David Clark pushed into the dark as Labour readies for election

6:45 am on 3 July 2020

Analysis - With just 78 days until the election, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is cleaning house.

David Clark has announced he is stepping down as minister of health.

David Clark. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

After a disastrous few months for Health Minister David Clark, the PM sat down with him late last week and gave him little option but to give up his seat at the Cabinet table.

She had already talked with Education Minister Chris Hipkins about taking over the job.

For the second time in months offered Ardern his resignation, this time she accepted it.

The government's efforts to keep Covid-19 at bay, for the most part, have been applauded.

With the election campaign merely weeks away, a distraction the size of a flailing health minister is not what Labour needs.

Criticism of Clark ramped up in recent weeks, making it untenable for Ardern to keep the Dunedin North MP in the role.

Public outcry reached new levels when he refused to take responsibility for failures at the border that led to two women being able to leave isolation without first being tested for Covid-19.

Taking a swipe at Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield - while he stood beside him - was the final nail in his ministerial coffin.

The prime minister summoned him.

"Late last week I had a discussion with the minister around some of the issues that were getting in the way of our ability to really focus in on Covid-19.

"And the minister came to the conclusion that in his view that meant he could no longer continue in the role," she said.

Before making that decision he sought advice from those close to him.

By all accounts, nobody fought to make him stay - not even his mates and ministerial colleagues Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins.

"Yes, he made the right call," Robertson said.

Hipkins said: "David's a good friend of mine, I think he realised that his presence in the role was becoming a distraction, or was already a distraction."

The distractions started back in early April, as the country's Covid-19 cases peaked.

Taking his family to the beach and then on a second occasion driving to a mountain bike track was a low point which he later acknowledged.

"In hindsight, all I can think was, what an idiot," Clark said.

At that time, Clark offered his resignation but Ardern opted to instead demote him saying if she wasn't in the middle of dealing with a global pandemic she would have sacked him.

That was the beginning of a downward spiral, a broken man left with little to no confidence in his own ability to do the job.

Knowing his blunders would be dug out of the archives at any point over the next 10 weeks - any ability became outweighed by the liability he had become.

Even Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was doing his best to distance himself from the controversy.

"Look, I'm not responsible for the prime minister's choice of ministers. I'm responsible for the choice of my own ministers and they're a sea of stability at this point in time as you all well know.''

Asked if any of his own team had put themselves forward, to replace Clark as health minister, Peters took to irony.

"Self-promotion has never been what my party's famous for.''

Yet just last week on Checkpoint one of his MPs, Children's Minister Tracey Martin was eyeing up the portfolio.

"If we come back after the election and if we have an opportunity to renegotiate I certainly wouldn't take it off the table," she said.

For now, Hipkins has the job - albeit in more of a caretaker role with very few announcements likely to be made in the run-up to the election.

Housing Minister Megan Woods has already taken on the meatier aspects of the Covid response - including testing at the border.

Within hours of taking over, Hipkins was being grilled by opposition spokesperson Michael Woodhouse.

Outside of the House Hipkins faced even tougher questions, like, whether he would continue to enjoy his daily coke and regular sausage rolls now he was health minister?

His response: "Ahhhh pass."

Hipkins already has a pretty full plate and National's deputy leader Nikki Kaye says giving the portfolio to the already busy education minister shows the government isn't giving health the attention it deserves.

"Being minister of health in a global pandemic should be a full-time job,'' she said.

Hipkins will be hoping his short but busy stint overseeing what's known as the worst job in government has a happier ending than his predecessor's.

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