A ride too far, a promise unfulfilled

Health Minister David Clark. Photo: RNZ
Health Minister David Clark. Photo: RNZ
David Clark’s resignation as Health Minister was unfortunate, but it was also inevitable.

The regret stems from a sense of promise unfulfilled: Dr Clark’s record as health minister was not as threadbare as his many detractors in recent months have suggested, and in many ways he was only just beginning his work in this most challenging of portfolios.

However, his replacement by the now sorely overworked Chris Hipkins was an utterly necessary step for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who did not want to campaign for another term as prime minister being dogged by continual questions about Dr Clark’s fitness for his role.

The conversation Ms Ardern and Dr Clark had last week, prior to his decision on Wednesday to formerly resign yesterday, will have been entirely about political management.

As both of them said in their respective press conferences yesterday, Dr Clark was becoming a distraction — both to the Government’s Covid-19 response and to the Labour Party’s message that it should be returned for a second term on September 19.

The problem has not gone away entirely for the Prime Minister: it is a certainty that she will be asked in leaders debates throughout the election campaign whether her approach to the issue has been the correct one.

However, she can argue that with Dr Clark’s departure a line has been drawn to end his time as minister and a new minister will bring a fresh approach, both to the ongoing Covid-19 response and to the wider health sector.

On both fronts, Dr Clark has left his successor foundations to build on.

While his critics will ascribe him no credit for it, on his watch New Zealand has scaled down from the stringencies of Covid-19 Alert Level 4 to the almost status quo afforded by Alert Level 1.

In the broader health area, temporary Minister Hipkins — but more realistically whomever follows him in the position post-election — has a blank cheque for change to cash, thanks to the far-reaching all-of-sector review recently delivered by Heather Simpson.

That future health minister will also be able to spend the money carefully amassed by Dr Clark to implement the investment in mental health that he championed, oversee the recently created cancer control agency, and supervise district health board investment of the large sums made available to them for capital expenditure.

Dr Clark has not been entirely thrown under a bus by his party leader. While Ms Ardern was yesterday at pains to stress he would not be back in Cabinet as health minister, she would not rule out Dr Clark being a minister in the future should Labour return to power.

Health was not a portfolio Dr Clark’s theology qualifications and Treasury background marked him out for, rather a role he volunteered for when no-one else in his party was willing to take on the poison chalice of politics.

Dr Clark’s management of the portfolio was slow and methodical, too much so for those demanding urgent change.

That was defendable as the Government taking its time to get things right, but what ultimately was indefensible was Dr Clark’s personal transgressions of Covid-19 lockdown regulations.

Despite his commendably heartfelt apologies, which were repeated yesterday, Dr Clark’s credibility and with it his authority atomised once it was revealed he had failed to follow his own government’s health directives.

His departure means Dunedin no longer has an MP in Cabinet.

It is to be hoped that former residents David Parker and Grant Robertson still have the city’s interests at heart, as the new Dunedin hospital development’s detailed business plan awaits Cabinet approval and the future workload for the Hillside workshops remains to be settled, to name just two of many pressing issues facing the city.


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