John Armstrong's opinion: 'It took too long' for Jacinda Ardern to give David Clark the boot

It took a long time to happen. Too long. At last, however, there has been  accountability — real accountability, not the fake and meaningless variety which politicians and public servants parrot in order to create as much confusion as possible as to where the buck stops.

David Clark and Jacinda Ardern. Source: Getty

If there is anything positive to take from the sacking of David Clark as Minister of Health and his removal from the Cabinet altogether, it is that his dismissal was ultimately for reasons of competence — or lack thereof.

There has been a marked increase during the past two decades or so in the number of New Zealand ministers of the Crown who have been fired or forced to resign their portfolios.

The bulk of those have been booted out for the reason of “conduct falling short of the standards expected of a minister”.

Those who have fallen into that category have included Richard Worth for alleged sexual misconduct; Ruth Dyson for driving while under the influence of alcohol; Phil Heatley for misuse of a credit card; Lianne Dalziel for lying to the media about leaked documents; and Maurice Williamson for alleged interference in the judiciary.

Had the Prime Minister done what she says she would have done had the country not been in the midst of a pandemic, then Clark would have ended up being classified likewise.

Jacinda Ardern, however, argued that the “massive disruption” to the health system of Clark being sacked for breaching the protocols of the lockdown back in April meant for that reason “and that reason alone”, he would remain the Health Minister.

In hindsight, it is arguable whether booting him out of the Cabinet back then would have caused any more disruption than ended up being the case anyway. 

What keeping him in the health portfolio did do was change the grounds for Ardern firing him.

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But he will stay on as a Dunedin MP, the embattled politician said today in a press conference. Source: 1 NEWS

In the end, he went because he did not do his job properly. His job was to ensure the Ministry of Health did its job properly. In quite a few major aspects of the response to Covid-19, the ministry has been found wanting — the shortages of protective clothing, the extent of testing for the virus, mandatory isolation procedures and so on.

The consequent negative impact on public confidence in the ministry fell within the realm of the constitutional principle of “individual ministerial responsibility”. 

To use the wording in the Cabinet Manual, that principle stipulates that ministers are “accountable to Parliament for ensuring that the departments for which they are responsible carry out their functions properly and efficiently”.

Too often ministers duck responsibility for faults when things go awry. They blame or let the blame fall on the chief executive of the ministry or department for which they hold responsibility for overseeing. They insist that what has gone wrong is an “operational” matter, and not a policy matter which falls within the minister’s bailiwick. 

Alternatively, a minister will acknowledge he or she is responsible — and then insist they must stay in the portfolio on the grounds that only they know how best to rectify things.

Clark used both excuses. He also claimed he had received assurances from Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield that deficiencies in the ministry’s response to the virus had been fixed when clearly they had not been.

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The MP is just the latest Labour Cabinet minister to resign. Source: 1 NEWS

Clark’s “the buck does not stop with me” line of defence did not wash with the public. It backfired. It only upped the public pressure for Clark to be sacked — pressure which had been latent during the two months that had passed since his breaking of the rules of the lockdown.

The extent and depth of public pressure is the one factor which is crucial in determining whether and how much a prime minister is willing to punish an errant minister. 

Ardern’s dumping of Clark does not set a precedent for upping ministerial performance by insisting greater adherence to individual ministerial responsibility.

It is to be hoped it reinforces the application of that principle — and accordingly raises standards of ministerial performance.

Denis Marshall’s resignation as Minister of Conservation following the Cave Creek disaster in 1995 is the template which should guide prime ministers on such occasion when the principle comes into play.

Marshall wanted to relinquish the conservation portfolio as a symbolic acceptance that responsibility for the shoddy construction of the viewing platform in the Paparoa National Park, which collapsed killing 14 people, started at the very top.

Jim Bolger, who was Prime Minister at the time, would not allow his minister to quit.

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1 NEWS political reporters Maiki Sherman and Benedict Collins dissect a busy week at Parliament. Source: 1 NEWS

The head of the West Coast conservancy was instead the first political casualty, followed eventually by the chief executive of the Department of Conservation and, finally, by Marshall himself in the wake of a damning report of a commission of inquiry into the tragedy which Bolger could not brush under the Beehive carpet.

That Clark’s forced exit from the Cabinet has likewise been messy is par for the course. Ditching a colleague from his or her governing lineup is about the last thing with which a party leader would wish to be confronted — especially when the victim is someone as loyal as the MP for Dunedin North.

There is also an understandable reluctance to hand the Opposition a ministerial scalp. That reluctance is all the greater if a prime minister is under pressure to turf someone out of the Cabinet. Bowing to such pressure can end up being regarded as weak — just as a refusal to exercise discipline can similarly leave an impression of weakness.

That might explain why Ardern waited for a whole week before announcing that she had accepted Clark’s offer to resign. 

“Offer to resign” is the official version. The only offer on the table — or anywhere else for that matter — would have been of a particular kind — the kind that you cannot refuse.

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"He's put the team first, he's put New Zealand first," the PM said today. Source: 1 NEWS

The Prime Minister has acknowledged as much. She made mention of "frank discussions" with Clark late last week. Their conversations had concentrated on how the primary focus of the health portfolio needing to be on the Government's response to Covid-19, but  "some issues" were getting in the way of that happening.

Ardern claimed that Clark had reached the conclusion that his ongoing presence in the health role was causing too much distraction from the Government's response to the coronavirus.

Had Clark not reached that conclusion, Ardern would have reached it for him. Clark had two choices; either resign now and depart with some dignity by virtue of being able to claim the decision to go had been his to make, or, instead hold off and have Ardern ripping up his ministerial warrant and summarily sacking him.

Thus is the country subjected to a charade which allows Clark to pretend he is in control of his destiny when it is blatantly obvious that he is anything but.

So it’s goodbye time for the three-term MP. And surely not just goodbye for now, but for good. Or is it?

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For a brief time, the Health Minister had “avid campaigner for throwing under the bus policy” on his page. Source: Breakfast

Clark has confirmed that it his intention to stand for Parliament again in September’s general election. His majority will be slashed, but not in sufficient number to threaten his hold on the re-drawn Dunedin North electorate which has been renamed simply as “Dunedin” following boundary changes. 

So he will return to Parliament. But for what purpose?

Presuming Labour wins the coming election, is it possible that Clark’s political career could be resuscitated by Ardern appointing him to a ministerial post either inside or outside the Cabinet?

Never say never in politics. But in a word, no.

Clark’s recent blundering is not the first time that his political judgement has been exposed as lacking — and dangerously so.

The most glaring example was his taking his family on holiday to Australia just as nurses in New Zealand were about to begin long-flagged strike action.

That quite astonishing failure to recognise what is expected of a Cabinet minister would have served as warning to Ardern.

She cannot rely on him to always do the right thing by way of safeguarding Labour’s best interests. 

Were Ardern to give him the opportunity to redeem himself only for him to foul things up once more, he would not be the only one looking like a fool.