Politics

‘It feels like Star Trek’

The Government which once called itself the "most open and transparent" the country had seen has been beaten to the punch in disclosing texts and emails with the man it terminated from the new role of Chief Technology Officer before he began.

Derek Handley today issued files of his communications with the Government because it had "chosen not to fill the vacuum" which had fuelled speculation about his application for the key technology role. He says the material he released includes all contact between them. 

He is clearly wounded by the Government cancelling his appointment because of a meeting Curran held with him but did not put in her diary or include in an answer to a Parliamentary question.

That meeting led to the Prime Minister demoting Communications Minister Clare Curran, taking away her responsibilities for open government and digital communication - and to an inquiry into how the process for appointing a new CTO was conducted.

The file of texts and emails released by entrepreneur Derek Handley on his interactions with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Clare Curran includes an inquiry report clearing Curran for meeting him over the Chief Technology Officer role.

Handley's file of documents, released at 5am today with a statement on LinkedIn, includes an email dated September 12 from Catherine Williams, the Deputy State Services Commissioner for integrity, ethics and standards, to the Minister of State Services Chris Hipkins, who took responsibility for the CTO process once Curran was demoted.

Williams says the recruitment process was robust, that it is unlikely there could have been a legal challenge over the process and: 

"Viewed objectively, the meeting between the Hon Clare Curran and the candidate [Handley] before the recruitment process commenced did not prejudice the process."

It is clear from texts between Curran and Handley that he, as an applicant, determined that any conflicts of interest he might have in the technology world be sorted out definitively before his appointment was announced publicly. 

Curran and her officials at the Department of Internal Affairs and Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment were working on the conflicts of interest when Curran's office learned of the February face-to-face meeting between their minister and Handley. The Prime MInister's Office was informed and then Curran was disciplined.

An Internal Affairs inquiry into Handley's possible conflicts was still underway when Williams wrote to Hipkins.

What the texts and emails show

Handley texted Ardern early in the year about his plans to return home from New York and his interest in helping the country. "Hey Derek! Great to hear you're coming home. When will you be back?"  she said in April. Later the same morning she adds: "This really is good news. Let's catch up when you're back for good perhaps. In the meantime I'll talk to the team about how we can make use of you and your kind offer. Have you had thoughts on this already.?"

Crucially, Ardern does not engage when Handley mentions the CTO role, sending only an email address when asked by him if he can send some "starter thoughts".

The texts with Curran show she was in contact repeatedly over the CTO role after Handley interviewed for it before a panel, including Curran, in her office in July.

On August 9, the Minister says: "This is such new territory for NZ. It feels like Star Trek."

But Handley still wants clarity on any perceived conflict of interest and warns Curran and the Government to delay any announcement until everything is sorted. His role with one organisation, whose name he has blacked out in his release of texts, seems to have been a sticking point. 

"It is a key risk to announce the appointment when the conflicts and the contract are not all completed," he says, when urging caution on August 16.

"For example if media ask questions about things like that and we don't have answers yet, it might risk looking silly."

Curran responds: "We will not put you in that position. I realise you have questions but we are working quickly through the issues."

Handley was appointed to the position, had a contract, was working on a communications plan for announcing it and then Curran was demoted for not declaring the in-person meeting, the process was investigated, and then Curran resigned as a minister.

In a phone call with Hipkins when he took responsibility for sorting the CTO issue, Handley says the State Services Minister asked him how he felt about the "headwinds" the role now faced given the political and media controversy.

In his LinkedIn statement today, Handley says: "To this day I have still not had any communication from the Government explaining why the role which I was appointed to was withdrawn.

"Neither have I heard personally from Minister Hipkins, Minister [Megan] Woods or the Prime Minister during the challenging time, which has been disappointing from a Government that highlights compassion and kindness as hallmarks of their leadership."

He says the handling of the CTO appointment and the "subsequent fallout in the last four weeks is likely to be discouraging to anyone from the private sector contemplating making a contribution to New Zealand through a Government role".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern not worried  

Speaking to media in New York, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed she was aware of Handley’s decision to release the correspondence and said she was not worried by his decision.

“All of those messages would have been released under the OIA as well - the fact Mr Handley has, makes no difference.”

Ardern said the messages showed what she and Handley had already said, that she did not “directly engage” with him on the CTO role due to their pre-existing relationship.

She denied she had misled Parliament about the volume and nature of their communication, saying she had made her comments with an eye to the eventual release of correspondence under the OIA.

“I was very explicit around direct response to that text message, because of course there were other messages around it, but directly on that issue and on that role we have not engaged with one another.”

Ardern said she had been clear about knowing Handley for a number of years and attending a couple of dinner parties she had hosted, but she sidestepped questions about whether the tone of Handley’s messages implied a closer relationship than she suggested.

“Those are Derek’s messages, all I can do is describe our knowledge of each other and our time when we’ve had contact.”

Asked about her offer to “talk to the team about how we can make use of you and your kind offer”, Ardern said that was a response to his initial message expressing an interest in serving the country.

“He said that he wanted to come back to New Zealand and get involved. At that point, I had no idea he was at all interested in the CTO role, that is why I did not engage with him from the moment he mentioned it - it would not have been appropriate.”

Ardern said she understood Handley’s disappointment in how the CTO process was handled, and said it would now be appropriate for someone - likely one of the ministers now directly responsible for the CTO issue - to contact him and offer an apology.

“No one is arguing this has been a good process, it has not, and for the fact that Mr Handley went through this process and didn’t eventually lead to taking on the role, for that we do owe him an apology.”

This article has been updated to include comments made by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

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