Bryce Edwards: Clare Curran’s agonising downfall

Bryce Edwards: Clare Curran’s agonising downfall

Clare Curran’s last appearance as a minister this week was an all too memorable one. In response to a question about her use of private email for government business she responded: “To the best of my recollection, um, ah, ah, I haven’t, um, I haven’t used my, um I’ve answered um OIA, ah, ah, OIA responses and personal, um and parliamentary questions correctly and to the best of my recollection, um, ah, you know, that, that has, that’s what I’ve done.”

This lack of confidence and murkiness epitomises the Curran controversy. And the fact that it was served up for viewing on TV and online means the public is likely to remember Curran’s painful decline quite vividly.

It was uncomfortable viewing. As Audrey Young writes today: “Clare Curran’s agonising performance in the House on Wednesday was hard to watch. Even her opponents privately expressed sympathy for her afterwards” – see: The real reason Clare Curran resigned as a minister.

Young goes on to explain that if Curran had stayed on in her job, she would have faced relentless pressure from the Opposition: “In between the hesitations and mental blocks, she opened herself up to dozens more questions from the Opposition over her use of Gmail and her staff’s supposed access to it. There are three more weeks of Parliament in the current session and Curran correctly surmised that there would be questions to her every day over those three weeks. If Curran had been a stronger performer and if she had been unfairly targeted, Curran could have withstood that. But she is neither… She was about to be ground into mincemeat in full technicolour over three weeks.”

Prior to Curran’s resignation, National frontbencher Judith Collins commented on the AM Show this morning that Curran’s performance in Parliament “was actually quite painful to watch” – see Newshub’s Judith Collins felt sorry for Clare Curran ‘as a human being’.

Collins expressed sympathy for Curran: “I thought this is someone who seriously needs to think about whether or not they want to come back into that environment. I felt quite sorry for her, and even though it’s our job to hold her to account – and Melissa Lee’s done an excellent job – I think we that we all felt a bit sorry for Clare as a human being.”

Also sympathetic to Curran’s situation is National Party blogger David Farrar, who has commented on her resignation, saying it “seems to be a genuine decision on her part, rather than Ardern sacking her” – see: Curran resigns. Farrar adds that “she is a good person who is passionate about ICT/Comms and worked hard to make a difference. But her judgement did let her down repeatedly.”

Not all commentators have been sympathetic. Leftwing blogger No Right Turn was scathing about the departing minister: “Curran was a disaster as a Minister, a secretive, incompetent control freak who seemed to go out of her way to make herself look suspicious. Lying to Parliament once about a secret meeting with a potential appointee could perhaps be excused as a mistake; doing it twice makes it a clear pattern of behaviour. But I guess that’s what you get from pyramid-climbing party hacks” – see: Good riddance.

The focus has now shifted to how well Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has handled the Curran controversies in general, and Curran’s departure today. Many are asking why Ardern went on radio this morning and implied Curran’s job was safe, given that she accepted the minister’s resignation last night. Newstalk ZB’s Chris Lynch asked Ardern, “Are you considering cutting ties with her, firing her?” And she answered: “No, because I think she’s paid a price.” You can listen to the interview: Clare Curran’s job safe despite ‘bad day’, PM says.

Henry Cooke elaborates: “But she had rung Ardern to hand in her resignation on Thursday night. The next morning, ahead of the announcement, Ardern was asked by Newstalk ZB whether Curran’s job was in trouble, and Ardern said she was not considering firing the Minister – despite the fact she had already accepted her resignation” – see: Clare Curran resigns as minister, citing ‘intolerable’ pressure.

Again, blogger No Right Turn is unimpressed, claiming “the Prime Minister was knowingly lying to us about it on the radio” – see his blog post: Dishonest. He elaborates: “It’s a lie of omission, but it is still a lie. Past Prime Ministers have fired Ministers who have knowingly misled the public in this way. We should expect our Prime Minister to be honest with us. Sadly, this morning, she failed that test.”

David Farrar has also blogged again in detail about this issue, and is worth quoting at length: “The Prime Minister told a blatant lie to Chris Lynch. She said Curran’s job was safe despite having accepted Curran’s resignation the night before. This is a different situation to the more general one where a PM will always say they have confidence in a Minister until they don’t. That doesn’t apply once you have actually received or accepted a resignation. Ardern knew when she spoke to Lynch, that she would be announcing Curran’s resignation later today. She misled him and listeners by saying Curran’s job was safe. Not only is it a bad look for the PM to deliberately lie, but it also exposes the poor political management. They should have announced the resignation last night or first thing this morning, before the PM had to do any media” – see: Ardern misleads.

All of this begs the question of why the Prime Minister didn’t simply get rid of Curran earlier, especially when the problems over her meeting with Derek Handley arose. RNZ’s Tim Watkin deals with this in his very good analysis: Clare Curran controversy: PM finally rips off the band-aid. Watkin says: “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.”

Watkin suggests Ardern must now have regrets: “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.”

So why didn’t Ardern move earlier on the problem? Watkin has some possible answers: “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?”

Looking forward, Newsroom’s Sam Sachdeva discusses what Ardern is going to have to do in terms of attempting to progress gender balance requirements of her government: “Only six of Labour’s 20 ministers are women – and that count includes Meka Whaitiri, whose fate is still in the balance as a Ministerial Services inquiry takes place” – see: Parliament’s pressure cooker claims Curran.

Sachdeva survey’s Curran’s possible female replacement: “Looking further down the party’s list, there is a paucity of experienced politicians or safe hands to take on a ministerial role, unsurprising given any heavy hitters mulling a run would have looked at Labour’s pre-Ardern polling numbers and thought twice. There are some first-term MPs with potential, such as Deborah Russell and Kiri Allan, but the step up from learning the ropes in Parliament to Cabinet seems a massive leap to make.”

In conclusion, Sachdeva also appropriately deals with Curran’s expressed “intolerable” pressure that led to her resignation: “As much as commentators enjoy likening politics to bloodsport, it is important to remember that MPs are as prone to strains on their mental health as anyone else – if not more so. A little bit of sympathy could go a long way now Curran has succumbed to the inevitable.”

Finally, for an idea of how social media has responded to the resignation, see my blog post, Top tweets about the resignation of Clare Curran.