National MP Hamish Walker’s unconscionable privacy breach has already ended his career and that of a party stalwart – but his caucus colleagues may also be cursing his terrible judgment come September 19, Sam Sachdeva writes

A young, promising politician gifted one of the safest seats in the country and the prospect of a decades-long career, only to throw it all away after less than a term with inexplicably poor judgment.

History doesn’t repeat itself, it is said, but it often rhymes, and Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker now finds himself in a similar position to his predecessor Todd Barclay – jumping before being pushed, but with an uncertain landing ahead nonetheless.

Before his role in sharing the private information of Covid-19 patients with media outlets was revealed, Walker’s biggest headlines in his nascent career had been for helping to talk a distressed man down from Lake Hāwea Dam, and delivering a lamb in his electorate.

But a press release last week about the Government’s handling of managed isolation and quarantine facilities, a popular target for recent opposition attacks, set him on his path to oblivion.

Complaints about New Zealand citizens and residents “possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea” – only one of which resides in the 10 worst countries for new Covid-19 cases – was dog-whistling at best, and racist at worst.

It was that accusation of racism which led Walker to share a list of returning New Zealanders who had tested positive for the virus with several journalists in a panicked bid to clear his name.

Not only did he fail abysmally on that front – those who saw the details say they did not prove his point about the risk posed by new arrivals from certain countries – it was an unconscionable breach of privacy for Kiwis who were already dealing with a scary diagnosis.

National leader Todd Muller eventually delivered a strong response to Hamish Walker’s transgressions, but his deputy Nikki Kaye’s close ties to Michelle Boag ensure some awkwardness may remain. Photo: RNZ/Pool.

As soon as the news came to light, there was only one possible outcome for Walker, even if National leader Todd Muller seemed to take his time getting there.

Despite Muller being told about Walker’s involvement on Monday afternoon, it took until Tuesday evening for the errant MP to publicly confess and for his leader to punish him.

Muller explained the delay as being in part due to Walker engaging a QC to engage with National over the affair – reportedly on the grounds of concern about the MP’s own privacy, a tragicomic move which must have eliminated any doubt about his suitability to represent the party or Clutha-Southland.

But the National leader’s initial description of Walker’s “error of judgment” was tepid in the extreme, and left the party as a whole open to allegations it was not taking the affair seriously.

Muller’s tone changed overnight – perhaps in response to public anger – and by Wednesday morning he was telling media outlets that he had asked the National Party board to deselect Walker as its candidate for the new Southland electorate.

That sealed Walker’s fate, given a rejection of Muller’s request by the board would have amounted to a vote of no confidence in the leader.

As it transpired, Walker preempted the board meeting by announcing his retirement at the September 19 election, providing some small skerrick of dignity in otherwise dire circumstances.

But while it is an abrupt end to a fledgling career, the matter does not end there.

Perhaps most damagingly, the scandal will diminish National’s ability to make hay over the Government’s border management, particularly fertile ground in recent weeks.

Consider Walker’s source: former National Party president Michelle Boag, who said she had received the patient information in her capacity as acting chief executive of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust.

Awkwardly for Muller, Boag also held roles on deputy leader Nikki Kaye’s Auckland Central electorate and campaign committees – positions she relinquished, along with her positions at the trust, after her involvement came to light.

Nevertheless, Muller and Kaye have already faced, and will continue to face, questions about who else in the caucus and wider party may have known about Boag’s actions, as well as whether there is a cultural deficiency within National that gave Walker a sense he could make such a boneheaded call.

While far less flagrant, health spokesman Michael Woodhouse’s use of unnamed sources to make claims about procedural shortcomings – most notoriously, about a homeless man who allegedly enjoyed a two-week stay in an isolation facility without being caught – have also come in for criticism.

Perhaps most damagingly, the scandal will diminish the party’s ability to make hay over the Government’s border management, particularly fertile ground in recent weeks given the shortcomings that have seen Megan Woods, Chris Hipkins and Air Commodore Darryn Webb enlisted for damage control.

The Government’s difficulties in managing new arrivals have been a popular area of attack for National in recent weeks, but the privacy breach now makes that a more politically difficult criticism to advance. Photo: Supplied.

Those problems still exist, as evidenced by the new arrival who slipped out of an Auckland hotel for a quick supermarket visit the night before he returned a positive Covid-19 test.

But it becomes harder for National to fly in boots and all when the Government and other critics can remind voters of its own security lapses.

Jacinda Ardern and her team still have plenty of unresolved questions to answer, both on the general issue of the border and the Walker breach in particular.

With the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust saying Boag never had access to clinical or patient data held by it, how and why did she get a copy of the information sent to a private email account?

How many people were sent the data, on what grounds, and with what protections?

Hipkins stonewalled on Wednesday afternoon, pointing out – not unreasonably – that Michael Heron QC would look at all of those issues as part of his investigation into the breach.

But while that inquiry may yet bring bad news for the Government, it will be overshadowed by Walker’s original sin – a mistake which has already disrupted his and Boag’s careers, and could yet affect those of his caucus colleagues when voters head to the polls.

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

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