Health Minister David Clark's behaviour 'shameful', Jacinda Ardern needs to act - commentators

Two political commentators are questioning why David Clark remains New Zealand's Health Minister, suggesting not sacking him reflects a failure of leadership on Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's part. 

Pressure has mounted on Dr Clark to step down throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The Dunedin North MP breached New Zealand's lockdown rules - resulting in a demotion in Cabinet - and last week the Opposition called for his head after a testing debacle at the border.

Two women let out of managed isolation on compassionate grounds without a test later tested positive for COVID-19. It saw a swift response from the Government, which temporarily suspended compassionate leave, increased resources at the facilities and brought in new leadership to oversee them. The Health Minister and Prime Minister said they had been advised testing was taking place on day three and 12 of individuals' mandatory stay, but it turned out that wasn't always happening. 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield took responsibility, but the Health Minister has been less than willing to do the same. Dr Clark has promised to help fix the problem.

Footage filmed by Newshub on Wednesday of Dr Clark saying Dr Bloomfield had accepted responsibility as the Director-General stood by has been viewed tens of thousands of times online, with many criticising the Health Minister for not taking some of the blame. 

Left-wing leaning political commentator Chris Trotter told The AM Show that the border bungle had hurt the Government.

"The one thing they had, the one shining moment in three years, was their handling of the COVID crisis and the last week, I cannot see how that hasn't put a massive dent in their public standing," he said.

Trotter then hit out at Clark and said Ardern shouldn't simply stand by.

"I thought the behaviour of David Clark in relation to Ashley Bloomfield was just shameful, absolutely shameful. I am sorry Jacinda, but if you let that stand for the next 24 hours, then it's going to come back on you, because a person like that should not be in his job."

Right-wing leaning commentator Trish Sherson was also critical.

"Add to the list of failures of leadership. You can have all the good, fluffy stuff you want, but as a leader there are two important things. One is knowing when to get people off the bus when they are not performing, not throwing them under the bus. The other one is letting your team be good enough to step up around you and take their place. Neither of those things Jacinda Ardern is able to do."

She gave Dr Clark as an example of someone in Government not pulling their weight. 

"I know from sources who were close to that emergency response, not only was he not physically in Wellington, he was absolutely invisible and absent to that team, not even mentioned in daily reports, totally away from it," she said.

"He botches that up shockingly, doesn't get the sack, comes back, then gets put back in charge of this. It is a failure of the most ridiculous proportions."

She said Dr Clark should have had the wits to ask for metrics around testing at the border. Both the Health Minister and the Prime Minister have stressed repeatedly that they were advised day three and 12 testing was protocol.

"More importantly, for the Prime Minister to have left David Clark and then just incrementally let him come back in charge, I think that's a shocker," Sherson said.

Trotter said while Dr Clark hadn't been up to the job, some of the fault lay with officials who weren't experienced enough for such a crisis.

Like many MPs, Dr Clark was based in his hometown of Dunedin through the lockdown, to keep down the number of people interacting at the Beehive during the pandemic. However, some believed that as Health Minister, he played a vital role and shouldn't have been working remotely. 

During his time in Dunedin, Dr Clark went on a trip to the beach with his family, breaching COVID-19 rules. He was demoted in the Cabinet rankings and stripped of his associate Finance Minister role. Ardern said she would have sacked him but didn't believe doing so was appropriate in the middle of a health crisis. The Health Minister apologised for his actions.

Dr Clark was also slammed by the Opposition for going to a mountain bike track for a cycle and moving boxes between properties while Kiwis were under tight restrictions. 

With all the criticism, The AM Show host Duncan Garner asked what Trotter and Sherson believed the Government had achieved in its first term. Sherson noted it had made changes to rental laws and blocked foreign buyer purchasing land, while Trotter said Ardern has risen to the occasion during crises.

"It's all Jacinda. Her rising to the occasion with the tragedies in Christchurch and her rising to the occasion as the pandemic swept across the world. She is the one and only bright light for this Government," he said.

"Grant [Robertson] has been competent. Even that is a sort of a bright light when you look at the rest."

Since last week's border issues, Dr Bloomfield has reiterated anyone leaving an isolation facility must return a negative test first.