Outrage over Treasury no-show at COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee

Treasury's failure to put up a representative at the COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee has sparked outrage from National MPs and a prominent economist. 

Treasury Secretary Dr Caralee McLeish and Acting Deputy Secretary Bryan Chapple were scheduled to appear before the Opposition-led committee on Tuesday morning, but both pulled out about an hour before going to air. 

Opposition leader Simon Bridges, who chairs the committee, said he was advised on Tuesday morning just before 9am that Dr McLeish was unwell and that Chapple was on leave - and Treasury did not offer to put anyone else up. 

"We've asked for other senior people within Treasury to come and address with us the issues on Budget and COVID-19, they'd been notified of this since Friday, and no one has been put in place," Bridges said in his opening remarks. 

"I want to record quite clearly that I think to just dismiss the committee is entirely unacceptable."

Bridges said it was important Treasury appeared before the committee, after Budget 2020 revealed a massive $50 billion fund to help with the COVID-19 crisis recovery. 

"We're in a situation where we're borrowing [an additional] $140 billion as a country - that's $80,000 a household - and we have some remarkable forecasts from the Treasury which bank economists have described as highly optimistic.

"These are critical issues for our nation and they deserve scrutiny and they're not going to get them today... I am hopeful but we have no guarantees that we will have Treasury in some capacity along tomorrow where we can ask questions on these issues and we'll be living on in hope for that."

In a statement to Newshub, Treasury said, "Unfortunately the Treasury was unable to attend this morning's Epidemic Response Committee to answer questions on Budget 2020 and the Budget Economic and Fiscal Update 2020 due to the people with executive responsibility for the Budget being unavailable."

The statement said Dr McLeish is "unwell" and that Struan Little, Deputy Secretary for the Budget, is on leave this week.

"We contacted the Committee Clerk early this morning to advise that we were unable to attend and have been working with the Clerk to find an alternative time later in the week to appear before the committee.

"We have also offered to provide written answers to questions they may have in the meantime. The Treasury will also appear in front of FEC [Finance and Expenditure Committee] in June for the usual post-Budget review."

Bridges was echoed by economist Cameron Bagrie, who said, "Can I just express my disappointment as well that Treasury or someone hasn't fronted today? In fact, I'd go a bit stronger and say I think it's unbelievable."

National's finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said Treasury has 565 permanent staff and should have been able to provide an official to answer questions about the Budget. 

"This has been organised for days... It is our intention to recall Treasury to appear at the committee as soon as possible." 

ACT leader David Seymour also said it is "difficult to believe" Treasury couldn't "find one person to front up" to the committee. 

Dr McLeish's predecessor, Gabriel Makhlouf, caused similar outrage last year when he did not show up to a select committee briefing on Budget 2019. 

Makhlouf at the time was being investigated after alleging that sensitive Budget 2019 material had been hacked and released by the National Party ahead of its official release date. 

It turned out National had accessed the material by using a search tool on the Treasury website.

Last week Finance Minister Grant Robertson withdrew from appearing before the Epidemic Response Committee on the day before the Budget was released.