What changed to prompt David Clark’s resignation now?

David Clark offered his resignation as Minister of Health in April, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern because of the Covid-19 pandemic it was necessary to retain him in the role.Clark said yesterday:

You will recall that I offered my resignation during the Level Four lockdown in response to mistakes I made in a personal capacity.

The Prime Minister made it clear at the time – that under normal circumstances – she would have accepted that resignation, but she did not want significant disruption to the health system in the middle of the emergency response.

As recently as last Friday she said Clark would stay on as Minister until the election. Clark had also said he would stay on.

But yesterday Clark resigned. What changed to prompt this?

There have been conflicting claims by Clark and Ardern.

Newshub: PM Jacinda Ardern was pushing David Clark out as Health Minister while publicly saying he’d stay until election

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was pushing David Clark out as Health Minister while publicly saying he would stay on until the September election. 

Dr Clark resigned as Health Minister on Thursday saying he had “made the call that it is best for me to stand aside” because he had become a “distraction”.

“He reached the conclusion his ongoing presence in the health role was causing too much distraction to the Government’s response to COVID-1 – an assessment I agree with,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

My guess is that internal polls indicated that Clark staying on was detrimental to Labour’s re-election chances.

The distractions have been abundant. The lockdown breaches: moving house, the drive to the beach with his family, and that mountain bike ride – prompting Dr Clark’s first resignation offer in April.

“It was bloody obvious to me at that point I felt like a complete dick,” he told The AM Show at the time.

The Prime Minister responded with a threat to Dr Clark’s job.

“Under normal circumstances I would sack the minister,” she said at the time.

With those eight words, the Prime Minister delivered Dr Clark a fate worse than sacking – stripping him of the authority to do his job.

Clark already didn’t seem to be acting authoritatively, and this emphasised that.

After that Clark seemed determined to stay on in the job.

“I am certainly very keen to get on with this,” he told Newshub Nation in June.

The Prime Minister doubled down in Queenstown last Friday when asked if Dr Clark would hold onto his job until the election at least.

“Of course, that is what I’ve continued to say.”

But we now know that around that same time late last week the Prime Minister was edging Dr Clark out.

That would mean that Ardern was deliberately misleading the public.

Newshub asked the Prime Minister if she in any way insinuated or suggested to Dr Clark that she wanted him to offer his resignation.

“No, it was a very open conversation,” she said.

And in that “very open conversation” the Prime Minister gave him the kiss of death – making it clear he was becoming a distraction so close to an election.

Ardern was asked if she had raised with Dr Clark that he was becoming a distraction.

“We had a general discussion around what was needed to put the country first and our COVID response first,” she said.

As for why she didn’t just sack Dr Clark, Ardern said: “My focus has been COVID all the way through – our response to COVID. Those early days, continuity was the most important thing.”

In yesterday’s prepared speech announcing “This morning I have formally tendered my resignation as Minister of Health” Clark defended his performance, praised his performance and electioneered.

The Prime Minister made it clear at the time – that under normal circumstances – she would have accepted that resignation, but she did not want significant disruption to the health system in the middle of the emergency response.

We still have a health emergency, and him resigning is still a significant disruption.

But it has not always been plain sailing and I wish to put on record again that I take full responsibility for the decisions made and taken during my time as Minister of Health.

It’s on the record that he didn’t take full responsibility, and again here he carefully avoids taking direct responsibility – “the decisions made and taken during my time as Minister of Health” implies decisions made by others, there is no personal ownership of his decisions and actions – and just as critical, his lack of decision making and oversight of his ministry.

I’ve always taken the view that the interests of the team must come first, and New Zealand’s COVID response is simply too important, so I have made the call that it is best for me to stand aside.

Now is the right time to hand over the reins, and move forward with new leadership.

The time is now right to hand over to another Minister …

So an already very busy minister and Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, has taken over as Minister of Health, one of the biggest jobs in Government at any time and especially during a pandemic.

Loading Hipkins with even more responsibilities has been deemed preferable to leaving Clark in the role.

Was Clark that inadequate? Perhaps he was.

But it seems that in saying “the interests of the team must come first” Clark may be referring to the Labour team, not the team of 5 million that Ardern keeps referring to.

It probably makes little difference whether Clark jumped or was dumped, but the explanations from him and Ardern have not been convincing.

Ardern’s ability to make tough decisions regarding poorly performing ministers is also not convincing.