It started with an accusation of being racist and ended with a resignation less than a week later. How a press release became Hamish Walker's downfall, Amelia Wade reports.

Thursday - The leak

"I've come to talk to you about racism," Megan Woods says, wielding a copy of Hamish Walker's press release.

The Housing Minister had just held a press conference saying border facilities are coming under pressure with surging demand and need to expand. The Government is assessing the feasibility of hotels in Dunedin and Queenstown.

National MP Hamish Walker is not happy and quickly fires off a press statement warning up to 11,000 people were headed for Southland from "India, Pakistan, Korea".

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The press release which got Hamish Walker in so much trouble.
The press release which got Hamish Walker in so much trouble.

Woods, spitting mad, hand-delivers copies of the statement to the press gallery, giving interviews to each office as she went.

"It's disgraceful and it's reprehensible. I think he's trying to stir up a sentiment that I don't think has any place in New Zealand."

Quite frankly, Woods says, it's racist.

Walker answered when the Herald called for his response, but was in a meeting - could he email something through, he asks.

By 6pm the email hadn't landed. The Herald publishes a story online about Walker's statement and Woods' reaction.

Two hours later, Walker calls back - he's sent a response.

"Calling me a racist is Labour's default tactic when they are unable to defend their blatant failures. It's not about race," he says.

"It's about the countries these Kiwis are coming from.

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"My source was told people are coming from only these three countries."

And Walker says he can prove it. He sends a spreadsheet containing the names, dates of birth and locations of New Zealand's then 18 active Covid-19 cases. He says the Herald can use the information but can't say it came from him.

The Herald later verifies information on the spreadsheet to details released daily by the Ministry of Health to verify the information - it matches exactly in terms of ages and isolation hotels, but it doesn't it prove what Walker thought in terms of countries of origin.

Friday - The Government scrambles

The Herald breaks the news to newly-appointed Health Minister, Chris Hipkins - just one day into the job - that patient details had been leaked, but couldn't reveal its source.

Hipkins is furious. That this information was given out, he says, is "totally unacceptable".

"I have been advised by the Ministry of Health that at this stage it cannot be confirmed beyond doubt whether a deliberate leak was involved or if this was simply human error.

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"If it was the former, it is unconscionable and absolutely beggars belief why anyone would feel it was an acceptable action to take, given the trauma it is likely to cause those whose information is involved. It would, quite frankly, be abhorrent, and potentially criminal.

"Either way, it cannot happen again."

Saturday - News breaks

sits on the front page of the Weekend Herald.

Two other media outlets quickly publish stories to say they too were leaked the sensitive data while National Party leader Todd Muller tells RNZ the leak is "shabby".

"Is it a deliberate leak or is it accidental? It doesn't really matter at a level ... it's loose, it's shabby and it's a reminder these guys can't manage important things well.

"These guys need to step aside and let a competent government take over."

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National's health spokesman Michael Woodhouse weighs in and issues a press statement saying the Government "can't be trusted with anything".

The leak was "unconscionable and unacceptable", he says.

"Something as simple as keeping confidential information confidential should not be a difficult task".

Hipkins, also State Services Minister, says there'll be an investigation and criminal charges would be on the table if a malicious motive was behind the leak.

"We do not yet know the motive but any deliberate leak of this kind is intolerable."

Monday - Walker confesses to his boss

Walker finally confesses to Muller about lunchtime and his boss tells him to admit it publicly.

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At 3pm, Hipkins and the Prime Minister announce a powerful inquiry headed by former solicitor-general Michael Heron, QC, to get to the bottom of "exactly who" is responsible.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins announce a powerful Government inquiry into the leak. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Health Minister Chris Hipkins announce a powerful Government inquiry into the leak. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"The public release of this information is wrong. I'm determined to find out why it happened, how it happened and ensure that systems are in place to prevent it from happening in the future," Hipkins says.

Publicly, National decline to comment on the Government inquiry.

That afternoon, a lawyer representing Walker privately sends a legal letter to Muller's office asking the National leader not to out his client, citing privacy concerns.

Muller seeks his own legal advice about naming his disgraced MP and there's a to-and-fro between lawyers.

National Party leader Todd Muller was sent a legal letter by Hamish Walker asking not to name him, citing privacy. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Party leader Todd Muller was sent a legal letter by Hamish Walker asking not to name him, citing privacy. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Tuesday - The confession

The National Party issues two statements on Tuesday evening in quick succession - the first from Walker admitting he was the leaker, the second from Muller expressing his view that "forwarding on this information was an error of judgment".

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A third statement lands five minutes later from former party president Michelle Boag confessing to being Walker's source.

Former National Party president fell on her sword after admitting she was Hamish Walker's source. Photo / Supplied
Former National Party president fell on her sword after admitting she was Hamish Walker's source. Photo / Supplied

Walker claims he sent the document to prove the Government's shortcomings on security of information while Boag falls on her sword and admits she's made "a massive error of judgement".

"I very much regret my actions and did not anticipate that Hamish would choose to send it on to some media outlets but I am grateful that the media involved have chosen not to publish the 18 names that were contained within it."

State Services Minister Chris Hipkins holds a late-night press conference after Hamish Walker confesses to being the source of the leak. Photo / Mark Mitchell
State Services Minister Chris Hipkins holds a late-night press conference after Hamish Walker confesses to being the source of the leak. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Hipkins learns about the pair's actions by reading a news report and scrambles to organise a 7.30pm press conference on the black-and-white tiles in Parliament.

"This is a very disappointing situation. It does have a ring of dirty politics about it and this could be very sad for the upcoming election."

Muller writes to the National Party board asking to remove Walker as its candidate for Clutha-Southland.

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Wednesday - Walker jumps before he's pushed

Deputy leader Nikki Kaye is due to appear on morning media shows but is swapped out overnight and replaced with Muller.

As he moves through interviews with the AM Show, Breakfast, Newstalk ZB, Muller's fury becomes more apparent.

At 6.25am, Muller deems Walker's actions "completely unacceptable". By 7am he's "personally, hugely angry".

"You can probably hear it in my voice."

At midday, the party board holds an urgent Zoom meeting, but Walker jumps before he's pushed and resigns.

"I wish to thank the people of Clutha-Southland who I have loved meeting, assisting and representing over the past two and a half years," Walker said.

"I sincerely apologise for my actions."

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