7 Jun 2019

The finance minister, the 'hack' and the fallout

7:29 pm on 7 June 2019

The finance minister remains under pressure over whether he acted quickly enough to correct allegations of hacking against the opposition.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

A furious National Party has called for the resignation of both the minister, Grant Robertson, and Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf for smearing it with claims of hacking.

National still claims it did nothing illegal to obtain secret Budget information, as it was done by a search of the Treasury website.

Treasury initially cried foul, saying there had been a "deliberate and systematic hack" and called in the police. That was last Tuesday night.

Shortly after, Mr Robertson released his own statement linking the National Party to the alleged hack.

It was 2pm the next day - eighteen hours later - before he started to refer to it as "unauthorised access'' and denying any accusations against National.

RNZ understands he was told on Tuesday night the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) did not agree with the language Treasury was using, and did not believe a "hack" had occurred.

But Mr Robertson told media today he received no advice from the spy agency, or anyone else, before he released his statement.

"I'm sure that timeline will come out as we go but I certainly did not know about it before I put my statement out.''

National's Paula Bennett said she still believed Mr Robertson had been "out to smear the National Party".

And she said if he was told afterwards, he should have corrected his statement immediately.

Mr Robertson maintained he was only acting on Treasury advice and did not correct his statements about the hacking because by then police were involved.

"Clearly it evolved over that period of time and statements were then made by the secretary of Treasury as it should be."

How it unfolded

It began when a National Party staffer discovered parts of the government's Budget had been uploaded to the Treasury website.

According to National, that discovery was made at 5pm last Monday.

By 10am the next morning they had started drip-feeding details of the Wellbeing Budget - due to be released by Mr Robertson on Thursday - to the media.

That evening Treasury released its statement about the hack.

Mr Robertson put his own statement out shortly after saying: "we have contacted the National Party tonight to request that they do not release any further material, given that the Treasury said they have sufficient evidence that indicates the material is a result of a systematic hack".

The next morning, Mr Makhlouf went on RNZ's Morning Report and described the activity as akin to attempts to prise open the bolt of a door 2000 times until it weakened and the unknown actors got access to the documents.

By Budget Day, police had found nothing and decided not to investigate further.

Who else knew?

Mr Robertson said he spoke with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Green Party co-leader James Shaw on Tuesday night to inform them of the advice he had received from Mr Makhlouf.

Other ministers were also informed.

One colleague has described Mr Robertson as "incandescent" over the way the whole situation had been handled by Treasury, saying "you could have plugged him into the grid''.

The State Services Commission is now investigating what Mr Makhlouf said publicly and to the minister about the unauthorised access, and his decision to refer the matter to the police.

Speaking today, Ms Ardern would not say when she was told about the GCSB advice but insisted Mr Robertson's job was safe.

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