The mystery over Derek Handley’s appointment as the government’s Chief Technology Officer, and then its abrupt revocation, has deepened.
Handley’s own revelation of his email exchanges with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown at best she was “economical with the truth” (as commentators like Bryce Edwards put it) in her answers to Parliament. Did she just have a lapse of memory (something which seems to afflict Winston Peters more frequently these days), about those emails?
Then there is the plainly shabby treatment of Handley over the revocation of the Cabinet decision to put him in the job, for which he returned with his family from New York. Clare Curran was wrapped up in her own misery over the appointment and her successor, Megan Woods, got around to apologising to Handley only after he had published his side of the story in the New Zealand Herald. The newspaper front-paged it with lines like
” … the [Handley] family arrived back in the country days before finding out his contract was scrapped.”
And (when Handley was asked how the situation had affected him personally) …
“It’s unsettling and it’s been hard and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody”.
What‘s still not clear is why Ardern was so “economical with the truth” in her answers in Parliament about her email exchanges with Handley during the appointment process.
Remember – this was the second round of the CTO appointment process. Clare Curran had called off the first, despite 60 applicants putting their names forward.
On September 18 Ardern told Parliament her best recollection is that she received – some months ago – a text from Handley mentioning the CTO role,
“… which I do not recall directly engaging with, as that would not have been appropriate”.
In fact as Handley disclosed there were 11 texts — seven from him and four from Ardern, including one which provided Handley with her private email address.
When Winston Peters was questioned in Parliament on Tuesday about Ardern’s answers, he went into bluster mode (which he does very well).
This is from Hansard:
Hon Simon Bridges: Why did the Prime Minister text Derek Handley her personal email address rather than her work one, when Mr Handley’s texts clearly show he wanted to contact the Prime Minister in her capacity as Prime Minister about how he could “best serve you and New Zealand” and about the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role?
Rt Hon WINSTON PETERS: The member was going fine when he laid out the framework for that question until he said “about the CTO role”. That part of the question is demonstrably false, and the transcripts show that. So, to go back to my primary point, the Prime Minister clearly was asked, from someone who was interested in re-joining New Zealand’s economy, “Can I possibly get in contact with you?”, and being the friendly, honest person she is, she sent him her private information. We are doing it all the time. I don’t know what he does, but, then again, he probably only gets a call once a month.
Bridges: What did the Prime Minister mean when she said to Mr Handley, “I’ll talk to the team about how we can make use of you and your kind offer.”?
PETERS: Again, on hundreds of occasions, we are all, in this Government, being asked by people as to how they can help our economy. We thank them for doing that, we thank them for making the offer, and we get back to them. There’s nothing untoward in that at all. But to try and extrapolate out from that that the Prime Minister knew about the job—the particular job—is, again, demonstrably false.
Bridges: Who did the Prime Minister talk to about Mr Handley’s offer?
PETERS: I have to tell the member that I can’t answer that question. However, there is going to be a release of all the communications when they’ve gone through the Official Information Act requirements and any privacy requirements there might be, and there’ll be no attempt to not disclose everything—unlike an inquiry I know, which is almost a month old, conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and a famous law firm—
So the Handley saga continues. The casualties so far include both Clare Curran and Handley himself.
New Zealand is still without a CTO which was about developing a digital strategy, ensuring all NZers have access to technology and about risks and opportunities to create a better future.
And there remains a cloud hanging over the issue, not just about the appointment and its cancellation, and any interaction involving Ardern.
As Audrey Young wrote in the NZ Herald:
“Until now, the fiasco, mainly over an undisclosed meeting, had reflected badly on Curran but the contagion has spread to Ardern and made the Government look amateurish. Grant Robertson had to correct an answer in the House today he gave last week on Clare Curran’s emails to Handley and Woods had to retract a suggestion that the severance contract with Handley may have been subject to a confidentiality clause.
“Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters swore blind Ardern was blameless of anything and everything. True, she will not have to correct any answers she has given to Parliament. But that is almost irrelevant because even if she did, it would not undo the damage she has done to herself.”