Prime Minister Chris Hipkins says staffers made 'mistake' in handling of Stuart Nash email, had no 'ill-intent'

The Prime Minister says the case of two staffers not flagging an email from Stuart Nash containing confidential Cabinet matters is more of a "cock-up" than a "conspiracy".

"In the choice between a cock-up and a conspiracy, this one was absolutely in the cock-up end," Chris Hipkins said on Friday. "Someone made a mistake. I don't think there was any ill intent there."

Hipkins defended the two staff members in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) calling them "diligent and honest" while acknowledging they made a "mistake".

The two staff members apologised on Thursday after it was revealed they were previously aware of an email sent by Nash to two donors in 2020 discussing Cabinet matters. The emergence of that email earlier this week led to Nash's sacking as a minister as it showed he breached Cabinet confidentiality.

The PMO said the staffers became aware of the email in 2021 as part of consultation with Nash's office on an Official Information Act (OIA) request. However, it said they didn't recognise the significance of the email at the time and didn't flag it with either then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern or her Chief of Staff. Hipkins has said it's his expectation he'd be alerted to such material.

The email was ruled to be out of the scope of the OIA request as it was viewed to have been sent in Nash's capacity as an MP rather than a minister. However, the email referred to Cabinet matters, which only ministers attend. 

The National Party is claiming the email was covered up, but Hipkins on Friday said it was a "mistake" by the staff members. 

"I have to accept them at their word. I wasn't there at the time that this happened," the Prime Minister said.

"Both of the people concerned are people who I regard to be incredibly diligent and honest with high levels of integrity. I think it's really horrible their integrity is being impeached in the way that it is at the moment."

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub.

Hipkins said the PMO is consulted on a lot of OIA request responses, with some needing more attention than others. But he said responsibility for signing out OIA responses sits with the minister involved, which in this case would have been Nash.

"He ultimately has been held accountable for the release or non-release of that information."

He said it "would have been nice if they'd remembered two weeks ago". 

Two weeks ago, Nash resigned as Police Minister after admitting to previously ringing the Police Commissioner about a court case, something ministers aren't allowed to get involved in.

He gave the Prime Minister an assurance there were no more issues that would come to light. But they did, including another example of Nash openly discussing a police investigation and him not using the appropriate processes to advocate to Immigration NZ for a Hawke's Bay worker.

Nash, who still held ministerial portfolios at that point, was on his final warning when the email emerged on Tuesday.

Hipkins said staffers have to deal with "thousands and thousands of pages of information regularly".

"I don't expect them to memorise every one of them. In this case, I think they made a mistake several years ago, I don't necessarily expect they would have remembered it, but I do expect Stuart Nash would have remembered it.

"So when I asked him about this two weeks ago, he should have remembered that, he should have known that it was there and he should have told me about it. He didn't."

Hipkins said the Government's done "sound and positive" work on the OIA, including in proactively releasing information. Though he recognised more can be done better.

"We've been publishing Official Information Act request responses as well so that everyone can see the information as it flows out, not just the person who requested it. I think all of those things are important for transparency. They're important for the democratic process."

The Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier last year released a report looking at how a dozen core Government agencies complied with the OIA.

Overall, Boshier said his research found the core public service is increasingly transparent and agencies are taking the initiative to proactively release information to the public as part of their normal business practice.

However, he said chief executives and other senior leaders still need to make sure their agencies have the resources and systems in place to handle their OIA workloads.

Boshier later announced an investigation into claims some Government agencies are too slow to respond to requests and that delays are creating a perception the OIA "is being used as a bureaucratic tool to stifle the flow of information".