You don't have to believe the conspiracy theories to see that Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf is in serious trouble. A new inquiry will have to uncover something yet unknown to excuse the three strikes he committed last week
National leader Simon Bridges laid it on pretty think last week when he did his big reveal and showed that the supposed 'hack' of the Treasury website and early release of some Budget information nothing more than some Google searches and good luck.
Amongst his claims of an "undemocratic outrage" and the accusations against him amounting to "the most contemptible moment in New Zealand politics", he insisted it was beyond belief that Treasury head Gabriel Makhlouf had not briefed Finance Minister Grant Robertson before he called in the police.
Bridges insisted he hadn't come down in the last shower and suggested Makhlouf was covering for his political masters, who must be pulling his strings. That version of events has gained little traction because there is no evidence for it and it would be a remarkably stupid political suicide attempt by Robertson, if true.
Robertson has his own questions to answer about the events of Tuesday May 28 and his handling of his ministry since, but he is on the record that he did not know that Makhlouf had brought in the police until after that call had been made.
National, as we now know, was doing its oppositional pre-Budget research, when it stumbled upon part of Budget 2019 on the Treasury website, hidden in plain site. Contrary to assumptions, it seemed to find the details right away and then had another 1999-odd goes at digging around to see what else Treasury had left hanging in the wind.
The thing about Bridge's more extreme allegations is that none of them have to be true for Makhlouf to be in serious trouble. The facts as reported thus far take us to the substational concern that so serious and central an institution as Treasury could have left itself so exposed.
In this case the data revealed was not especially significant, but the fact is that data meant to be secret was not in fact secret at all. It has been found and copied. And Treasury had no idea. Imagine if it was more sensitive information or it had been stumbled upon by people with more nefarious motives.
That is why the investigation announced today by the State Services Commission is essential. As announced:
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.
While this is political minutiae, it's vital we understand not just what we do, but how we do them. As it stands, it will take something new, surely, to save Makhlouf from censure, because from what we know it already looks like 'three strikes and you're out'.
If, as Bridges claims, Makhlouf is covering for Robertson, them both are toast. But even assuming cock-up rather than conspiracy, it's remarkable Makhlouf hasn't already fallen on his sword. And it's hard to see how he can explain the chasm between his own statements and the facts.
Strike one: Makhlouf oversaw a ministry that allowed nothing less than part of the Budget be accessed days before it was meant to. It was only good fortune that it was another political party that sourced the information. What else on the site was or is insecure? Who else might have got access? While it may directly be the fault of whoever is responsible for Treasury's web security, the buck stops with the boss.
Strike two: He either failed to understand last Tuesday what had happened on his own site or willfully misled his minister and the public. (The third option is that, as Bridges and others claim, he was forced to lie by the government). Because he said Treasury had been hacked and called the police, when it was clear less than 24 hours later no such thing had happened. He said:
"...the Treasury has gathered sufficient evidence to indicate that its systems have been deliberately and systematically hacked..."
He also told RNZ that the information had been under secure lock and key, continuing:
"But unknown to you one of those bolts has a weakness and someone who attacks that bolt, deliberately, persistently, repeatedly, and finds that it breaks and they can enter and access the papers.
"It wasn't a case of someone stumbling into the room accidentally, it wasn't an instance of someone attacking the bolt and finding it broke immediately."
In fact, it was exactly that. Whether Makhlouf was misinformed, didn't understand the technology or panicked and tried to make up excuses for Treasury's failings, he misled the public. And he misled his minister, which leads to...
Strike three: Makhlouf was careful not to say National had hacked Treasury to get the information, but he said the data that party had matched what had been taken. And he called in the police.
In calling the 'search' a 'hack' and calling police, he opened the door to the suggestion National staff or MPs had committed a crime. That is an incredibly serious thing to even imply.
Robertson blundered through the door Makhlouf opened in an ill-written statement that same night, relying on Treasury's advice to say that "the material [National has] is a result of a systematic hack". In doing so, Robertson went a step further than the Treasury Secretary in accusing the Opposition.
So while Robertson misjudged, it seems he was led to that position by Makhlouf.
Any one of those three strikes could be considered a good reason to offer your resignation. All three make it hard to see why he has not yet done so and how he can survive the inquiry.
If his defence, as the State Services Commission implies, is that he "acted in good faith" (presumably himself relying on the advice of Treasury's security advisors or the GCSB), that's unlikely to be enough to protect him. It may even be unfair if the tech people or spies got it terribly wrong, but such is the nature of big public sector roles.
Makhlouf is due to end his Treasury job on June 27, ahead of taking up the job as Governor of the Reserve Bank of Ireland. Perhaps that job too is on the line amidst all this, which may explain how this is being handled. (Though before today's inquiry was announced, the Irish had said not). But now, the inquiry must be dealt with quickly and with a full, open explanation at the end.
That explanation could yet leave Bridges with some explaining of his own to do. While he has railed against the serious accusations unfairly tossed at him, he is still repeating his own serious claims of deliberate lies and a political cover-up by Robertson and Makhlouf. If that is incorrect, and given his anger at his own treatment, he risks being hoisted by his own petard. That wil raise questions about his political judgment.
As for the Opposition's handling of that not-so-secret (and not especially weighty) information, it has elicited a lot of debate amongst political observers. Some had said it was irresponsible to reveal the data and indulging in childish point-scoring; some that it successfully rattled the government on what should have been a marquee week. Some insisted there was no public interest in Bridges revealing the substance of the information.
But there's a reason the main party not in government is called the Opposition. In a parliamentary system, there's a public interest in non-government MPs (and indeed other insitutions at times, such as the media and courts), making life difficult for the government, as a matter of principle. Government without opposition is tyranny, so while the few summaries revealed on the website hardly amounted in the end to anything much, it seems fair dues for National to have exploited its rare good fortune and come out swinging. Voters can judge for themselves what they make of that.