Comment

The curse of Clutha-Southland or dirty politics?

Opinion: While the investigation into the security of patient data may still find the Government wanting, a rookie National MP’s spectacular own goal has put the opposition in the firing line, writes Laura Walters

Political gameplay 101: If you're trying to highlight that another political party shouldn't be trusted with sensitive personal information, you probably shouldn't do that by leaking said information to the media.

This should go without saying, but rookie National MP Hamish Walker showed he lacked strategic vision and an understanding of where to draw the line when he scored a massive own goal this week.

In a matter of days, Walker has gone from being a promising young player, to being labelled racist and then losing his portfolios for what was not only a breach of privacy but may have been a breach of the law.

With his head now on the chopping block, it appears Walker’s actions have resulted in a lot of pain, for very little gain.

On Tuesday, the Clutha-Southland MP confessed to sharing the private information of 18 Covid-19 patients with media.

Walker said he’d received legal advice he had not committed any criminal offence, but the Privacy Commissioner thinks otherwise, and calls for his resignation are mounting.

The data breach was reported by several media outlets during the weekend, prompting State Services Minister Chris Hipkins to establish an independent inquiry into the leak, to be led by Mike Heron QC.

But before the inquiry process could expose the leaker, Walker exposed himself. In a separate media statement, former National Party president (and until now acting chief executive of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust - ARHT) Michelle Boag outed herself as Walker’s source.

"I did this to expose the Government's shortcomings so they would be rectified. It was never intended that the personal details would be made public, and they have not been, either by me or the persons I forwarded them to," Walker said in his statement.

The information he had received was not password-protected or stored on a secure system where authorised users had to log on. There was no redaction to protect patient details or a confidentiality statement. 

There should be questions over why this information was sent to Boag’s personal email address without any protections.

But in trying to expose issues with the Government’s handling of information, Walker instead showed he - and by extension the National Party - couldn’t be trusted with New Zealanders’ sensitive information.

It showed a willingness to put politics above people, and their privacy.

National's last Clutha-Southland MP Todd Barclay was also embroiled in a political scandal that saw him out the door in his first term. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Walker came into Parliament in 2017. As the member for the deep blue electorate of Clutha-Southland, he should’ve been guaranteed a job for as long as he wanted one.

And until now he appeared to have all the attributes needed to make it in the National Party: a background as a business owner and strategist, as well as experience as a police jailer, fisherman, youth mentor and rugby referee. Not to mention, he looks at home in a flannel shirt and a pair of gummies.

Walker first made a name for himself through his advocacy for better maternity care in his electorate, after a string of women were forced to give birth in cars.

He made news again after helping a distressed man at the Lake Hāwea Dam while out on a walk with his now-wife, the day before his wedding.

The politician seemed likable, easygoing and caring. He was on the way up in caucus, and was recently given the forestry, land information, and associate tourism portfolios under new National leader Todd Muller.

Then last week, Walker put out a press release opposing plans to isolate arrivals in his electorate. Rather than focusing on arrivals from nations worst-hit by Covid (currently the United States, Brazil, India and Russia), he said: "These people are possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea."

Walker faced a backlash over his racist statement, and a rebuke from his boss, with Muller saying he was disappointed in the first-term MP.

It looked like he would likely recover from this gaffe, given the Labour Party (not to mention New Zealand First) have their own racism skeletons - glass houses, and all that.

But it’s hard to see how Walker can come back from this latest error of judgment.

What a difference a week makes in politics.

Former National Party president Michelle Boag, who never seems to be far from a scandal, resigned from the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust over the leak, calling it "a massive error of judgement on my part". Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

It’s possible Walker could blame his undoing on the curse of Clutha-Southland. 

The electorate’s last MP was also a young man, who should have safely risen through the ranks after taking over the seat from former prime minister Bill English.

But Todd Barclay was in and out within three years after a messy saga over allegations relating to an employment dispute and Barclay making a secret audio recording of staff in his electorate office.

While this may be the curse striking once again, the common denominator in this and other political scandals is more likely to be National Party operative Michelle Boag.

Boag is never far from a political scandal - she’s often seen as someone who operates in the shadows.

And as Hipkins said, this leak had "a ring of dirty politics to it".

This isn’t the first time she’s been part of a plan to play fast and loose with sensitive personal information to gain political advantage. In 2012, Boag was implicated in an ACC scandal relating to leaked information of 6700 claimants.

Given Boag’s ties with the National Party, there are legitimate questions to be asked about who in National knew what and when.

This will hopefully be flushed out through Heron’s leak inquiry, which is due to report back on July 24.

That inquiry may well also leave the Government with egg on its face - it’s hard to think of a good reason why this unprotected information was circulating in the first place.

But if any politician is going to lose their job over this disregard for patients’ privacy it’s not going to be a Government minister. It’s going to be another MP from the electorate of doom in the deep south.

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