An opposition MP in New Zealand has announced he will not stand at September’s election after he confessed to leaking private details about all of the country’s active Covid-19 cases to several news outlets.
The leak by Hamish Walker, a member of parliament for the centre-right National party, as well as the revelations that the personal information had in turn been provided to him by a former National party president, dealt a blow to an opposition trying to make a comeback in the polls ahead of September’s election against the widely popular prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
“I sincerely apologise for my actions. I will be making no further comment,” Walker said in a written statement on Wednesday, which was sent to news outlets at the same time members of his party’s board were due to meet about his future.
Jo Moir from Radio New Zealand, one of the outlets that received the leaked information, confirmed to the Guardian that the private patient information did not support an earlier claim by Walker that returnees were from “India, Pakistan and Korea”. The news outlets did not make the leaked information public.
Only returning New Zealanders and certain essential workers are permitted to enter the country and must spend 14 days in managed quarantine at designated hotels. Arrivals to the country are now restricted as the government runs out of space for returning travellers, and has been looking to accommodate them in new regions, including Walker’s.
In a public statement on Tuesday, Walker changed his reason for releasing the details, claiming it was “to expose the government’s shortcomings.” His party has criticised the government for what they have called shambolic and lax quarantine practices for returning travellers.
Michelle Boag, the former National party president who furnished Walker with the details, has not yet said how she obtained them. But she has stepped down from her position as acting chief executive of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust; she said she had received the information in that capacity.
“I very much regret my actions and did not anticipate that Hamish would choose to send it on to some media outlets,” Boag said in a statement on Tuesday.
Confessions from the pair came a day after the government announced an inquiry into the leak, with criminal charges possible.
Todd Muller, who has led the National party since May after ousting his predecessor in a vote, said in a statement that the party’s board would meet today to discuss selecting a new candidate for Walker’s electorate of Clutha-Southland, traditionally a rural National party stronghold.
“There was a clear breach of trust, which goes against the values National holds as a party,” Muller said. He had earlier told Radio New Zealand he would ask the party leadership to sack Walker for his “serious lapses of judgement.”
Bryce Edwards, a political analyst, said the scandal was “astonishingly bad news” for Muller and his party. In recent polls, National rose to 38% after Muller assumed the leadership, with Ardern’s centre-left Labour riding high at 50%.
“Just as the party’s campaign was getting traction and gaining credibility under a new leadership, this scandal almost sinks any chance of the party recovering its former high polling with the public,” Edwards said. “National had been making some serious inroads on Labour’s strong narrative that the Government had conquered Covid-19, exposing some of the failures of management of the border and quarantine arrangements and suddenly this scandal negates their effective work on this.”
He added that National was now vulnerable to allegations of having a culture of “dirty politics”, because the party had a “history of unethical leaking of material to the media.”
But Ben Thomas, a PR consultant and former National government press secretary, said Walker’s actions were evidence of “a nascent problem for a lot of parties,” and he did not believe the party’s leadership had been aware of what the first-term backbench MP was doing.
“It’s not a National culture thing, it’s a culture of a certain generation of politicians coming through thinking that scandal politics and House of Cards are instruction videos,” he said.