Bridges claims huge Budget details leak: Treasury investigating
By Pattrick Smellie
May 28 (BusinessDesk) - The Treasury is investigating the leak of spending decisions relating to 18 of the government's 40 departments and agencies in what appears to be the largest breach of Budget secrecy since the entire Budget was leaked in 1986.
Coming two days ahead of the government's showpiece first 'well-being Budget', the leak is at least the third leak of substantially accurate information by National Party leader Simon Bridges this year.
Earlier this month, he leaked accurate details of the proposals for a cannabis referendum just before the government was due to announce Cabinet decisions, and in January the broad details of the government's tri-partite working group on employment law reform were released by Bridges. In September last year, details of a report into an alleged assault on a staff member by former Cabinet minister Meka Whaitiri also made its way via Bridges to the media.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson sought to shrug off the leaks, saying "some of it's right and some of it's wrong" and that he would release "the real Budget" on Thursday. He was focused on that event rather than identifying the source of the leak immediately and would not be drawn on whether the government was becoming concerned by a growing pattern of accurate leaks to the Opposition on sensitive political matters.
His own office remained in pre-Budget lockdown today, but he had spoken to his economic advisory agency, the Treasury, which had already initiated investigations into its own processes.
"Right now we’re conducting our own review of these reports and the information that has been published," said Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf.
"As far as the Treasury is concerned, the release of Budget 2019 will proceed as planned this Thursday," he said.
Robertson made it clear that the form in which the figures were released differs from the form in which they are prepared for use by officials or Cabinet, suggesting National may have access to original documents that it has taken extracts from to protect the leaker's identity.
He could not rule out the possibility that there would be more leaks before Thursday, 2pm, when the Budget will become public.
None of the spending figures released today give any hints on the scale of what is expected to be the Budget's biggest announcement - a package of measures to improve mental health services. The government is taking two bites at that cherry this week, releasing its responses in principle tomorrow to recommendations from a mental health inquiry undertaken last year and the substantive spending on new mental health initiatives in the Budget itself.
Bridges sought to use the figures he'd obtained to highlight what he claimed were a substantial increase in defence and forestry spending and a relatively small $744 million package for district health board funding.
Outlaying "$1.3 billion for the purchase of assets in Vote Defence Force in 2019/2020, up from $641 million last year ... has nothing to do with the government’s well-being priorities," said Bridges. "It shows the Prime Minister has yet again had to throw her principles out the window to buy off Winston (Peters, leader of her coalition partner, the New Zealand First party)."
The last politically damaging Budget leak was in 2006 when the then Helen Clark Labour government's plans to re-regulate parts of the telecommunications sector were judged to harm its poll ratings at a time when John Key had yet to become leader of the National Party.
In 1986, this reporter, then a junior press secretary to Finance Minister Roger Douglas, arranged for copies of the Budget to be couriered to a range of prominent New Zealanders judged to be 'opinion-formers', in appalling ignorance of the fact that the Budget was a document to which a rare degree of pre-release secrecy has always been attached. Douglas's offer to resign over the leak was rejected at the time by then Prime Minister David Lange and the issue prompted an inquiry by the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
In recent years, governments have increasingly used pre-Budget announcements to maximise publicity for decisions that it expects to be politically popular. A range of social spending initiatives have been announced prior to this Thursday's Budget, the first to be written under an evolving 'well-being' framework.