Well known National Party identity Michelle Boag appears to have been involved in what now looks like a campaign by the Opposition to discredit the Prime Minister over the Derek Handley affair.
Acting PM Winston Peters alluded to the connection in Parliament yesterday where he described Boag as Handley’s adviser.
On Monday night Boag texted POLITIK seeking its email address.
She gave no reason.
Early on Tuesday morning an email arrived from an Auckland PR consultant, Julie Landry, who is the public relations person for Derek Handley.
The email contained a file of Handley’s email and text exchanges with Clare Curran and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Critically, the file shows that Ardern had more exchanges with Handley than the single exchange that she admitted to in Parliament on September 18.
Boag was not answering questions about her involvement in the production or distribution of the file yesterday.
She is no stranger to political controversy. She is a former President of the National Party and a close friend of former Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully. Most recently she was named as the person who had introduced Saudi Arabian businessman George Assaf to McCully; a meeting that led to the development of the controversial agri hub in Saudi Arabia.
“I never comment on who my clients are,” was her response to some texted questions from POLITIK.
Landry however, in response to phone questions about Boag from POLITIK, texted back a statement saying: Derek Handley works with a wide range of people and I am not prepared to comment on who those people might be.”
It seems probable that Boag’s relationship was directly with Handley rather than with Landry.
The issue is whether the Prime Minister improperly communicated with Derek Handley who she admits she has known for some years about his potential appointment to the new position of Government Chief Technology Officer.
The following exchange from Parliament’s Question Time from September 18 is at the heart of the issue.
Simon Bridges: Has she had any conversations, emails, or texts with Derek Handley since she’s been Prime Minister?
Ardern: My best recollection is that I received, some months ago, a text from Mr Handley mentioning the Chief Technology Officer role, which I do not recall directly engaging with, as that would not have been appropriate.
On Tuesday morning, the Auckland PR consultant, Julie Landrey, a long time advisor to Handley released all his communications with the Prime Minister.
What is unclear is what Boag’s role in the decision to release the information was.
But the release was a political bonus for National because it showed that there had been five texts from Ferek Handley to the Prime Minister and three from her to him between Apri l 23 and August 26, this year.
There was also a lengthy email from Handley to the Prime Minister on June 7.
The Prime Minister replied with only a brief text (which has been redacted) to Handley’s advice that that a number of people had urged him to “seriously consider this CTO thing”.
That text, on ANZAC day, was her last communication with him.
The decision to release Handley;’s texts is crucial.
By showing that the Prime Minister gave the House inaccurate information about her own personal text and email accounts, they appear to put her in danger of facing a breach of privilege for having misled the House.
She was asked about this in New York yesterday and Bridges quoted her answer when he questioned acting Prime Minister Peters about the discrepancy in Parliament yesterday.
“When the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern was asked yesterday why she hadn’t disclosed greater communications with Derek Handley, why did she respond ‘I have mentioned that I’ve known him for a number of years and that we’ve engaged with each other and that I do have messages and emails from him. I mentioned that from the moment I was asked.’
“Given that when she was asked by me in Parliament whether ‘she had any conversations, emails, or texts with Derek Handley since she’s been Prime Minister’ she twice responded that she’d received just one text from Mr Handley.”
Peters’ reply appears to confuse the matter further: “Because the questioner at the time, namely, the leader of the National Party, forgot to make the point that the first lots of admissions by the Prime Minister were to do with a position before the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) ever arose, and thereafter when it arose, no longer was it handled by the Prime Minister or mentioned. The distinction, of course, is that the member is putting a different question in the House today that they didn’t put to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has been patently obvious about, and honest about, the matter.”
None of this would seem to matter all that much.
Prime Ministers often tap people on the shoulder for top Government jobs.
In 2013 Prime Minister John Key faced a barrage of Opposition questions over the appointment of Ian Fletcher to be head of the GCSB.
Fletcher was an old schoolmate and family friend of Key who “forgot” that he had phoned him to persuade him to apply for the GCSB job.
On that scale Ardern is not guilty of much.
But with a highly skilled political operator like Boag in the background, National’s questions in Parliament now take on a new light.
Were they trying to set Ardern up?
What other information do they have?
Parliament rises this afternoon until October 16. This affair is unlikely to be settled before then.