Ardern falls short so far in Budget ‘hack’ response

As the Budget “hacking” saga drags on, it’s tempting to lose interest. But, as Sam Sachdeva writes, Jacinda Ardern’s semantics over her own handling of the issue is doing her a particular disservice.

At present, it seems harder to find out details about the Government’s handling of the “hack” of confidential Budget information than it was for National to uncover the confidential information itself.

On an issue where nobody has covered themselves in glory, it is Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cabinet colleagues who may now be feeling the heat most.

The news that the Government Communications Security Bureau had made representations to ministers about Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf’s use of the term “hack” came not through any proactive disclosure by the Government, but a story broken by the NZ Herald last Friday, over a week after the Budget itself had been put to bed.

Even then, further details have been only begrudgingly handed out: it took until Monday afternoon for Ardern to state Finance Minister Grant Robertson had not known about the GCSB advice when he issued a media release supporting the Treasury’s claims, and a further 24 hours for the Government to provide a detailed timeline of who was told what, when.

While the new information would seem to clear Robertson of conspiring with Makhlouf to smear National, it doesn’t address why he, Ardern and other ministers failed to set the record straight sooner.

The Prime Minister says she and her colleagues changed their language on the issue after the GCSB made contact, but the Hansard transcript from the day after evokes defensiveness more than any greater clarity.

And while the State Services Commission inquiry into Makhlouf’s actions will cover the advice that flowed between officials and their ministers, it won’t look at the conversations between ministers or how they handled what information they did receive.

You could make a case that is appropriate, given it is Makhlouf and Treasury that seem to have erred most egregiously - but the Government’s hands are far from squeaky clean.

Dancing on the head of a pin, and leaving your opponent to swing in the wind on the basis of misleading information, is not exactly transformational politics.

Before the stardust of her election campaign had settled into the mundane realities of governance, Ardern was asked by Newshub’s Patrick Gower whether a politician could survive without lying.

Of course, she responded, adding that she had never told a lie in politics.

If she hadn’t crossed that line before the last fortnight, she’s come precariously close now - not an outright lie, perhaps, but certainly misleading by omission.

Did John Key do the same on occasion? Of course. But Ardern has spoken about doing things differently, about a new type of government.

Dancing on the head of a pin, and leaving your opponent to swing in the wind on the basis of misleading information, is not exactly transformational politics.

Ardern has sought to place the burden of disclosure on Bridges, given it was his team that accessed the Budget information in the first place.

To be fair, the National leader has been far from convincing in his explanation, or lack thereof, for why it was in the public interest to hold back on revealing the source of the leak (the political interest is obvious).

But government ministers are and should be held to a higher standard than their opposition counterparts, given their access to privileged information and the power they possess.

Bridges’ line of questioning on the topic has begun to seem a little one-note, but at the same time he isn’t obliged to play to the Government’s tune.

Ardern - and her supporters - may want everyone to move on, but there are still questions that deserve an answer and haven’t yet received one.

Of course, the actual contents of the Budget and what it does - or doesn’t do - to improve the wellbeing of New Zealanders is of vital importance.

But so too is transparency and accountability. If Ardern feels she is being judged against an unfairly high standard, it is one that she and her government set themselves.

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