After a second revelation of a lockdown breach in as many weeks, David Clark’s political career is on life support. But in truth he has never really seemed a good fit as health minister, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Appearing before Parliament’s epidemic response committee hours after his latest public shaming, Health Minister David Clark appeared suitably cowed.

In his appearance last week, Clark ran through a laundry list of the health system’s achievements. This time, his remarks were far briefer, and more personal.

“I have let New Zealanders down and I have apologised to the Prime Minister and I do apologise to the public.”

The subject of said apology? A 20-kilometre drive to a Dunedin beach with his family on the first weekend of lockdown, revealed by Clark on Tuesday morning after he last week faced heat for a shorter drive to a mountain-biking trail near his house.

There were some (this reporter included) who felt the reaction to Clark’s bike ride was disproportionate to the actual offence, ill-advised though it was.

Had that been an isolated incident it was possible, or even probable, that he would have been able to shake off the outrage and move ahead.

But the one-two punch of the cycle trip and the 20km family drive to the beach – a journey his wife reportedly questioned more thoroughly than he did – was a fatal combination.

Or at least it would have been in normal circumstances. Clark offered his resignation and Ardern indicated she would have accepted it, had it not been for the near-unprecedented situation the country finds itself in. 

“We cannot afford massive disruption in the health sector or to our response. For that reason, and that reason alone, Dr Clark will maintain his role.”

Some critics may accuse her of showing weakness, but it feels like the right decision.

There is no obvious successor able to immediately step in and steer the unwieldy national health system through the rocks ahead.

While ministry officials and healthcare workers are the people who actually make things happen, a health minister who understands their processes and is able to oversee their work with a political lens is still vital.

An uncomfortable fit

In truth, Clark has never seemed like a comfortable fit in the health portfolio since he replaced the departing Annette King (how Ardern must rue the decision of the experienced and formidable King to pull up stumps in opposition, while noting the irony it was her replacement of King as Labour’s deputy leader that accelerated her retirement plans).

He came into the job with no real health experience to speak of; while his mother was a GP, the ‘Dr’ honorific in front of his name comes from a PhD in theology rather than any medical qualifications.

Clark has exercised questionable judgment in the past too, most notably a decision to head overseas for a family holiday in the days before a nationwide nurses’ strike in mid-2018.

More generally, he has never seemed entirely comfortable fielding difficult questions from opposition MPs or the media, frequently giving the impression of a deer in the headlights.

From the outset, it seemed odd that Clark had not based himself in Wellington for the duration of the lockdown. For all that technology can offer, there is a reason why Ardern chose not to return to Auckland: “To be as close as I can for those who are helping to run the operation from central government over the coming weeks,” she said at the press conference announcing the lockdown.

Of course, Clark’s young family may have been a factor in his decision to stay south, but it nonetheless does not speak volumes of Ardern’s confidence in him that she was happy with that arrangement.

His failures in the last month have not been specific to health, but a broader inability to understand how his personal indulgences would be perceived by a public being asked to sacrifice more than they ever have in their lifetimes.

The former Treasury analyst was far more comfortable in his associate finance role – a portfolio he has now been stripped of by Ardern, deciding to take away what she could while pushing him to the bottom of the Cabinet rankings.

Barring a miracle, his political career is as good as over. We do not know for sure whether this year’s election will still take place on September 19, but it would not be a shock were he to bow out then (indeed, he could not offer Newshub an answer when asked about the odds of a retirement).

In one sense, that is a shame: had he been given a role more suited to his strengths, such as economic development or trade, he may well have shown talent.

Then again, his failures in the last month have not been specific to health, but a broader inability to understand how his personal indulgences would be perceived by a public being asked to sacrifice more than they ever have in their lifetimes.

If and when Clark does go, finding a replacement able to shore up a health system which has faced immense strain and either held firm or failed will not be easy.

But Ardern is still focused on the here and now – and no matter how devastated he may feel at present, so too must Clark.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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