Covid patient info scandal reeks of 'organised campaign' by National, author Nicky Hager argues

Sometimes things stuff up or individual MPs go rogue, but high-profile investigative journalist Nicky Hager says there was a "distinct smell from the beginning" of a covert, organised campaign strategy by National as last week's Covid-19 patient information scandal unfolded.

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The Dirty Politics author said it looked to him like an organised campaign by National to find dirt on Labour. Source: Breakfast

However, a National spokesperson has rubbished the idea that its leader, Todd Muller, knew about the leak of confidential Covid-19 patient details to media.

Last week ended with the party's Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker announcing he wouldn't run this election after he leaked confidential Covid-19 patient information to media.

Former National Party president Michelle Boag, who abused her position as acting CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust to give Mr Walker the information, also stepped aside from the party she had a long involvement in over her part in the fiasco.

This morning on TVNZ1's Breakfast, Hager said it was a clear case of National trying to get dirt on the Government in order to make it look bad, and therefore make itself look better. In 2014, Hager released the book Dirty Politics, which investigated the behind-the-scenes machinations of John Key's National Government. 

"Of course, sometimes in politics things stuff up and go wrong and you don't know what's going on, but yes, this had a distinct smell from the beginning.

"The distinctive things are you've got a party that is kind of in trouble, it's not doing very well in the polls, it's looking for a way to knock down its opponents rather than sort of win the arguments.

"You see, one after the other, tricky things start to happen. When we talk through it, I think it's become pretty clear that this was an organised campaign."

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He admitted last night that he was the person who leaked confidential Covid-19 patient information to the media. Source: 1 NEWS

Hager suggested Mr Walker's sending the information to the press was "an act of thoughtless craziness", as it wouldn't have been part of the plan.

National was polling low, even with the change in leadership from Simon Bridges to Mr Muller, he pointed out.

Then about a month later, two UK tourists were let out of Covid-19 quarantine on compassionate exceptions with the virus and the polls changed trajectory. 

Hager said he'd put money on the fact that this had given National an idea.

"It was only in the week after that that Michelle Boag started sending around data to different people, first Woodhouse, Michael Woodhouse the health spokesperson, and then to this young guy in Invercargill," he said.

"But what the important thing to notice here is, that really starts to make sense of this is, it wasn't that everyone kind of went mad and started sending each other emails they didn't really need and that they didn't know what they'd do with and they just quietly deleted later because there was no purpose of it; this has all just been flimflam, been diversion, when they've been answering us.

"What was actually going on was that they were looking for political ammunition. The reason why they wanted people's personal Covid patient information is because maybe there were more of those women driving down the island, maybe there was more stuff like that. and that had been the one thing that had dented the Labour Party's polls, their unbeatable polls."

Hager also suggested National members would still be doing it if it wasn't for Ms Boag sending the information to Mr Walker who "did something very unexpected" in sending it to media.

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The National leader also told Breakfast he thinks former party president Michelle Boag should step aside from any involvement with the party in the wake of the Covid-19 privacy leak scandal. Source: Breakfast

However, Mr Muller last week staunchly spoke out against what the pair did, saying he wanted both Mr Walker and Ms Boag to step down before they finally did.

“From my perspective, his approach is completely unacceptable," Mr Muller told Breakfast last week. "It doesn’t meet New Zealand’s standards of behaviour, it doesn’t meet my standards of behaviour and it doesn’t meet the National Party’s standards of behaviour.

“I have demoted him and taken his portfolios off him. I’ve also last night written to the board, expressed concern over the behaviour and judgement – serious lack of judgement – that I’ve seen in recent days, and the board are meeting today to reflect on it.”

This morning, though, Hager said, "my view is that it is 100 per cent impossible that Todd Muller didn't know that the strategy was to try and find a series of stories which kind of disappointed people's feelings about the Covid response because Labour was up so high in the polls because they'd done so well on Covid - they wanted to drag that down again, so he knew that."

When contacted by 1 NEWS after Hager's interview, a National spokesperson spoke out against the investigative jounralist's theory. 

"Todd’s position is clear; as he has stated in the past, he learned about Hamish Walker’s involvement when Hamish told him last Monday," the spokesperson said. 

"He was informed about Michael Woodhouse’s involvement on Tuesday evening.

"He did not know about either earlier than this."

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Muller told 1 NEWS yesterday Boag wasn’t a source for Woodhouse, after she supplied leaked Covid-19 information to Hamish Walker. Source: 1 NEWS

When asked by Breakfast host John Campbell about how to draw a line in the sand between dirty politics and holding Government to account, Hager highlighted his take on the difference between the two.

"People should point out serious things that Government's do wrong, when people act dishonestly and wrongly. What they shouldn't do is to turn politics into a kind of organised, strategised game of phony little fake crisis and scandals, which aren't real scandals - they're just kind of the tact that they're trying to make opponents look bad," he said.

"Everyone's trying to make each other look bad and in the end nobody likes politics, no one trusts politics, no one trusts politicians, people turn off from politics and it poisons the whole pond."

However, Hager said it's to be expected that there will still be attack adverts in the lead up to the September election.

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The man said the National MP should have known right from wrong. Source: 1 NEWS