May 29, 2019 / 8:14 PM / 4 months ago

New Zealand budget leaks not deemed illegal, opposition calls for heads to roll

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand police believe early accessing of sensitive budget information from the Treasury’s website was not illegal, the department said on Thursday, in the midst of a national furore over hacking accusations in which the opposition National Party confirmed it was responsible for the access.

FILE PHOTO: New Zealand's Finance Minister Grant Robertson during an interview in his office in Wellington, New Zealand, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Charlotte Greenfield/File Photo

The Treasury said on Wednesday that it was attacked 2,000 times in two days by hackers after the opposition National Party published some details of the much-anticipated economic plan before its full release due later on Thursday.

The saga has dominated headlines, sparked jabs between political parties, and threatened to overshadow the much-vaunted “Wellbeing” budget promised by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour-led coalition government. It aims to move away from traditional economic indicators to use other measures of living standards from loneliness to water quality.

Leader of the centre-right National Party Simon Bridges told reporters on Thursday that party officials researching the budget had stumbled upon the access to the information, which he said showed the “incompetence” of the government.

“It was in relation to a lack of confidence in this government which we absolutely have a duty to disclose to New Zealanders,” he said.

He called on the head of Treasury Gabriel Makhlouf and Finance Minister Grant Robertson to resign over their handling of the matter.

Robertson released a statement saying he was “disappointed” the budget data was able to be accessed in such a way.

“I am also very disappointed that the Treasury did not seek to find more information as to how this happened before referring the matter to the Police,” he added.

Robertson said he would await the results of an inquiry by the State Services Commissioner.

The Treasury earlier said that police were dropping the investigation into what happened to the website.

“Police have advised the Treasury that, on the available information, an unknown person or persons appear to have exploited a feature in the website search tool but that this does not appear to be unlawful,” it said.

Police confirmed in an email that they had advised Treasury the incident did not appear to be unlawful and they would not be taking further action.

Political analysts said that the way the government had handled the issue could dent public confidence in the government and public service.

“It’s unprecedented what has happened in terms of a government department calling the police, misinterpreting what has happened to the public about their own apparent incompetence,” said Bryce Edwards, Wellington-based political analyst at Critical Politics.

In the statement, Treasury head Gabriel Makhlouf said the agency had created a “clone” website with budget information not publicly accessible, though a special word search could access some content.

He said several internet IP addresses, including one parliamentary one, were involved, but did not give names of those responsible.

The Treasury said it was reviewing its systems and would increase the security of budget information, while a government supervisory body would carry out an inquiry into what happened.

The budget is to be released at 1400 local time (0200 GMT).

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Phil Berlowitz

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