From cockup to conspiracy

23:33, Apr 02 2012

A harried employee of the Accident Compensation Corporation attempts to focus on the next complaint. It's already past six o'clock and she is worrying about her family.

She texted her husband an hour ago that she was going to be running late, and would he pick up something for tea, but he hasn't replied. She's worried about her 9-year-old daughter - it's more than three hours since school got out and there's nobody at home but her.

Damn these bloody complaints! More and more of them every day and the corporation's already seriously understaffed. She skim-reads the email from Bronwyn Pullar; her fingers fly over the keyboard, calling up the requested information from the corporation's complex data management system. Her cellphone beeps twice. She picks it up. It's her husband. He's also stuck at work. Dammit, dammit, dammit! She hits send.

Could've happened like that - couldn't it? The unauthorised release of more than 6700 ACC client records is much more likely to be the result of a simple cockup than a deep and dark conspiracy - isn't it?

And if that cockup had sent those 6700 records to anyone but Ms Pullar's computer, wouldn't they, almost certainly, have been sent back to ACC by the person who received them, accompanied by a strong recommendation that the corporation upgrade the security of its database?

Of course they would. But they weren't. And Ms Pullar was on a mission.


Ms Pullar had been trying to get the ACC to do something to upgrade the security of its database for years - to no avail.

So when 6700 unauthorised files arrived in her In-Box, Ms Pullar - ex- National Party activist, friend of Cabinet ministers, former corporate communications manager, and long-time client of ACC after a severe road accident - required no assistance in recognising the huge, bureaucracy-shifting lever that had serendipitously fallen into her lap.

Nor would she have hesitated to contact her close friend, supporter, PR maven and National Party insider, Michelle Boag.

And it's right about here that things begin to turn very murky.

So murky, in fact, that it's easier to believe that what we're witnessing is the unfolding of a fully fledged political conspiracy than a simple bureaucratic cockup. Because somewhere between ACC headquarters and the Beehive, somebody decided that the actions of the person who alerted the news media to the unauthorised release of 6700 ACC records - and those of her "support person" - should be placed in the public domain.

Just think about that for a moment because what we're looking at now isn't the easy- to-make, hard-to-forgive error of a harried and momentarily distracted civil servant. No. What we're looking at now is a cold-blooded act of political demolition.

An act fraught with multiple and serious political consequences - up to and including the resignation of a hard-working and widely respected member of the National Party-led government. Whoever released the details of Ms Pullar's and Ms Boag's interactions with the ACC must have understood that it could lead the news media straight to Nick Smith's door.

Clearly alarmed at the potential damage this information could inflict on the National Party, Ms Boag contacts the minister responsible for ACC, Judith Collins, and informs her of her own and Bronwyn Pullar's involvement in the case. Ms Collins immediately passes on Ms Boag's communication to the ACC board chair, and to its CEO.

In very short order the names of Ms Pullar and Ms Boag appear in the news media. As feared, a letter written by Dr Smith, on Ms Pullar's behalf, while he was the minister for ACC, is released and he is forced to resign.

The National Party is thrown into considerable confusion. No one seems to know whether the leaking of the information concerning Ms Pullar's use of the 6700 inadvertently released client files (by now the subject of both a Privacy Commission inquiry and a police investigation) and the subsequent exposure of Ms Pullar's and Ms Boag's identities (also the subject of a Privacy Commission inquiry), are part of a single conspiracy, or whether multiple conspirators are at work.

Speculation, fanned to red- hot levels of intensity by the parliamentary Opposition parties and an odd assortment of Left- and Right-wing bloggers, advances the idea that what the country is witnessing is a "faction fight" to secure the post-2014 succession.

According to this version of events, National's leader, John Key, has decided not to seek a third prime- ministerial term, and his two most likely successors, Judith Collins and Stephen Joyce, are vying with each other for the title of heir apparent.

More leaks, followed by counter-leaks, have exposed to public view an alarming and hitherto unacknowledged world of political cronyism and influence-peddling.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the original, almost certainly inadvertent, bureaucratic snafu, this whole affair has now become a single, unedifying, fratricidal mess.

The Press