Fallout from the CTO fiasco spreads from Clare Curran to – oh, look! – the PM

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 HeraldThe  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—

SPEAKER: Order!

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.”

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