Gordon Campbell on why Todd Muller needs to own the privacy leak scandal

a95940f926536162ec3d81f212da1e5cWhenever a political scandal breaks, party leaders have two basic options. They can confess to being in boots and all, and try to brazen it out : nothing to see here, move on. This tended to be the John Key approach. Very hard to pull that off in this case, given that it involved violating the privacy of sick New Zealanders for party political gain.

The other option is to claim innocence of this terrible, no good, highly regrettable “error of judgement” and apologise profusely for the sins of others, while absolving your own good self of any responsibility. This has been Todd Muller’s chosen path. By crikey, he’s been good and angry ever since he realised what National MP Hamish Walker and veteran National Party operative Michelle Boag had been doing behind his back.

Basically, its like this : you can choose to look evil, or choose to look clueless about what has been happening inside your own tent. Those are the “fool or knave?” alternatives. In line with the former, Muller has apologised for what Walker and Boag did. It is not enough. Arguably he also owes an apology to the Labour leadership, and to the Ministry of Health officials that he, Michael Woodhouse and oh yes, Hamish Walker all slandered over the weekend. Before this affair goes down the media memory hole, we need to remember that Muller went out publicly on Saturday to name, blame and shame the government for a massive privacy breach that National had itself committed – and before he had bothered to check on the actual origins of the leak. Sounds to me like an “error of judgement” on his part, too.

Saturday afternoon fever

Muller’s reported public comment last Saturday is interesting. “Is it a deliberate leak or is it accidental?” Muller said. “It doesn’t really matter at a level … it’s loose, it’s shabby and it’s a reminder these guys can’t manage important things well.” So….evidently, even before he began his comments, Muller knew that the breach was probably/possibly due to a deliberate leak. That should have given him pause. Why? Because if someone entrusted with sensitive information chooses to go ahead and betray that trust, there is absolutely nothing any organisation can do to stop them from hitting “Send” on their email. While knowing this, Muller still chose to bag Labour, and to mislead the public. He needs to own it.

After all, given his prior knowledge that this could well be a deliberate leak designed to discredit Labour, Muller might also have considered that it may have come from a National Party sympathiser, and that this could come out in the wash. The reality was even worse. It came from a National political operative temporarily holding down a CEO position inside an emergency rescue organisation where – for the safety of the response teams – she had been entrusted with information about who the active Covid-19 patients were, and where they were located. She chose to violate that trust and exploit the information for party political gain. Hamish Walker did the rest. Significantly though it was Muller, Michael Woodhouse and Walker himself who then jointly proceeded to try and pin the blame on Labour.

Which brings us to another point, also contained within what Muller said last Saturday .

Muller declared it unacceptable and “shabby” and said he’d first heard about it through media reports. He said the breach was “quite staggering, it talks to a government that’s slipping off the side of a cliff, in terms of managing this issue, the border, the information pertaining to it”

Note that careful preface : Muller volunteers that he first heard about this leak via media reports. Why is this relevant? Because we’re being expected to believe that Hamish Walker got the information late last week and sent it to three media organisations without alerting either his boss or National’s Health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse, the man who had been leading the charge on quarantine security lapses. Call me cynical, but it seems highly unlikely to me that an ambitious backbencher would maintain radio silence after engineering a coup of this sort, and not try at least, to get the party heavyweights lined up behind him with comments at the ready. Therefore, it seems reasonable to regard Muller’s careful prefacing comment to the media – I didn’t know about this until you told me – as a means of creating a fallback position of plausible deniability with respect to a shaky accusation. One can only hope that Michael Heron QC will be empowered to investigate whether there was any phone and/or email contact between Walker, Muller and Woodhouse between late last week, and Saturday morning.

To repeat: the public is being told this was a rogue operation conducted solely between Boag and Walker, operating in isolation. We’re expected to believe that Muller didn’t know until Monday lunch-time that it was Walker who had leaked the private details to the media. Ah-huh. And the reason Muller then didn’t disclose that fact until 5.30 pm on Tuesday? According to Muller, he had been threatened into silence by Walker’s QC. Wow. No, no, it had nothing to do with Muller taking a ‘wait and see if this gets out’ approach, or was simply feeling like a possum in the headlights. What we do know is that being transparent and promptly honest with the public – given how seriously he’d misled them on Saturday- doesn’t seem to have been Muller’s top priority.

Even now, Muller refuses to concede that any of this reflects on his own competence. In particular, he remains in denial about whether he should accept any managerial responsibility for this ugly fiasco. That’s kind of ….grimly amusing, given that the objective of the entire operation was to convince the public that Labour can’t competently manage its own responsibilities. On that point, National and its leader have scored an own goal this week that should haunt them for the rest of the election campaign.

Privacy, Schmivacy

Sometimes, it takes a scandal to enlighten all of us about the more arcane aspects of our political process. Apparently, the Privacy Act allows MPs to release private health information not only inside Parliament, but outside of it as well. Legally, Walker seems in the clear for what he did. That does seem weird, given that the libel laws – which exist to protect reputation from harmful allegations – DO make a distinction between what MPs can do and say freely inside the Parliamentary chamber, and what they can’t do with impunity outside of it. Alas for Michelle Boag, it seems that no immunity defence is available to her. Boag’s declared aim – to allow Walker to back up his previous comments about the ethnic/national origins of the people bound for quarantine in the South Island – would appear to contravene the Privacy Act.

Just how Boag got access to the information remains a bit murky. She claims she was sent it by the Health Ministry in line with her duties as acting CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, although the Trust has disputed this. Presumably Michael Heron QC will sort this out. The fact Boag received the information on her personal email account doesn’t appear to be significant. Like Hillary Clinton, Boag may routinely blur the lines between her personal and official email addresses. Or – because she’s only an acting CEO – the MoH may have figured that she would be more likely to see the daily Covid quarantine updates if they were sent to her own email. Sure, this arrangement looks sloppy. but looking a bit sloppy is the least of Michelle Boag’s worries right now.

And what are we to make of National’s Health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse, whose credibility is fast receding to vanishing point, what with that invisible homeless person he alleged had snuck into quarantine last week. Woodhouse is obviously a big Bob Dylan fan (‘How does it feel to be without a home/like a complete unknown ?’) Subsequently, Woodhouse could offer no evidence that the mystery tramp even existed. Now comes this latest epic fail. As we stare into the vacuum of his eyes, his words make ironic reading:

National health spokesman Michael Woodhouse said the leak represented “another serious failing” of the Government.“Reports coming in this morning of personal details being leaked which reveals the identity of New Zealand’s current active cases, is yet another serious failing from this incompetent Government. This is unconscionable and unacceptable that those suffering from the incredibly dangerous virus now have to suffer further with their private details being leaked. The Government needs to get to the bottom of this, and quickly. The Ministry of Health has been assuring people since the beginning of the epidemic in New Zealand that personal details would remain private, it’s unfathomable that it couldn’t handle a simple task like this.”

Yep, another own goal. At time of writing there’s still so sign of an apology from Woodhouse to Labour, or to the Ministry of Health for this mis=directed fusillade. You have to conclude that these people really have no shame. So far though, Todd Muller appears to be getting away with his pose of aggrieved innocence.

Footnote One. In line with that pose, Muller told RNZ that the scandal was not a reflection on him, and “ does not reflect the National Party. ” Really? It seems entirely consistent with National Party practices as documented by Nicky Hager at length in his books The Hollow Men and Dirty Politics. In fact, this counts as the third election campaign in 15 years where National has been caught out engaged in remarkably dodgy dealings. Three strikes, anyone? Well, at least Hamish Walker is out. This makes him the second consecutive Clutha-Southland MP to leave Parliament in disgrace. Only three years ago, Todd Barclay ended his political career after being caught secretly taping his staff.

Footnote Two. Despite Muller’s protestations, history tells us that senior National Party MPs have always been willing to release private information into the public arena for political gain. Remember this episode from 2012, when Paula Bennett was Minister of Social Development ?

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett is not ruling out revealing private details of beneficiaries in the future.It follows the Human Rights Commission telling Bennett that she breached the privacy of Natasha Fuller when she disclosed details of the solo mother’s benefit to media…. Fuller laid the complaint [ with the Human Rights Coimmission] after Bennett released her benefit details to news media when she complained about cuts to her training incentive allowance.

Footnote Three At the outset, I described John Key’s default gambit with respect to National Party scandals as being “nothing to see here, move on.” Well, here’s Todd Muller commenting yesterday in the wake of Walker’s decision to step down:

“It’s the right decision and I acknowledge that and now of course we seek to move on.”

Yep, nothing more to see here.

Follow The Money

This week saw the release of the fine details about which US firms were recipients of the massive federal government bailout launched to help US small business survive through the coronavirus crisis. The list includes struggling small firms like the businesses owned by Donald Trump, by his extended family and by his millionaire political appointees. It also includes a $2 million plus handout to the Yeezy fashion label owned by multi-millionaire Trump loyalist Kanye West, between $150k and 350k paid to the anti-tax lobby firm headed by famed small government advocate Grover Norquist, the $1 million handout to billionaire property developer and Republican fundraiser Joe Farrell, and between $150-300k to the always cash-strapped Church of Scientology, Also,amounts of around $350,000 to a whole lot of pop bands, including struggling up and comers like the Eagles, Guns’n’ Roses, Pearl Jam and….Nickelback. Rock’n’roll, people.

Oh, between $350k and $1 million went to the libertarian Ayn Rand Institute, presumably to help to promote the late guru’s message to humanity that government handouts are only for whiners and losers. In that respect, the Ayn Rand Institute is being consistent in its hypocrisy. Late in life Rand applied for a social security benefit, something that she opposed for everyone else, on principle.

Music For Covid

In 2013, British polymath Anna Meredith released her “Nautilus” single. After her years of innovations in classical, choral,and electronic music, “Nautilus” showed she was out to give popular music a serious whirl, too. If you haven’t heard it before, “Nautilus” consists almost entirely of an insistent scare-the-neighbours fanfare. Listening to it again recently, it still conveys monstrous levels of anxiety and dread…to the point where it seems the perfect soundtrack for these Covid times.

All the same…Meredith, now 42, can be funny, too. Late last year, the video for her “ Paramour” single consisted of a simple idea, executed beautifully. If, dear reader, you like trains and/or are Rod Stewart, this one is for you:

And for old times sake, here’s “ Nautilus”. Go full screen, and wind up the volume. On this official video, the graphics are wonderful, and the drum sound is suitably underwaterish. (Nautilus crabs etc.) But if you look around on Youtube though, its easy to find the extended live version that Meredith recorded in 2017 in a studio in Austin, Texas, In that version, the drums are brought right to the fore. IMO, the musical gain is minimal, though it is pretty thrilling to watch Meredith and her pals recreate this beast right before your eyes.