There is a call for heads to roll over new revelations about the treatment of an email sent by Stuart Nash about Cabinet matters to two donors.
Two staff members in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) – one the deputy Chief of Staff – have apologised for their “error of judgement in not recognising the significance of the email” and not flagging the email with the Prime Minister of the time.
The email, which Newshub has obtained a copy of, shows Nash in 2020 discussing a Cabinet matter on a commercial rent relief package with two donors – Troy Bowker and Greg Loveridge. That’s despite the fact that what goes on within Cabinet is meant to be confidential.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins sacked Nash as a minister on Tuesday night when the email came to his attention, but then on Wednesday revealed it had previously been seen in the PMO.
Hipkins said he had found out on Wednesday the email came up during consultation on an OIA request to Nash’s office. It was ruled to be out of the scope of the request, but the PMO – under then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – was consulted.
He said neither Ardern nor her Chief of Staff were made aware of it. He wasn’t told of it until Wednesday and said he has advised his staff he expects to be alerted to this type of communication.
More details have been released on Thursday, showing the 2020 email came to the knowledge of two staff members in PMO in 2021 after the OIA request. Newsroom reports it requested correspondence between Nash and 19 donors. One of those donors was Bowker.
The two staff members were Deputy Chief of Staff Holly Donald and an unnamed senior advisor, the PMO said. Only the senior advisor became aware of a subsequent Ombudsman complaint about the OIA request response.
“Both staff have apologised for their error of judgement in not recognising the significance of the email and escalating it at the time. Both staff still work in the Prime Minister’s office,” a statement from the PMO said.
The email was apparently viewed as out of scope as the email was in Nash’s capacity as a Labour MP rather than in his capacity as a minister. Only official ministerial information can be requested. However, the matter included in the email referred to Cabinet matters, which only ministers attend.
In March last year, Nash’s office received a letter from the Ombudsman regarding an investigation into his response to the OIA. A response to the Ombudsman was later shared with the PMO, but didn’t include a copy of the email.
A redacted version of that email was sent by Nash’s office to the Ombudsman, including the explanation that it was in his capacity of a Labour MP rather than as a minister. The Ombudsman later told Nash’s office that the complaint was no longer being pursued.
Hipkins on Thursday said he had accepted the apology of the staff involved and “believe this was an oversight”.
“Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office deal with large volumes of information every day and errors of judgment do occur. However I’ve made my expectation clear and don’t expect such an error to occur again.”
But he’s throwing all blame on Nash as he believes he should have reviewed his correspondence and identified this email himself.
“I asked him on two occasions to provide an assurance there were no further actions I should be aware of where he may have breached the Cabinet Manual. He had the responsibility to alert me to this email and did not.”
Hipkins on Wednesday ordered a review into all of Nash’s communications with donors to ensure there are no other breaches.
‘Culture of cover-up’
Nicola Willis, National’s deputy leader, said the latest revelations show the PMO “actively conspired to cover up information”.
“Not only did they know about Stuart Nash’s letter last year, they broke the law in order to keep that letter from the New Zealand public,” she claimed.
She said she believed the conduct breached the OIA as she believes the email was within the request’s scope and should have been released.
“It was a letter from Minister Nash and his ministerial capacity commenting on his ministerial role to his donors. Why was that ruled out of scope?
“It makes me ask, how often are we being denied information by this Government because it doesn’t suit them to release it. We were promised a culture of transparency instead we’ve got a culture of cover-up.”
Willis said the moment the PMO staffers became aware of the email, they should have released it.
She wants the Ombudsman to investigate and also wants the PMO to release all documentation relating to the handling of the email.
Asked if the staff members involved should be shown the door, Willis replied: “Heads have to roll here.”
Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni was standing in for the Prime Minister at Parliament on Thursday.
She was asked if the Government had broken the law.
“No, there has been a minister who has breached Cabinet responsibility and he is no longer a minister,” she replied.
Sepuloni said she was not the one to determine whether it was right or wrong not to release the information. She reiterated that Nash should have raised the email with the Prime Minister.
“I can assure you that we are all very, very careful with regards to the OIA and making sure that we follow the rules,” she said.
“In this instance, there may be questions asked about whether or not it should be released, but I’m not the person for determining whether or not that’s the case.”
Sepuloni repeated it was an “honest mistake” and not staff “trying to act in any underhanded way”.
“It’s certainly not a cover-up from the perspective of what’s gone on between the office here, that certainly hasn’t been the case. It was an honest mistake with the handling of information.”
Asked on Wednesday about a potential cover-up, Hipkins said: “I don’t think it was tried to be covered up.”
“My understanding is it just wasn’t within the scope of the request.”
Nash on Wednesday afternoon apologised for “causing an unwanted distraction”. He said he would remain Napier’s local MP “for now”, but didn’t commit to standing at the election.
“To the people of Napier, whom it has been an absolute pleasure and privilege serving and representing in parliament, I also offer my apologies,” he said.
“For now, I will continue to be your local MP and will work hard to ensure you get everything you need and deserve in your journey of recovery after Cyclone Gabrielle.”
Timeline provided by the Prime Minister’s Office:
3 June: Cabinet Committee agrees to amend the Property Law Act to include an implied clause into leases, with criteria include businesses having 20 or fewer FTE per lease site. Also agreed to government support for arbitration.
4 June: PR from Minister Little announcing the Government will temporarily amend the Property Law Act to insert a clause in commercial leases requiring a fair reduction in rent, and $40m support for arbitration
5 June: Stuart Nash sends email to Greg Loveridge and Troy Bowker
30 June: Property Law Act changes do not proceed after NZ First withdraws support. $40 million in arbitration still proceeds.
8 June: Stuart Nash’s office receives an OIA asking for all written correspondence between himself and a list of individuals. This is discussed with staff in the Prime Minister’s Office on three occasions.
30 July: Stuart Nash’s office emails the deputy Chief of Staff Holly Donald and a senior advisor with the emails found in relation to the request noting that in their view they were out of scope as they weren’t received by Stuart Nash in his capacity as Minister. This includes the email of 5 June 2020. The Prime Minister’s Office did not reply.
27 September: Cabinet agrees to a Bill amending the Property Law Act
28 September: PR from Ministers Faafoi and Williams announcing changes to the Property Law Act to help those affected by COVID-19 restrictions
2 November: The COVID-19 Response (Management Measures) Legislation Bill received Royal Assent, This includes changes to the Property Law Act.
1 March: Stuart Nash receives a letter from the Ombudsman regarding an investigation into his response to the 8 June 2021 OIA.
17 March: Stuart Nash’s office drafts a response to the Ombudsman and shares it with the Prime Minister’s Office. This did not include a copy of the 5 June 2020 email but did include a reference to withholding documents under s9(2)(j). The Prime Minister’s Office did not reply.
29 March: Stuart Nash replies to the Ombudsman including a redacted version of the 5 June 2020 email. Includes an explanation that the email was in his capacity as a Labour Member of Parliament rather than in his capacity as Minister.
30 March: Office of the Ombudsman responds to Nash’s office, acknowledging receipt of his response.
25 May: Office of the Ombudsman emails Stuart Nash’s office saying they would not be pursuing the complaint and the investigation was closed.