Sunday, May 07, 2006

Richard Prebble: Leak demands full inquiry

It is the "C" word - corruption! We have to find out not just who leaked the Budget Cabinet paper to Telecom, but why. What did they expect to get?

Nothing less than a commission of inquiry by a High Court judge with broad terms of reference and powers of subpoena is needed to inquire into what is the most serious leak of Budget information in New Zealand's history. It is not just the government's reputation at stake; our country's reputation for the lack of corruption is at risk.

Shareholders around the globe lost money. The world is watching and nothing less than a public inquiry where we can see witnesses giving answers will satisfy.

A commission of inquiry can investigate whether this was a one-off, or if, as Minister of Finance Dr Cullen is reported to have said, Telecom has been receiving other leaks and using them to influence government policy.

Everyone knew how sensitive the information was. Telecom, in its now notorious letter to previous Communications Minister Paul Swain, said deregulation would wipe huge value off its shares.

I am amazed at suggestions that at least 50 officials as well as ministers may have read and been able to copy the document.

In my experience of a document as sensitive as this, it should have been in a separate envelope marked "minister's eyes only".

Once Budgets were full of surprises and the whole country listened as it was announced after markets closed. Today, Budgets rarely have market-sensitive information.

I suspect Minister David Cuniliffe, who has never been in parliament when a dramatic Budget is announced, just does not know how to handle a sensitive Budget paper.

Finding out which Cabinet paper was leaked will be easy. Each paper is numbered and Telecom admits it has kept the leaked document. Telecom staff are paid well, but none is paid enough to go to prison rather than reveal the leak. But we need to know why they leaked and what else has been leaked to Telecom.

Telecom is the best lobbyist in Wellington. I have always been amazed at how well informed it is. It knows in detail what ministers' and officials' views are, and the status of telecommunication regulation. We are an open democracy.

There is nothing wrong with transparency, but somewhere, somehow, someone has gone over the line.

Our government needs to restore confidence and publicly investigate the most serious Budget leak in our history.

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