Grant Robertson and Simon Bridges

The Budget ‘hack’ and the time-honoured tradition of desperate arse-covering

Grant Robertson should apologise, and the Treasury secretary should offer his resignation, writes Danyl Mclauchlan

Information Technology, or IT is not an ancient discipline, like politics or the law, but it has its own traditions and the most hallowed tradition of all, held sacred by engineers and other technical specialists the world over is to fuck something up really, really badly and then blatantly misrepresent what’s happened to your non-technical boss to cover your arse.

Someone at Treasury has celebrated Budget week by honouring that tradition in a very public way, by uploading the department’s documents to a private mirror of their web server where – the Police announced this morning – partial contents of the documents were accessible on the live server, thus available to the public simply by searching for them. They then assured the Treasury secretary that the documents were in “a locked room”, where they’d been obtained by “a sustained cyber attack” and that “systems have been deliberately and systematically hacked”, and the secretary confidently repeated all this to the New Zealand public via the media, strongly implying that Simon Bridges, the leader of the opposition was involved in a serious criminal conspiracy.

The Police usually take months, if not years to complete investigations into political crimes. This investigation seems to have been truncated into a matter of minutes, with the findings released in the very early hours of the morning presumably because Bridges is scheduled to announce how he obtained the documents at 8:45am.

Bridges will grandstand, unbearably, and call on Grant Robertson to resign and of course Robertson will not do so, and nor should he. National had advance budget documents; Treasury advised their Minister that their IT systems had been illegally hacked, it was completely reasonable for Robertson to conclude that National had done something wrong.

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Turns out Robertson was misled by his department and he should probably apologise to Bridges, but probably won’t. Winston Peters should definitely apologise to Bridges but definitely won’t. If anyone apologises it will probably be the prime minister, and her fellow politicians should really pay more attention to the way she’s become the most popular politician in the world by treating political debate as something other than a dick-waving and shouting contest.

It’s less obvious that Robertson should continue to have confidence in his Treasury secretary, whose department has published confidential budget information to the web, grievously misled the public about what happened and called the police on the leader of the opposition, and is still insisting that searching his department’s public-facing website constitutes serious unethical activity, and that he is the aggrieved party in all this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a senior public servant take such a strong position in a partisan political debate before, let alone get their allegations so badly wrong. He should at least offer his minister his resignation.

It’s true that the media cycle is different now: remember the parliamentary alleged rapist scandal from the impossibly distant past of like, two days ago? Public service mandarins know that catastrophic blunders are survivable if you just hunker down for a few days. When the meth testing scandal exploded about this time a year ago, the head of Housing New Zealand just switched off his phone. He’s still there, on a salary of about half a million dollars, while the Treasury Secretary earns somewhere north of $650,000.

But Makhlouf is scheduled to step down in a few months anyway. He’s off to run the Bank of Ireland. Treasury’s IT staff will remain in New Zealand, of course. They’re conducting a review into what happened, which will doubtless absolve themselves of any responsibility, instead blaming systems and processes and organisational deficiencies, another time honoured tradition shared by politicians and public servants and IT staff alike.


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