Week in politics: Ministers will be under the gun when Parliament resumes

4:19 pm on 7 June 2019

By Peter Wilson*

National will use Parliament's question time next week to nail the government over the Treasury hacking controversy which threatens to derail Gabriel Makhlouf's new job in Ireland.

Grant Robertson, Jacinda Ardern, Winston Peters and James Shaw leave the budget lock-up.

Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be under the hammer when Parliament sits on Tuesday.

They would have been this week but the House was in recess, and National wasn't able to follow through on the Treasury hacking controversy.

The central issue is who knew what, and when.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges doubts the word of Ms Ardern and Mr Robertson that they were told after the fact that the police had been called in to investigate what Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf said was a prolonged hacking of the department's website to obtain Budget information.

Mr Bridges will want to hear their answers on the floor of the House, which puts them firmly on the record - and the consequence of misleading Parliament is resignation.

More than a week after the event there's still no explanation for Mr Makhlouf's strange decision to go public with the hacking claim despite being told by the GCSB and the police that there was no evidence of it having happened.

National had simply used the search bar on the Treasury website to obtain Budget information which hadn't been properly secured.

Mr Makhlouf doesn't seem to be the sort of man who would deliberately mislead government ministers and the public, and he's smart enough to know the consequences of doing so.

What's looking most likely is that he was outraged by what had happened, furious with National for getting into the website, and in his mind, it amounted to hacking. So he said it, using the word loosely, and set off a firestorm.

Simon Bridges delivers his post-Budget 2019 speech.

National leader Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

National will be very persistent in Parliament and will want to know from Mr Robertson every detail of what he now knows about the incident.

A curious new twist, just revealed by the New Zealand Herald, is that the GCSB tried to stop Mr Makhlouf from going public with the hacking claim, and that there were urgent calls to the Beehive before he did so.

The question that's going to be asked is whether Mr Robertson received that advice from the GCSB before he repeated the hacking allegation and implied National was the culprit.

Mr Bridges is also likely to want to know whether Mr Makhlouf has offered his resignation.

On Tuesday this week he hadn't, according to Ms Ardern at her post-cabinet press conference. She was oddly reticent to confirm that, at first saying he hadn't offered it to her - which he wouldn't anyway because he was hired by the State Services Commission.

It was after a journalist said to her "he's the secretary to the Treasury, surely you know whether or not he has resigned" that she said she understood there had been no resignation.

Mr Makhlouf finishes his term at the end of this month, so he can probably ride it out while the State Services Commission carries out its inquiry into what happened.

National thinks he should have at least stood down while the inquiry is undertaken.

"I don't think it's tenable for him to be in his position, doing the work he does on a daily basis, as if nothing happened last week," said deputy leader Paula Bennett.

Gabriel Makhlouf, Secretary of the Treasury. Half Year Economic and Fiscal Update 2017.

Gabriel Makhlouf. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Mr Makhlouf's future is in doubt after 27 June.

He has been appointed governor of Ireland's Central Bank but there's a political row going on over that.

Ireland's opposition Labour Party wants the appointment put on hold until the outcome of the SSC inquiry is released.

Finance spokeswoman Joan Burton says the position must be held by someone who is "above reproach" and there's speculation that if Mr Makhlouf is found to have misled ministers, even unwittingly, he will lose the job before taking it up.

According to reports, the position is highly sensitive and that's understandable given the terrible time Ireland went through after the global financial crisis.

"Following the collapse of our economy, public trust in financial institutions and the state bodies that govern them collapsed as well," Ms Burton said in her statement.

"It took the best part of a decade to get our economy and public confidence back on track. We cannot jeopardise that confidence by appointing someone under investigation in another country."

There was controversy in the first place over the fact that a foreigner had been appointed when there were high-ranking Irish officials seeking it, and that makes it even more delicate.

Within that scenario, "beyond reproach" could be too high a bar for Mr Makhlouf to get over.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, NZPA political editor for 22 years and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs