The Finance Minister received a mysteriously titled report in March. Thomas Coughlan investigates the story – and surprising humour – behind Project ABBA.

It’s well known around Wellington that officials are encouraged to pick dull and dreary names for their ministerial briefings.

The reason? To discourage inquisitive journalists from using the Official Information Act to request copies of potentially damaging documents — the more boring a document title, the less likely it is to pique anyone’s interest. 

But the ever-independent Treasury has a way of doing things differently, and in March it delivered Finance Minister Grant Robertson a report bearing the tantalising title, “Project ABBA”. 

My, my.

Newsroom instantly made inquiries, but OIAs can take more than 20 working days to receive a response, making any immediate answer to our questions unlikely.

But there was something in the air that night, and officials and ministers were more than willing to take a chance. 

Newsroom was quickly able to establish the briefing paper pertained to the purchase of assets by a state owned enterprise. A Treasury spokesperson was very helpful: 

“Any decision to spend money, money, money would be bjӧrn out by cost-bennyfit analysis,” they said, punningly. 

Here we go again: Project Abba appears in a list of briefings to Grant Robertson.

While Treasury’s comments on money, money, money were indeed very funny, they left us no closer to pinning down the enigma that was Project ABBA.

It was the Finance Minister’s office that was able to definitively clarify the disappointingly benign mystery, which referred to a plan by Air New Zealand to purchase new aircraft; ABBA in this case means, “Airbus or Boeing, Boeing or Airbus”.

Grant Robertson told Newsroom he was kept up to date on all matters SOE. 

“Air New Zealand and the Treasury keep us informed of major SOE asset purchases, but when all is said and done, the winner takes it all,” Robertson said. 

A Treasury official clarified NZX listing rules mean that any “major transaction” was subject to the approval of Air New Zealand’s shareholders. In this case, the largest shareholder was the Government, which was called on last year to vote on the transaction. It voted in favour and the purchase of new Boeing aircraft was announced earlier this year. 

Last month Air New Zealand revealed it would be spending US$2 billion on eight Boeing 787-10.

Newsroom understands that Treasury officials had come up with the name as a lighthearted joke – a sense of humour that may be in short supply at present, with two inquiries into the National Party’s ability to obtain confidential Budget information due to website security weaknesses.

National may want two for the price of one, having called for both Robertson and Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf to resign – but whose Waterloo will this saga become?

Leave a comment