Wellington, May 29, 2019
National’s release of Budget 2019 data was not as devastating to the Government as the Party claimed – but Treasury alleging a deliberate hack of its systems has dramatically increased the stakes for both sides.
If Budget Day truly is Christmas for political trainspotters, is National the grinch that stole confidential information?
The Party’s slow but steady drip-feed of information purported to be from the Government’s inaugural “Wellbeing Budget” – the subject of much hype from the Beehive – moved the focus away from Grant Robertson’s presents to what Simon Bridges deemed a “peek under the tree.”
Yuletide jokes to seriousness
But the news that Treasury has asked police to investigate an alleged hack of its systems has moved the issue beyond yuletide jokes to another level of seriousness altogether.
Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf did not mince words, suggesting that his organisation had evidence to suggest its IT systems had been “deliberately and systematically hacked” and made the police referral after advice from the National Cyber Security Centre.
For his part, Bridges is unrepentant, accusing the Finance Minister of “falsely smear[ing] us to cover up his and The Treasury’s incompetence” and saying National had acted “entirely appropriately”.
“When what has occurred is revealed, he will need to resign,” the National leader said – and with that bellicose rhetoric from both sides, the odds are someone will have to lose their head to Shane Jones’ figurative taiaha of justice.
Making a false accusation of criminal activity against the opposition would indeed be a resignation offence – but so too would be using hacked information to attack the Government, then lying about it after the fact.
There is a scenario that could allow both sides to claim victory, or at least save face: the disconnect between the brute-force cracking of secure systems that some people may associate with the term “hacking,” and what the law actually defines as unauthorised access.
National may feel it did not cross the former line, but it – or whoever provided it with the numbers – could have fallen foul of the law. If so, someone’s head will still have to roll, but it may not be Bridges.
Potential for backfire
The potential for significant backfire seems immense compared to the discomfort that National has caused the Government so far.
The plaintive cries of Robertson that the information released so far was not “the real Budget” may have been overwrought, but it is true that the figures were not particularly salacious – hence why National had to sex its dossier up, at times stretching the bounds of what is reasonable.
Take Bridges’ suggestion that Ardern has “yet again had to throw her principles out the window to buy off Winston,” pointing to the $1.3 billion budgeted for Vote Defence Force.
His claim of “tanks not teachers” ignores the fact that the vast bulk of that figure is for the purchase of four new P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft as announced by the Government last year – a decision backed at the time by National defence spokesman Mark Mitchell as sending a positive signal to our allies.
Dismissing the Wellbeing Budget as “all spin and no substance” in the knowledge that you don’t have the full picture is itself political spin.
And using the aftermath of the leak to push out both the news of an end to Alfred Ngaro’s bizarre flirtation with a new faith-based party, and the belated release of a “health and safety review” commissioned by National last year, is cynical to say the least.
But accusations of cynicism may now be the least of the Party’s worries, if the Treasury’s claims lead to any conclusive findings.
Sam Sachdeva is Political Editor at Newsroom based in Wellington, covering Foreign Affairs, Trade, Defence and Security issues. The above Report and Pictures have been published under a Special Arrangement with Newsroom.