Thursday 30 May 2019

Simon Opens Fire – And I Apologise For Going Off Half-Cocked.

Fighting Back: What at first looked like political suicide, turned out to be a winning strategy for National's Simon Bridges. His wrecking-ball tactics seem certain to claim the Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, and have seriously damaged the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, and his much vaunted "Wellbeing Budget".

SIMON BRIDGES this morning delivered the political performance of his career. Controlling his anger (but not hiding it) he sheeted home the blame for one of the most spectacular political omnishambles New Zealanders have witnessed for many years. Quite rightly, he demanded the resignation of the Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, and (with only marginally less justification) that of the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson.

There had been no hack. Bridges, his colleagues, and the National Party’s parliamentary staffers had known that from the moment they began releasing Budget details to the news media. How had they known that? Simple. They were the ones who had located the supposedly secret Budget summaries by executing a simple Google search. At the media conference he called for 8:30am this morning (30/5/19) Bridges even showed the assembled journalists how it was done. (The person who advised making a video of the whole process deserves a hefty bonus!)

Small wonder, then, that Bridges came out swinging against Robertson and Treasury when they began prattling on about a “systematic and deliberate” hack of the Treasury website and shunted the whole matter off to the Police. He knew it was all bullshit. He knew there was no illegality in what National’s staffers had done. And, most importantly, he knew he could prove it – live – on television. Which he did.

All of which means that I owe Simon Bridges an apology – which I now duly tender. He may see it as his first duty, as Leader of the Opposition, to behave like a wrecking-ball, rather than to present himself as New Zealand’s next Prime Minister. But, crikey! What a wrecking-ball! Bridges has almost certainly demolished Makhlouf (whose new Irish bosses must now be scratching their heads) and Robertson, himself, is not out of danger. As an exercise in smashing things up, it doesn’t get much more comprehensive than this.

It’s taught me a valuable lesson about writing political posts. Specifically, that it is always advisable to wait for the smoke to clear before telling people what – or who – has been burnt down.

It has also reminded me of the extreme unwisdom of relying on “official sources”. In the light of the Treasury Secretary’s allegation that his department’s website had been hacked, it was hard to judge Bridges’ actions as anything other than idiotic. Equally difficult was refusing to draw the obvious conclusion that he had been set up. That this was a classic “Sonny ambushed at the toll-booth” situation.

Well, when the smoke cleared from this ambush, Sonny was still standing, tommy-gun in hand, and his would-be assassins were either running for their lives or bleeding-out on the pavement.

Assumptions can be dangerous things.

I really should have known better. Treasury has been making the wildest and most implausible claims ever since it unilaterally unleashed the top-down neoliberal revolution we call “Rogernomics” upon an unsuspecting New Zealand way back in 1984. I suppose, over the course of 35 years, I have come to regard them as immensely powerful and essentially unbeatable foes who just don’t make mistakes. Watching this story unfold has been like watching Tolkien’s Nazgul, the fearsome Black Riders, falling off their horses and breaking their magic swords!

There are still some niggles, though, which I would be remiss to ignore.

First of all, this whole affair was not only never a “hack”, but it was also never a “leak”. To call it one, as Bridges initially did, conjured-up images of somebody arranging for a plain brown envelope, containing a number of Budget summaries, to be left on the Leader of the Opposition’s desk. (Or, more likely, an anonymous memory stick!) Except, of course, it was never that. It was National who had gone looking for this information, and it was National who, against all the odds, found it. And all by doing no more, as Bridges later said, than what a grandchild, or grandparent, does on-line every day.

Mr Makhlouf is, therefore, not the only person who can be charged with misleading the public.

Moreover, I still maintain that the ethical – and politically responsible – thing to have done was alert the Government to the fact that its Budget information was accessible to the most basic Google search – and then inform the news media. Bridges could even have given the Press Gallery copies of National’s “How To Get A Sneak Preview Of The Budget” video and watched the Government squirm with embarrassment. It’s when people start laughing at your enemies that you know you’re on the road to victory.

However. If Bridges had taken the ethical and responsible course, he would not have been handed the opportunity to let the country witness his righteous wrath at the perfidy of Treasury and the failure of its political master to carry out due diligence on its spurious hacking claims.

Today, Budget Day, Grant Robertson’s much ballyhooed “Wellbeing Budget” lies in tatters on the ground. What should have been a crowning moment for Jacinda and her closest political ally has been turned into a tawdry damage-control exercise – at best. Realistically-speaking, no Opposition leader can be expected to let a chance like that go by.

So, once again, Simon: “I’m sorry.”

Finally, and on a Godfatherly note, Newshub’s Political Editor, Tova O’Brien, has reported on being handed a copy of the entire Budget by a young Treasury staffer outside the official “Lockup”, where journalists are kept, incommunicado, while they digest the Budget’s contents before the Finance Minister’s set parliamentary speech at 2:00pm.

“Should I have a copy of this outside the Lockup?”, asks the startled Tova.

“Aren’t you with Treasury?”, responds the flustered staffer.

Honestly, it’s now become impossible to work out who is ambushing who.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 30 May 2019.