Power Play: Health Minister David Clark's lack of judgement a distraction at time of great crisis

12:43 pm on 7 April 2020

Powerplay - The Health Minister remains in place for now, but will this controversy prove to be too much of a distraction for Jacinda Ardern at such a crucial time?

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made the call that sacking Health Minister David Clark would compromise the government's national Covid-19 response, as none of the associate health ministers could get up to speed on his brief fast enough. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

David Clark has confessed to being "an idiot" and "letting the team down" after driving his family 20km to a beach for a walk on the first weekend of the level-4 lockdown, breaching the rules.

He had already apologised for driving a few kilometres in his branded electorate van to a mountain bike track in Dunedin, while people were being asked to stay at home and to keep it local when exercising.

Clark offered his resignation to the prime minister. She stripped him of his Cabinet ranking and his associate finance portfolio, but made the call that to remove him now would be too disruptive to government efforts to fight Covid-19.

As health minister, Clark plays a key role but is now compromised. His future as a Cabinet minister once the lockdown is over is shaky, to say the least.

His total lack of judgement, and even the fact he waited until today to reveal the drive to the beach, raises serious questions about his ability to stay on in that crucial role.

The government's pleas for people to stay at home and not push the boundaries of the lockdown rules for personal recreation have been muddied, and Clark can certainly not now front on any story relating to the rules or compliance.

Even the fact he's obviously only still a minister because New Zealand is in the middle of the crisis is hardly confidence-inducing and further undermines his authority and credibility.

At the same time he was under fire for rule breaches, Scotland's chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, resigned, after she was found to have not once, but twice, visited her second home during lockdown - giving the public the same "mea culpa" delivered by Clark this morning.

A rather stark comparison, but Ardern has obviously decided the drawbacks of sacking Clark altogether outweighed the criticism she would cop for keeping him on.

The government has been under pressure on several health-related aspects of the response, in particular, properly equipping frontline workers with protective gear and preparing the health sector for a possible onslaught.

Ardern has been fronting much of it, but Clark has been the minister relied upon to keep all of those pressure areas under control, and to make sure the government is responsive to urgent needs.

None of the associate ministers, Jenny Salesa, Peeni Henare or the Greens Julie Anne Genter has the experience or seniority to take over as the lead minister. Bringing in another minister Ardern could trust to do the job would require them getting up to speed very quickly with a complex portfolio at the most extraordinary of times, plus any knock on implications for that minister's own portfolios.

Replacing such a key Cabinet portfolio would take more time and consideration than Ardern currently wants to expend; but she may still find herself under pressure to do exactly that, if there's any sign Clark remaining on is compromising the government's ability to see out the rest of the lockdown and enforce the rules laid out for all New Zealanders.

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