I did this to expose the Government’s shortcomings so they would be rectified,” he said.
“It was never intended that the personal details would be made public, and they have not been, either by me or the persons I forwarded them to.
“I have received legal advice that I have not committed any criminal offence.”
But the confidential information was not made public, not because of Walker, but because the media outlets did not publish it. (They would have been in breach of the privacy Act had they done so.)
Hipkins acknowledged the role of the media last night.
“I do want to thank the media for the fact that they received what should be personal and confidential information about people they’ve not published,” he said.
“I do think that it’s a legitimate thing for the media to publish and report on the fact that they were given the information.
“And I want to thank the media for the way they’ve handled that information.
“I think that the journalists who have it have clearly been responsible in the way that they have used it.”
And he said that he expected MPs to uphold similar standards.
“I think if a member of parliament can’t accept that receiving people’s health information is something that they should treat with a degree of confidence, then that says quite a lot about their own levels of personal integrity and judgment,” he said.
And the way that confidential medical data was handled was a critical issue.
“I think it is really important that New Zealanders have confidence that any private information that any part of the government or the health system stores is being stored in a way that respects their privacy,” he said.
“And clearly, there are some concerns that have legitimately been raised here.
“We’ve got to get to the bottom of it. And that’s why this investigation is important.
“And it’s one of the reasons why the investigation should continue so that we can get to the bottom of exactly what happened and then make sure that, you know, the relevant systems are in place.”
The biggest unanswered question was why the former National Party President, Michelle Boag, had passed on the data to Walker in the first place.
POLITIK understands that she had a role as a mentor to Walker, a first-term MP.
In his maiden speech, Walker referred to her.
“Michelle Boag, your wise words are really appreciated,” he said.
The most likely explanation is that Walker was in trouble over a statement he made last week about people coming into managed isolation in the south, alleging that “11,000 people… these people are possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea. It is absolutely disgraceful that the community has not been consulted on this.”
The statement was deleted from the National Party website but not before it had been widely condemned as racist.
Narendra Bhana, President of Auckland Indian Association, said the remarks were not only unacceptable but utterly irresponsible.
In her statement last night Boag said he information was made available to her in her position as then Acting CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, “although it was sent to my private email address.”
“This was a massive error of judgement on my part, and I apologise to my colleagues at ARHT whom I have let down badly,” she said.
“I very much regret my actions and 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.“
The best guess as to why she sent the information is that in some way it might have vindicated Walker’s earlier controversial statement.
Such was the level of anger among party members that POLITIK spoke to last night that it would be unlikely that Muller will get away with anything less than a resignation from Walker.