Fran O'Sullivan: ACC inquiry only choice for PM of integrity

John Key is indebted to Michelle Boag for his selection for the safe seat of Helensville in 2002, when she was National Party president. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey
John Key is indebted to Michelle Boag for his selection for the safe seat of Helensville in 2002, when she was National Party president. Photo / Glenn Jeffrey

John Key faces a stern test: Does he order a full inquiry into how ACC has managed all the privacy issues in the Bronwyn Pullar affair or sweep it aside in a misguided attempt to avert more reputational damage to his own party?

If Key wants to preserve the integrity of his own Government, he will opt for the former. Already the privacy scandal is, as they say in the political trade, "one almighty clusterf***".

Many New Zealanders will be disgusted at the clear suggestion Pullar was able to point to a well-connected bunch of National Party insiders, including Key himself, to try to screw a $14 million settlement from Sovereign Insurance for the damage she suffered in a cycle accident a decade ago.

Most people would not be able to tally up 28 well-connected names to champion their cause, let alone such influential people as Key, former National Prime Minister Dame Jenny Shipley, Sir Selwyn Cushing - a former National Party fundraiser - and former minister Wayne Mapp.

They were among those Pullar yesterday tried to explain were simply "a list of known people who were aware of my dispute with the insurer, and who the insurer may encounter in the course of their business".

Anyone in the commercial world would regard the provision of such a list as an undue attempt to exert influence. It carries with it an implicit message of "don't mess with me because I have friends in high places".

Yet Pullar maintains the list was provided simply "in the context of us entering into negotiations to reach a confidential settlement. Provision of this list was necessary in case the insurer subsequently faced questions from these parties who had knowledge of the dispute".

Frankly this is the deluded spin of a person whose own credibility has been shot to hell by Key's denial that he was ever part of her web of influence.

In any event, anyone who has ever settled a major claim with an insurance company would be subject to an obligation of confidence if it was in any way contentious or precedent-setting.

I suspect that whoever leaked the Sovereign letter did so because they were outraged at the apparent deal which Pullar is also claimed to have been trying to arrange with ACC - a deal where the corporation would agree to continue to pay her a benefit if she returned a cache of confidential information on about 7000 clients ACC mistakenly sent her last year.

The Privacy Commissioner is undertaking an inquiry into how Pullar's own name came into the public domain via an email that her "support person", Michelle Boag, sent to ACC Minister Judith Collins.

It's obvious from the run of play that Collins or Boag are locked in political combat.

Collins clearly pricked a nerve when she included the former National Party president among those who could have leaked the email.

The minister was simply pointing out those who had the email; herself, two ACC players and Boag.

But Boag did not engage her brain before telling the Herald her email was sent to Collins in the expectation it would not be sent to anyone else.

"I sent it to the minister only ... and I asked whether it was a secure email address before I sent it," the Herald reported, going on to quote Boag as saying, "When you can't send a communication to a Government minister without fearing that the privacy of that communication is going to be breached, that's very, very dangerous".

In fact, Boag had earlier phoned Collins to say she had some information on the privacy leaks. Collins told her any communication would have to be forwarded to ACC.

Yet Boag went on to email Collins at her parliamentary address. The email was copied to one of the ACC Minister's senior staffers.

It's hardly surprising Collins - via her staffer - made sure ACC chief executive Ralph Stewart and ACC chairman John Judge were sent copies of the email, given Boag's insistence the privacy breach should be investigated for the "sake of your ministry, your board and your CEO".

To her credit, Collins did not let herself get drawn into the behind-scenes influence game.

The Prime Minister - who to some degree owes the championing of his selection into the safe Helensville seat to Boag's handiwork as National Party president - must also do the same if he is to stymie opposition claims of cronyism.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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