Fran O'Sullivan on business

Business analysis and comment from Herald columnist Fran O'Sullivan

Fran O'Sullivan: Leak probe becoming sideshow to real issues

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Corrections Minister Judith Collins. File photo / Ross Setford
Corrections Minister Judith Collins. File photo / Ross Setford

It's not just the Kim Dotcoms of this world who have to deal with Government agents - be they police or even the FBI - seizing their records.

Respected local business people such as ANZ National chairman John Judge are also finding themselves in the frame.

Judge has been publicly fingered by ACC Minister Judith Collins, who controversially claimed he hampered an investigation into just who leaked the email which identified Bronwyn Pullar as the person at the centre of a huge ACC privacy breach.

At the time Judge was also the Accident Compensation Corporation chairman.

He was quick to deny Collins' claims and in a public tit-for-tat - hardly unexpected from those who know Judge well - said the Cabinet Minister's claims were untrue, "pathetic" and simply an effort to blacken his name.

Forensic specialists have already combed through Collins' own email records and those of her PA who is the only other person who has access to her emails.

They didn't march into Collins' office. Just tapped into the parliamentary server.

Collins has been personally interviewed.

But suspicion apparently fell on Judge because he had wiped computer records when upgrading to a new computer and also wiped his iPad before handing it back to ACC.

Judge says he simply copied his records across to his new computer and did not use his iPad for emails.

Has this stymied Privacy Commissioner Marie Shroff's investigation? Judge says no. Because they are all on the new PC.

It's also possible that other copies existed within the ACC senior management team.

The problem is that Collins has pointed her finger of suspicion at Judge before Shroff has even completed her investigation.

Collins and Judge are both "Alpha" types. But this is not a good look.

Plenty of business people have had the hard drives of their PCs copied by all sorts of Government agents.

The Commerce Commission routinely does just this when investigating cartel cases. The Serious Fraud Office also has the ability to seize PC and email records.

But it's doubtful that many in the business community would have thought their email traffic could be probed in privacy investigations.

Acting ACC chairwoman Paula Rebstock also finds herself in an interesting position.

With Collins as good as fingering Judge as a potential leaker to the Herald on Sunday, Rebstock has to maintain the confidence of other ACC directors in both the corporation and the minister; not just the new appointees but also those who escaped Collins' axe she when decided not to reappoint Judge and two other ACC directors when their terms expired this year.

This is not an easy task when Rebstock is also spearheading the probe into leaks from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sources suggest that in this leaks probe, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has refused Rebstock permission to interview his own staffers on the leaks.

McCully did not respond by press-time yesterday.

But the Rebstock probe also appears to have fingered a suspect rather early in the piece.

It is a legal quagmire.

Intriguingly, the Cabinet document in question was seen by a good many people in the Beehive, not just the MFAT staff.

The privacy and leak probes are still under way.

But they are not the most important issues. They simply detract attention from what really matters.

In ACC's case, Collins has directed the corporation to ensure a good balance between its commercial and social objectives. But a new chairman has yet to be announced.

The chief executive - who is also departing - has to be replaced.

These are crucial appointments which will set the direction for the future.

Far better, surely, to get the chairman in place than waste time tarnishing the reputation of the predecessor.

These tactics may play well in the political arena but they do not win Collins brownie points with business.

ACC's finances are now back on a relatively good footing. But there is little real interrogation into why the ACC tail should be fully funded rather than on a "pay as you go" model (effectively taxation).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has gone quiet.

Long-time diplomat Phillip Gibson - who was MFAT's Christchurch representative after the earthquakes - has been put back into the Wellington head office to preside over the implementation phase of the change programme.

Gibson is a safe pair of hands.

McCully sees him as a vital link between the foreign affairs old guard and more recent MFAT staffers.

But a lot of expertise has jumped ship.

The vital trade negotiations team is now being rebuilt.

Nigel Fyfe, who headed the area, is now a deputy secretary at the Justice Department. On Monday, MFAT announced Martin Harvey would take Fyfe's place.

But there has been considerable slippage.

Deputy secretary David Walker has been running the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiation.

But bilateral free trade talks such as the Indian and South Korean negotiations are at snail's pace.

The successful completion of the TPP and outstanding FTAs - and getting ACC back on track - is arguably much more important than carrying out witch-hunts into leaks. But they serve as a political diversion from the real issues.

- NZ Herald

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