The Government has been caught on the back foot by the leaked report into an alleged assault by Meka Whaitiri. In delaying another release of controversial information, Jacinda Ardern’s Government has lost control of the story.
On the day she took office, Jacinda Ardern delivered her speech from the throne, where she promised this Government would “foster a more open and democratic society”, and “strengthen transparency around official information”.
But for the second time in just one week, Ardern’s Government has been caught out by trying to delay the release of controversial information.
In the case of the Whaitiri leak, and the release of correspondence regarding the chief technology officer role by Derek Handley, the information was released through unofficial channels, ahead of the Government’s planned release.
In both cases, Ardern and her ministers had delayed the release of the information in what they described as an effort to go through the proper channels and follow processes to protect the privacy of individuals. But in doing so they lost control of the developing issues.
Someone must have felt New Zealanders needed to know the details of the physical contact, in what’s become a ‘she said, she said’ situation, with no guarantees the full version of the report would have ever been publicly released.
On Thursday, the draft report into the altercation between Whaitiri and her press secretary was leaked to NZME.
The report was the result of an investigation by Ministerial Services – the employer of Whaitiri’s press secretary – and detailed the bruising on the staffer’s arm, which the report concluded was caused by Whaitiri grabbing her.
David Patten, the Wellington lawyer who conducted the inquiry, found on the balance of probabilities the staff member’s version of events was the more likely explanation.
The report’s findings vindicate Ardern’s decision to get rid of Whaitiri as a minister, which may have been at least part of the leaker’s motive.
Some version of the report was always going to be publicly released, but it was unclear what form it would take, and whether it would be sanitised, as National Party MP Amy Adams suggested in the House on Tuesday.
If that were the case, and details of the bruising were scrubbed from the public version, New Zealand may have never known the full extent of what happened.
Throughout the process, Whaitiri has denied some aspects of the staffer’s story. And the Labour Maori caucus, of which Whaitiri is co-chair, has continued to stick up for the former minister. This has cast doubt on the severity of the nature of the incident.
During an urgent debate on Tuesday, Labour Party deputy leader and member of the Maori caucus Kelvin Davis said the caucus was strong and stuck to its tikanga.
“And one of our tikanga is to stand up and support our people when they need our support.
“It doesn’t mean to say we pass judgment. It doesn’t mean to say we agree or disagree; but we know in Maoridom that it’s important to stand beside your people. It is important to be there just to hold them up, just to help and that’s how we were raised.”
It will be harder for the Maori caucus to continue to back Whaitiri following the revelations in the report. This may have also been part of the leaker’s motivation.
Meanwhile, Ardern, who is in New York and should be basking in the glory of her UN debut, said she was “hugely disappointed” by the leak, and has ordered an investigation.
However, she used the opportunity to back up her decision to sack Whaitiri as a minister.
“The moment I got the report I made my decision, and obviously people will assess that meant I was of course not happy with what I read.”
She refused to say whether she believed Whaitiri was a good role model for Maori, in light of the details in the report.
The question was asked twice, but Ardern would only say: “She is working hard to rectify some of the issues that have arisen out of this incident. We need to face up to mistakes when we make them, and that is what she is doing.”
The leak comes just days after chief technology officer candidate Derek Handley released his correspondence with Ardern and sacked minister Clare Curran, getting the jump on the Government’s planned ‘proactive’ release.
On Thursday, Megan Woods, who has taken on the role of Minister of Government Digital Services, released the full correspondence between Handley and a raft of people in Labour and Government, including Ardern and Curran.
Again, the Government was left scrambling to get the documents to the public, after an unexpected release.
These sagas paint a picture of disorder within the Government.
If Ardern wants to control negative stories in the future, she needs to do a better job of front-footing the release of information, not be caught on the back foot.
But leaks are not only the curse of Labour. National is due to wrap up its own internal investigation into the leak of Simon Bridges’ expenses. The results of the investigation, launched last month after an independent Parliamentary investigation was canned, are expected to be released within the next three weeks.