Bryce Edwards: Has the PM been too lenient on Clare Curran?

Bryce Edwards: Has the PM been too lenient on Clare Curran?

Minister of Broadcasting, Clare Curran, has been punished for her second breach of ministerial standards. But she hasn’t been sacked as a minister – only shifted outside of Cabinet, and allowed to retain her main portfolio of Broadcasting. So should Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have fired her entirely as a minister? Commentators are divided on this.

The Case for sacking Clare Curran 

Many commentators believe Jacinda Ardern has only made the situation worse for herself by choosing a half-measure in dealing with her errant Broadcasting Minister. According to Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins: “Unfinished business can be toxic in politics. Which is why Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should have ripped off the plaster and stripped her beleaguered minister Clare Curran of all her portfolios, rather than allow her to limp on with her authority undermined” – see: Prime Minister, Speaker fumble political bombshells.

Watkins believes Ardern won’t live her half-measure down: “Curran already had form for doing the very same thing she was demoted over: failing to be upfront about dealings with people related to her portfolios. Ardern will keep facing questions about why she failed to cut her loose.”

Similarly, Stacey Kirk wonders if “not cutting the cancer entirely could be a decision Ardern comes to regret” – see: The foreboding sense there’s more to come in two capital scandals. She points out that “It’s her second offence of an almost identical nature and while it was at best a sloppy administrative oversight, it’s left both her and the Government open to accusations of dishonesty.

Sunday Star Times editor Jonathan Milne is even more adamant that Ardern took the wrong decision: “with no notes of the meeting disclosed, no advisers present, and a track record of unreliable answers from the Minister to Parliament itself, the public can have no confidence. And neither can the Prime Minister” – see: Public can have no confidence in broadcast minister – and neither can Prime Minister.

Milne is particularly unhappy about Curran retaining her Broadcasting portfolio: “This is surprising, because it is the second time Curran has been caught out failing to disclose meetings with high-profile broadcasters – first Radio NZ’s news boss Carol Hirschfeld, now Sky TV director Derek Handley. Both meetings came as the Government prepared to take significant decisions affecting those broadcast organisations: whether to fund Radio NZ to set up a new public service TV channel; whether to support Government MP Clayton Mitchell’s private member’s bill guaranteeing New Zealanders free-to-air sports. So it is not just Curran’s performance in the open government and digital services portfolios that should be called into question, but also her transparency as broadcasting minister.”

Newsroom’s Tim Murphy is unsure whether the punishment was harsh enough, but points out that Ardern “has not been prepared to do anything meaningful about a minister with a poor recall, poor organisation and, probably, poor judgment. The last National administration under John Key was notable for ministers being ejected once Key scented any or all of those factors” – see: Ardern pushes the half-eject button.

But he explains why the Prime Minister may not have wanted to go further: “it is hard to escape the feeling she is trying to break with that hardline approach and wants to make it, first, to her Government’s one year anniversary and then beyond without losing one of her team.”

Unfortunately, Murphy points out, the whole episode now leaves the Cabinet with worse gender equality, and it underlines the poor progress made on improving transparency in government: “Labour’s record of deletions and obstructions under the Official Information Act, for example, has been as bad or worse than its economical-with-the-truth predecessors.”

For the harshest criticism of Curran’s punishment, see Kate Hawkesby’s column from yesterday’s Herald. Hawkesby says the sanction for “the PM’s former flatmate” makes Ardern “look a bit too soft”, and she notes that it’s likely that Helen Clark “would’ve shown this behaviour the door” – see: More concerning than a flaky Clare Curran is a soft Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Here’s Hawkesby’s main argument on why Curran should have lost her Broadcasting portfolio: “If you’ve proven you’re untrustworthy, not only once, but twice, then you lose the argument it was ‘an oversight’ and you start to look like a serial offender. To not declare meetings, and conduct them in such a fashion – over coffee off-site with Carol Hirschfeld, or behind closed doors after hours with Sky TV board director Derek Handley, is to prove you don’t get it. You don’t get the privilege of what it means to hold these jobs. You don’t get the gravitas of the roles or the importance of transparency. These are not difficult concepts to grasp, they’re actually the basics. The fact her defence continues to be ‘I forgot’ is about as lame as it gets.”

The biggest risk for Ardern and her Government is that Curran’s actions, together with the leniency shown towards her, might suggest that this government has very quickly become just another dodgy administration prepared to tolerate low ethical standards. I’ve written about this in an opinion piece today on the RNZ website – see: This government has lost its new car smell.

Here’s my general argument: “They say a new car smell never lasts long. And Clare Curran has been a major contributor to a slight whiffiness that now accompanies this government. While the prime minister herself has been a major asset in projecting an image of newness and change, Ms Curran’s behaviour – and now Jacinda Ardern’s relative leniency in dealing with that – has had a tarnishing effect.”

I point out that Ardern is willing to put up with too much unethical behaviour, which will tarnish her reputation: “the same mistake, by the same person, leading to the same serious outcome – misleading Parliament – within a few months is corrosive.”

What’s more, the cynical attempt to bury this bad news by releasing it at 4pm on a Friday during a firestorm of other political news should be a major black mark against the new government: “Despite the PM’s ongoing defence of the timing, it was so blatant, so brazen and so contrary to the basic principles of transparency and open government that it’s worthy of the final days of a third or fourth term administration.”

Defending the PM and Curran

The best defender of the PM’s actions is, of course, Jacinda Ardern herself. And today she went on RNZ’s Morning Report to justify keeping Curran on as a Minister outside of Cabinet – you can listen to her nine-minute interview and read the report on it here: PM: Clare Curran sacking from cabinet was proportionate.

In this, Ardern explains that she retains confidence in Curran as the Minister of Broadcasting, because “the meeting itself wasn’t the issue, it was the lack of transparency around it”. And Ardern even points out that she could actually be criticised for being too tough on Curran, given it was only a failure of calendar administration: “Some would consider sacking someone from Cabinet for not writing something in a calendar was harsh.” But nonetheless, she says “I consider it proportionate.”

This is also the judgement of the Herald’s political editor, Audrey Young in her column, Jacinda Ardern’s punishment for Clare Curran proportionate. Young points out that in both the unrecorded meetings with Carol Hirschfeld and Derek Handley, there was a mitigating factor – Curran explained that “they were genuine oversights”. What’s more, Young explains “Ardern does not want to set the bar too low. She does not want to demote a minister every time a wrong answer is given.”

However, Young thinks that Ardern is possibly just easing Curran out slowly: “it may be that her fate is already sealed. Her harsher punishment may lie ahead in 2019 or 2020 when Ardern has her first reshuffle.”

Former political party media advisor David Cormack gives some further insight into how the whole situation was uncovered: “I’m told that the Department of Internal Affairs was running probity on Derek Handley as the possible CTO when it became aware of the meeting and alerted the PM’s office on Monday” – see: Ardernfreude. For Cormack, therefore, the Friday 4pm news dump is therefore more understandable: “Between Monday and Friday, the PM’s office had to get its facts straight, its story sorted and then wait for its big announcements on health and transport on Friday.”

Cormack also characterises Curran’s “crime” as “minor enough”, and argues that “the ultimate result has probably been a net-benefit for Ardern.”

Finally, Curran’s departure from Cabinet – without replacement – means that the number of women at the top falls to only six. This is, according to Alison Mau, “a problem for a leader who’s made public statements about her wish to lift the numbers of women at the highest level of the government she leads”. But Mau has a solution: promote two other Labour women, Meka Whaitiri and Kiri Allan – see: Please Prime Minister, don’t let a great opportunity pass you by.