David Clark takes one for the Labour team

David Clark's decision to fall on his sword will rid Jacinda Ardern and Labour of one obvious weakness as the election campaign draws ever closer, Sam Sachdeva writes

When it comes to election campaigns, Australian political strategist and boogeyman of the left Lynton Crosby is said to talk about “scraping the barnacles off the boat”.

Streamline your policies and personnel, the thinking goes, and you can sail to the finish line that much faster.

Much as Labour loathes the influence of Crosby Textor, the resignation of Health Minister David Clark shows a similar strategy from Jacinda Ardern and her Labour team.

After months of negative publicity for his personal indiscretions and the perceived shortcomings of the ministry he oversees, it could have been argued Clark had weathered the worst of the storm.

But the disproportionate levels of anger stoked by a relatively innocuous Newshub video of Clark speaking about Ashley Bloomfield’s responsibility for Covid-19 testing failures, while the Director-General of Health stood behind him, were a sign that the problem was not going away.

Bloomfield does indeed have responsibility for making things right - after all, he does run the Ministry of Health - but the minister’s failure to take any blame himself led to public outrage and offers of bouquets and cupcakes for the besmirched public servant.

The relief of the campaign trail may be approaching, but Clark and Bloomfield would have surely had to front the media at least a few more times to discuss Covid-19 before September 19.

In raising “what we needed to do to make sure Covid was a priority”, as Ardern euphemistically put it, the Prime Minister appears to have walked [Clark] to the edge of the cliff (albeit with a parachute) before leaving him to make the right call.

Could Clark - or the Government - really have withstood continued volleys of questions about his relationship with Bloomfield and his competence in the health portfolio?

It appears not, judging by the Prime Minister’s self-declared conversation with Clark last week which precipitated his resignation.

Ardern sought to downplay the significance of the chat, saying: “As you can imagine in employment situations, just like any workplace when a minister and a portfolio and a subject area is as important as this one, I will have ongoing conversations with ministers.”

But if the Beehive was actually like a normal workplace, Clark would probably have a strong case for constructive dismissal.

In raising “what we needed to do to make sure Covid was a priority”, as Ardern euphemistically put it, the Prime Minister appears to have walked him to the edge of the cliff (albeit with a parachute) before leaving him to make the right call.

What’s more, Chris Hipkins - his successor as Health Minister until at least the election - also spoke to his friend Clark and seemingly helped to nudge him towards his decision.

In truth, the fatal blow came months ago, when Ardern said she would have dismissed Clark over his breaches of lockdown rules, were it not for the nearly unprecedented nature of the global pandemic.

It was a de facto admission of no confidence in a minister whose portfolio was more important than ever for the Government, and the country.

Chris Hipkins cannot juggle health and education beyond the election - but if he judges himself to be far enough through his reforms in the latter sector, he could switch over full-time. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Sympathy for Clark’s circumstances is not an entirely misplaced emotion.

His decision to head to the beach with his wife and children, and his pre-pandemic absence during a 2018 nurses’ strike to help with a family holiday, seemed to show a desire to look after his loved ones, while some suggested similar sentiment was behind his absence from the Beehive during lockdown.

Of course, there are plenty of families who would have appreciated a weekend outing for the sake of their sanity during Level 4, yet managed to follow the rules.

Politicians are rightly held to a higher standard than most of the public - but they are still humans, a fact that people forget all too often.

Tellingly, Ardern said the door remained open for Clark to regain a ministerial position after the election, albeit not in a health role.

The Prime Minister would need to know she could trust his judgment, but a role in a finance-related position - Clark served as Associate Finance Minister and spent time in the Treasury before Parliament - is at somewhat feasible.

As for the health role, Hipkins is clearly a caretaker, at least while he combines the job with education and state services.

Yet with a reasonable chunk of his education reforms already in train, he could pass that role to someone else after September 19 and take on health full-time (it still seems a stretch for putative first-term MP and epidemiologist Ayesha Verrall to take over from Clark should she make it in on the party’s list).

Trust at the forefront

Clark’s resignation, as with the sacking of Meka Whaitiri and the demotion of Phil Twyford, has come before a break from Ardern fielding difficult questions from journalists in Parliament and opposition MPs at Question Time - timing which is no mistake.

And it clears off one unsightly barnacle before Ardern addresses the party faithful at Labour’s conference on Sunday (a largely digital event aside from her set piece speech).

Labour will reveal its campaign slogan and billboards on Saturday, with the Government’s success in avoiding the worst-case scenario for the pandemic expected to be front and centre during its electioneering.

Ardern’s sky-high ratings, and the party’s strong polling, give it a natural opportunity to ask voters to let it fix its own slip-ups rather than trusting the “unknown quantity” that is Todd Muller’s National.

That may have been a harder sell if Clark had remained in post, given it was clear almost nobody in the country trusted him.

But now he has been scraped away, and Captain Ardern will hope it is smooth sailing ahead.

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