Jacinda Ardern may have been misguided showing mercy to Clare Curran two weeks ago given the odds of more coming out. But at least she's not left with a low bar precedent around her neck 

This will be a lesson for a still evolving Prime Minister. Better the Band-Aid is pulled off quickly than the slow, painful tear. The now former Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran could have been shown the door two weeks ago when she admitted to a second failure to properly declare a meeting in her role as minister.

At that stage Ardern put on her stern face, complete with furrowed brow and removed her from cabinet. She lost the Government Digital Services and Open Government portfolios, but remained as Minister of Broadcasting and Associate Minister of ACC. Ardern stressed this was a "significant demotion" but also that she had to be proportionate and misrepresenting a meeting or two was not necessarily a career-ending offence.

That may be all well and good as far as nature justice goes, but political justice is judged on a different balance. If Curran was sloppy enough to arrange two-off diary meetings, the question was always: 'What else has she been sloppy about?' Could other failings would leak out in the days and weeks ahead… Drip. Drip. Drip.

The odds were always that there would be more to come; and come it did this week when Curran faced questions in the House about how she had arranged the second meeting. It was with entrepreneur Derek Handley, who wanted to know more about the job of Chief Technology Officer for New Zealand. The job ad says the CTO will "develop a digital strategy for New Zealand" and "respond to opportunities of our changing digital world".

But Curran was struggling to adapt to changes in her own digital world. As a minister, she's meant to keep a pretty rigorous diary and keep her staff informed about important meetings. All that is work that can be subject to parliamentary questions. Yet when National's Melissa Lee and Brett Hudson started asking questions about Curran's meetings, details were left out of the answers. Misleading parliament is a serious offence and that's what got Curran into hot water.

The temperature reached boiling point on Wednesday in the House when Curran had what John Key used to called a 'brain fade' in Question Time and struggled to string together a coherent sentence when asked if she had been conducting ministerial business on her private Gmail account.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

What everyone saw was a minister out of her depth and not meeting the basic administrative standards expected of cabinet ministers. For a minister meant to be leading New Zealand into the bright digital future, it was looking increasingly embarrassing for Labour. The narrative that Labour's ministers needed training wheels and haven't shown the competence required has been growing in recent weeks and Curran had become Exhibit A.

For Ardern it was a tricky balancing act.

On one hand, Curran offered her a huge political opportunity. Like a rugby or football ref, showing a yellow card early in the game can set a standard and get players to stop the silly stuff pretty darned quickly. It was the Band-Aid ripping option that she must now in some way regret not taking. She could have looked strong and decisive. Instead, she's ended up in the same place but having had to defend a poor performer and looking indecisive.

What stopped her in the first place? Was it a sense of justice, that a couple of off-diary meetings shouldn't kill a career? Was it Labour's left-wing base who are especially fond of Curran? Was it the fact Curran and Ardern used to be flatmates together? Was it a feeling that she didn't want to look like she was presiding over a weak cabinet so early in her first term?

All of those things would have crossed her mind, but perhaps the strongest consideration would have been a question of threshold. If you sack someone for bad paperwork (even allowing for the misleading parliament part), what happens the next time a minister errs, but in a less than obviously terrible way? Does she set the bar so low that she has to keep sacking people for relatively minor offences, just to look fair?

For that reason at least, Ardern may not feel too bad about having waited an extra two weeks to push the 'eject' button. With this latest Gmail failing, the embarrassing House performance and the fact Curran has had the decency to jump rather than be pushed (publicly at least), she has not set a low threshold precedent that's sitting there waiting to trip her up the next time a minister drops the ball.

Having said that, woe betide that next flailing minister. Ardern, I'm sure, will learn from this and will know that she does not have the political capital to waste on any more ministerial mercy. Seeing Curren going today, Labour's under-performing ministers must know they are on notice and that next time the Band-Aid will be torn off, not slowly peeled away.

This piece also appeared on RNZ.

Comments (9)

by Lee Churchman on September 07, 2018
Lee Churchman

tbh I doubt anyone outside the political class cares much about this.

by Ian MacKay on September 07, 2018
Ian MacKay

Yes Lee. To the average person neglecting to record a meeting, must seem very small potatoes.

by Stephen Todd on September 08, 2018
Stephen Todd

“[This] must seem very small potatoes.”

 I’m not so sure.  In an open, democratic, society, the conduct of most Government business must be observable, and reviewable.  From the word “go”, Clare Curran gave the impression that she resented being asked questions.  She clearly couldn’t understand why her actions and behaviour would be of interest to anyone outside her office, or, at a pinch, the Labour caucus.  Once she attained some measure of power, she almost immediately revealed herself to be, as No Right Turn puts it, “a secretive, incompetent control freak who seemed to go out of her way to make herself look suspicious.”  And her surly public demeanour certainly didn’t help matters.

The Carol Hirschfeld business blew up in mid-February, at about the same time she had secretly arranged to see Derek Handley in her office at 8 p.m. one evening.  After having been reprimanded by the prime minister for not recording her meeting with Hirschfeld, she did not then think it prudent to take the opportunity to reveal to Ardern that she (Ardern) should be aware that she had also seen Handley, in similar, secretive, circumstances.  She left Ardern in the dark about that for six months.

On balance, Curran’s behaviour was totally unacceptable.  If all ministers of the Crown behaved the way she did, there would be widespread public concern.  The fact that only one minister has shown herself to be completely unsuited to the role of conducting government business in a democracy, does not make this matter “small potatoes.”  It was a serious matter that should have been dealt with decisively two weeks ago.

 

by Lee Churchman on September 08, 2018
Lee Churchman

From the word “go”, Clare Curran gave the impression that she resented being asked questions.  She clearly couldn’t understand why her actions and behaviour would be of interest to anyone outside her office, or, at a pinch, the Labour caucus. 

Because to a normal person, this is dime store crap. It’s like Gerry Brownlee being a dick at the airport. 

by Nick Gibbs on September 08, 2018
Nick Gibbs

So you won't be offended if from hence forth ministers meet or communicate with whoever and don't have to disclose the meetings or drtails. (don't bother with those pesky OIA's Miniters can simpley state no minutes of that meeting were recorded, and the meeting never happened anyway).  

by Charlie on September 08, 2018
Charlie

Stephen Todd: 100% correct!

If having a secret meeting with the head of content and RNZ whilst waving millions in extra funding in her face, then lying about it doesn't worry the public then they're asleep at the wheel!

Hanlon's Razor applies here: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity". However in her case it could well be both, judging by her track record.


 

 

 

 

by Lee Churchman on September 08, 2018
Lee Churchman

Don’t be so melodramatic. A few dumb oversights isn’t the same as continual, intentional evasion. Get a grip. 

by Lee Churchman on September 08, 2018
Lee Churchman

That was aimed at Gibbs. 

by Nick Gibbs on September 09, 2018
Nick Gibbs

You make me laugh Lee. Hirschfeld is invited to a secret meeting with Curran, and loses her career. Months later and Curran is back at it, the exact same mistake. Get a grip Lee.

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