What did Makhlouf say to Robertson
By Richard Harman (author)
The State Services Commission inquiry into the aftermath of the National Party Budget leak will not be able to inquire into the actions of Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
It was Robertson whose statement last Tuesday night was the first to publicly link the National Party to a statement from Treasury saying it had been subject to a “systematic and deliberate” hack.
But the State Services Act does not allow the SSC to investigate Ministers.
The whole saga has now become a typical "inside Wellington” story with the Treasury Secretary suspected of having misled his Minister, about as serious a crime as any civil servant can commit.
The Prime Minister appears to believe Makhouf may be guilty.
She seemed to imply that yesterday when she suggested that a focus of the inquiry should be on the advice given to Finance Minister Grant Robertson by Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf before Robertson linked the supposed hacking of Treasury’s IT systems to the National Party.
“Chief executives do give advice to ministers,” she said.
“We're reliant on that advice.
“I did have an expectation that it's likely to be covered by the work that State Services would do.”
And she reminded her weekly post-Cabinet press conference that she had already suggested this.
“I stated that this morning and that would be my expectation.“
But when she spoke to her press conference, State Services had yet to publicly announce an extension of its inquiry into Treasury’s IT systems and their security.
An announcement of that extension came just over an hour after she spoke.
The statement said: “State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes has today announced an investigation into recent questions raised concerning the Chief Executive and Secretary to the Treasury, Gabriel Makhlouf, and his actions and public statements about the causes of the unauthorised access to Budget material.
“The investigation will establish the facts in relation to Mr Makhlouf’s public statements about the causes of the unauthorised access; the advice he provided to his Minister at the time; his basis for making those statements and providing that advice; and the decision to refer the matter to the Police.
“Mr Hughes said the questions that have been raised are a matter of considerable public interest and should be addressed.”
The investigation will be carried out by Deputy State Services Commissioner, John Ombler.
Hughes said in his statement that Makhlouf believed that at all times he acted in good faith
"Nonetheless, he and I agree that it is in everyone's interests that the facts are established before he leaves his role on June 27 if possible.”
The problem facing Ombler is that he will have access to only some of the officials involved in this saga.
Not only will not have any jurisdiction over Ministers or the Prime Minister, but it is thought that politically appointed staff may also be beyond his reach.
That question remains to be confirmed by the State Services’ Commission.
This whole affair now centres on one critical meeting or conversation; between Makhlouf, Robertson and Ardern’s Deputy Chief of Staff and Chief Press Secretary around 7.00 p.m. last Tuesday night.
After that meeting, Makhlouf issued a statement saying that Treasury had been subject to a systematic and deliberate hack and then 17 minutes later, Robertson went one step further and linked the National Party to the hack.
The next day in Parliament there was a revealing exchange between Opposition Leader Simon Bridges and Ardern.
Bridges: “Does she accept that Grant Robertson said last night that the material the National Party had obtained "is a result of a systematic hack"?”
Ardern: “Yes, I've seen the statement made by the Secretary to the Treasury, which was then reiterated in the statement made by the Minister of Finance.”
Bridges: “Does she accept Grant Robertson said last night that the material the National Party had obtained "is a result of a systematic hack"?”
Ardern: “That is not the whole statement that was made. What I think we need to make sure is absolutely clear here is that no one has made a direct accusation to the National Party. It is now the subject of a police investigation, and it is not for us, therefore—it would be inappropriate—to make an accusation against the National Party.”
Bridges: “Does she accept that Grant Robertson said last night that the material the National Party had obtained "is a result of a systematic hack"?
Ardern: “Again, the Minister of Finance reiterated the information that was put out last night by the Secretary to the Treasury.”
Ardern’s last answer would seem to indicate that she believes that Robertson’s linking of the National Party to the leak was “the same” as what Makhlouf’s statement said.
But it wasn’t
Makhlouf may well have his own objections to the way the National Party drip fed the leaks into the public arena rather than simply saying there was a hole in Treasury’s Budget security.
But he didn’t single National out in public.
The question is whether he did so in private or whether Robertson jumped to a political conclusion and included it in his press statement on his own initiative.
That will be the crux of the State Services Commission Inquiry which Hughes says he wants finished before Makhlouf finishes at Treasury on June 27.