Rob Campbell’s sacking is a blow to an exhausted health sector and could derail health reforms which were already on shaky grounds, health leaders say. 

Health minister Ayesha Verrall removed the veteran company director from his role as chair of Te Whatu Ora/Health NZ after he criticised the National party’s three waters policy on LinkedIn.  

Health leaders agree Campbell had crossed a line, but many said his removal was unfortunate. He would be hard to replace as someone willing to visit emergency departments at midnight, meet with GPs around the country and listen to frustrated sector leaders. 

After months working hard in the job, he was starting to understand the issues and wasn't afraid to speak out publicly about them, even if it meant criticising the government at times. 

Leaders said they feared his replacement would be more compliant and unwilling to make the necessary waves to fix a health system in crisis. 

Campbell said via text this morning that his removal was convenient for the government, which did not like how hard he had been pressing on issues including equity, Māori partnership, management-level efficiency and cost reductions to fund front-line services. 

'Metaphorical thick ear'

Health commentator Ian Powell said Campbell made a poor error of judgment and “he deserved a metaphorical thick ear”.   

But the government had been unhappy with Campbell well before the incident because he had become increasingly outspoken and critical.   

Campbell’s sacking, combined with the replacement of former health minister Andrew Little, sent a strong message that the health reforms were not working and were going backwards, Powell said.  

“Morale in the health sector is extremely low. It’s at a worrying state both for the health and safety of the workforce and the quality and access of patient care.”  

Potential replacements with more experience in the health sector might not want to take on the role because they had been marginalised, Powell said.  

“[The government] is more likely to get someone who is more compliant not only in public but behind closed doors as well.”  

Experienced healthcare investor Michael Haskell said that Campbell's personal opinions might not be everyone's cup of tea, but he did not know a more capable healthcare leader.

"Ultimately, capable leaders are in short supply. It will be interesting to see who the government chooses to replace him."

The University of Otago's director of the Centre for Health Systems, Robin Gauld, said Campbell’s removal was unfortunate. 

“It could have a significant impact because of his strong commitment to the reforms and his understanding of the very real challenges we face in the health sector. 

“Hopefully, someone else will be found with as big of a commitment to the reforms as he has had, and that is the important thing – that the reforms stay on track.”  

Campbell had been outspoken about issues such as hospital waiting lists and equity, but he had crossed a line with his latest political comments.  

“Unfortunately, he has pushed that boundary and I am afraid I am in the camp that believes the government didn’t have much choice but to remove him.”  

He didn't expect Campbell’s removal would have a big impact on businesses working in health – a tricky, uncertain environment at the best of times. 

General Practice NZ chair-elect Bryan Betty said GP leaders had always found Rob Campbell to be open and willing to discuss issues affecting primary care.  

Visits to GP clinics

Campbell had visited GP clinics all over the country and had worked very hard to understand access and equity issues in primary care in particular. He had had open and frank discussions with the sector on issues including workforce, funding and pay parity for GP nurses.  

“Our real concern now is who is appointed next, and that they have the same openness and willingness to discuss the issues with a sense of urgency.

“I’d really like to see someone who understands primary care, because it will take them time to get up to speed if they don’t have that knowledge.”  

President of the NZ Institute of Medical Laboratory Science Terry Taylor said Campbell would be hard to replace.  

“What other leader who commands a $24 billion budget stands in ED at midnight to see what the night shift is like?  

“He went to the front line, into the labs where the minister or even our own leadership people often would not go.” 

NZ Nurses Organisation chief executive Paul Goulter said health workers had lost a powerful and important advocate at a time of reform and uncertainty. 

Campbell regularly spoke about the worrying shortage of nursing staff and took concerns about issues such as pay equity for nurses and frontline resourcing seriously.

"He was an outspoken critic of the government’s bewildering refusal to put internationally qualified nurses on the fast track to residency and was firmly committed to Te Tiriti partnership in health.” 

Campbell also chairs the government's Environmental Protection Authority, which reports to David Parker as environment minister. 

The National party has called for the government to sack him from this role, too, but Parker is yet to make a public comment. 

Campbell is chancellor of AUT University and has been the chair of boards at SkyCity, Summerset Holdings, Guinness Peat Group, Tourism Holdings and WEL Networks. 

In 2017, Campbell was named chairperson of the year at the Deloitte Top 200 Awards and in 2019 was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to business. 

Campbell was named chair of Te Whatu Ora in September 2021 and officially took up the role when the organisation was created in July 2022.