Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall says Pharmac chair Steve Maharey has offered resignation, she's seeking advice

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall says Pharmac chair Steve Maharey has tendered his resignation over political columns he wrote while holding the senior public service role. 

Dr Verrall says she has confidence in Maharey and "I haven't seen anything that concerns me here" but she is seeking advice from the Public Service Commission.

Maharey is the chair of Pharmac, ACC and Education New Zealand.

It follows the sacking of Te Whatu Ora chair Rob Campbell last week, after he attacked the National Party on social media. 

The Government says the difference in Maharey's case is that he has accepted an issue with his actions whereas Campbell stood by his comments.

"In terms of with Mr Campbell, he called the Leader of the Opposition stupid and he implied his policies were racist," said Dr Verrall. "While he apologised to me, he then doubled down on those criticisms in the press. Mr Maharey has reached out and been contrite."

In newspaper columns, Maharey compared National to the US Republican Party, said it had never been "the party of change" and that Luxon's brand rests on him being "a good manager (of an airline)". 

National wants Maharey to resign.

"It's the same principle that we talked about with Rob Campbell. In New Zealand, we want to have an impartial public service. It's really important," said leader Christopher Luxon.

"We don't believe in an American-style public service where we make each time after each successive Government. He has a clear code of conduct, big governance job as the chair, needs to understand those obligations."

Steve Maharey.
Steve Maharey. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Dr Verrall was asked multiple times on Tuesday morning whether Maharey had tendered his resignation. After a number of questions, she eventually said he had. But she said there is now a process underway with the Public Service Commission.

Newshub has tried to get comment from Maharey through Pharmac and ACC.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told AM on Tuesday morning that Maharey's comments were "clearly not politically neutral" and that his office had heard from the public servant on Monday.

"He's indicated that he acknowledges that they're not impartial, the way that we would expect of a Crown entity chair. He's apologised for those and he's also indicated that he's not going to be writing that column in the future.

"So quite a difference in terms of the approach that we've seen from Mr Maharey compared to Mr Campbell, but you know, I acknowledge that nobody's perfect. I think that what he's done is the right thing here."

Asked if the perception of political bias is elevated because Maharey is former Labour MP, Hipkins said he wouldn't stop former politicians from either side of the aisle from taking governance positions. 

He noted the Government has appointed former National ministers to various roles.

"I don't for one moment believe that suddenly they've become supporters of the Labour Party because they're working in the Crown entity space. They will still be National people, they will still hold those views but it doesn't mean that they need to be articulating those publicly. I think that's the issue here."

Speaking to reporters later, Hipkins said he hadn't been aware of the political nature of some of Maharey's columns.

"My understanding is that most of his columns have been fine, but there might have been one or two of them where he has gone a bit further in terms of his political commentary."

He said it's possible no one relevant noticed the columns.

Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall.
Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Campbell was sacked as both the Te Whatu Ora and Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) chair last week after taking aim at National's Three Waters policy on Linkedin. 

That's despite board members of Crown entities being subject to a code of conduct saying they must be politically impartial. 

"We act in a politically impartial manner. Irrespective of our political interests, we conduct ourselves in a way that enables us to act effectively under current and future governments," the code of conduct says. 

"We do not make political statements or engage in political activity in relation to the functions of the Crown entity.

"When acting in our private capacity, we avoid any political activity that could jeopardise our ability to perform our role or which could erode the public's trust in the entity. We discuss with the Chair any proposal to make political comment or to undertake any significant political activity."

Even after his sacking, Campbell has remained defiant, telling Newshub he had "no regret" and believed he made the comments in a private capacity that didn't erode the trust people could have in him as the chair.

He said he apologised to National leader Christopher Luxon as well as Dr Verrall "for any difficulty I had caused her or the Government" but "it would not appear that she accepted that".

He's gone on to accuse the Government of a "witch hunt" and says he was targeted for his support of co-governance.

Dr Verrall said Campbell's social media comments and subsequent refusal to step back from that meant she lost confidence in him. She also said she didn't target him because he wanted to go further on co-governance.

The minister rejected Campbell's view that the health system is constipated and bogged down in bureaucracy. 

"I have seen the health system perform at pace during COVID to achieve things to save the lives of New Zealanders."

She said the system needs to build on those successes.