Bryce Edwards: Sympathy for Clare Curran

Bryce Edwards: Sympathy for Clare Curran

It is very hard not to feel sympathy for Clare Curran. The minister was obviously not coping with her job, and scrutiny from the National Party opposition and the media. She was clear about that herself in her statement, saying she found it an “intolerable” situation, and pleaded to be understood as a “human being”.

This has raised questions in recent days about whether Curran really deserved the treatment she was receiving, and the manner of her downfall. Some have seen it as a “media beat-up” or a “National Party lynching”.

Many of her supporters, especially on social media, have painted a picture of the former minister as a victim of an unnecessarily brutal and dehumanising political culture. Some have questioned whether her downfall was even warranted, suggesting it was simply a result of bullies in Parliament and the media wanting to claim a “scalp”. Others feel the heat on Curran was over the top.

Such reactions are fair enough, and it’s always good to reflect on whether politics and the media are becoming too harsh at the expense of everyone’s humanity. However, the problem is that the people asserting the cries of “injustice” are invariably partisans of the politician in question, and their arguments often appear as just another form of opportunistically appealing to some sort of higher principle in order to defend their own team. Very seldom do those crying “unfair” seem to ask themselves whether they have behaved in the same way, or how they would react if the shoe was on the other foot and the other political side was under pressure.

For a good example of sympathy for Clare Curran over the whole scandal, you can read Frank Macskasy’s blog post, Kicking a person when they are down is never a good thing. He argues that National’s pursuit of Curran was akin to amoral hungry animals killing their prey: “Sensing the Minister’s vulnerability, National Opposition MPs continued to attack her in Parliament and through on-line social media. It was the most primal of interactions between creatures; a pack of predators hungry for a kill, circling a solitary, wounded creature. The ‘pack’ pursued her, drained her of strength until all resistance crumbled, and she relented”.

Macskasy does admit the same occurred to National when they were in power: “To be utterly, brutally fair – the Labour Opposition scored their own victories during nine years of Key’s administration, claiming one ‘scalp’ after another; Todd Barclay; Judith Collins; Aaron Gilmore; Phil Heatley; Mike Sabin; Kate Wilkinson; Maurice Williamson; Pansy Wong; Richard Worth”.

National Party blogger David Farrar has also expressed sympathy for Curran, but points out Labour was equally ruthless in targeting National MPs. Farrar says: “I actually feel sorry for Clare Curran… I’ve always found her well intentioned, nice on a personal level, and it must be horrible going through all this” – see: Duncan and Tova on Curran.

Farrar’s main point, however, is that no side is blameless in putting pressure on MPs: “Parliament is a tough environment and Labour never held back when a National MP was in trouble. As someone pointed out on Twitter, Labour tried to crucify Todd Barclay (also a really nice guy) for a stupid mistake, and even get him arrested.”

Similarly, Claire Trevett says this is simply reality for all in politics: “Ministers who make one mistake will always be branded a potential weak link and face greater scrutiny than their colleagues from the Opposition. It looks like bullying and sometimes it is. But neither side can cry foul because both do it” – see: Clare Curran the canary in the mine for Jacinda Ardern.

Trevett says some politicians actually benefit from the pressure: “those who emerge tougher than tungsten from the pressure… Judith Collins is one exhibit, Bill English and Helen Clark are others who have the intestinal fortitude to forge through hard times and ultimately triumph. The hard times simply make the redemption that much sweeter. Others crumble under the pressure”.

Too much media scrutiny of Curran?

The claim that the media has also been bullying towards politicians has been made. And Clare Curran seems to think so, too, making one last tweet at a political journalist who had been covering her press conference: “That is an incredibly nasty comment… Just show a damn example to other journalists will you” – see the Herald’s Clare Curran hits back at RNZ journalist on Twitter, then deletes account.

Certainly, a number of journalists have been rather scathing of Curran. The Political editor of the Otago Daily Times has reflected on Curran’s ten years as a politician in Dunedin, and suggested it might be time for Labour to seek a replacement for her, as her electorate is now vulnerable to National taking it off her – see Dene Mackenzie’s Gone but wrongs not forgotten.

Mackenzie argues that the MP was never strong under scrutiny: “Ms Curran was never suited to be a minister. She struggled in Opposition to build a credible reputation after unseating MP David Benson-Pope in a contested selection in February 2008, and was never confident under scrutiny.”

Furthermore, he argues that as the local MP for Dunedin South, Curran has been rather ineffective compared to her predecessors. And he expressed his frustrations with her interactions with the media: “She could not complete a task and was very defensive when questioned on any of her actions. Her relationships with even the most accommodating of local media personnel were fractious, to say the least. Arriving late for interviews was stock in trade. In fact, this reporter used to wait 10 to 15 minutes and return to the office rather than continue to wait for the then Opposition MP. As a minister, she has not been in contact.”

Some in the media have also challenged the notion that Curran was the victim of someone else’s harsh actions. For example, Heather du Plessis-Allan responded to this, saying “as for Curran’s exit statement, she told reporters that the pressure has become ‘intolerable’ because the current heat being placed on her is unlikely to go away. Come on, that’s blaming everyone else! Curran’s not in this position because people are chasing her. She’s in this position because she kept stuffing up” – see: Curran saga shows PM is lacking a spine.

And when Curran hit out at a journalist on Twitter, former parliamentarian Deborah Coddington tweeted: “MPs should just suck it up. Taxpayers pay them good wages. They want to regulate; they have to roll with the punches and NEVER blame media. It’s the old kitchen/heat cliche.”

Was Clare Curran “hard enough” for ministerial politics?

I’m reported in an ODT article about Curran’s demise, suggesting that the former minister was perhaps not as tough as she made out: “Edwards said Ms Curran was normally a feisty and combative debater, but recent events suggested she was not as tough as that veneer suggested” – see Mike Houlahan’s Pressure sinks Curran.

The same article also quotes rival local MP, and former minister, Michael Woodhouse: “The so-called intolerable pressure has been brought on entirely by her own actions… Life as a minister is difficult and busy and there is a high level of scrutiny. If she wanted less intolerable pressure she should have performed to a higher standard.”

As to Curran’s status as a tough and battling politician, Richard Harman has written a revealing commentary today which looks at some of the issues of her operating style. He relays a recent conversation with her: “she reminded me that she had worked for the Australian Labor Party. It was something her opponents didn’t seem to realise, she said. “I learned how to be tough there,” she said. Sadly, it is now obvious. She didn’t” – see: Why did Labour let Curran go.

Harman reflects on how Curran normally operated in politics with a “forceful personality”, but her performance last week in Parliament “was not the way an ALP hard person would have reacted.”

Others have drawn attention to Curran’s infamous and unique achievement of successfully challenging her Labour predecessor in Dunedin South, David Benson-Pope. Not only had this taken an incredibly ruthless approach from Curran, but there now seemed to be, according to Barry Soper, a case of “History repeating itself – or karma” – see: Clare Curran saga reflects poorly on Jacinda Ardern’s leadership.

Soper points out that the parallels between the declines of both Labour ministers are uncanny. For example, “By the time he stepped down as a minister, Benson-Pope was a quivering wreck, having developed a nervous tick.”

Curran an author of her own misfortune

Soper also suggests that politicians just have to get used to the rough and tumble of politics: “Politics is a tough business but if you answer questions honestly and in good faith you generally survive relatively unscathed.” And he doesn’t believe that Curran was in anyway a victim of misfortune: “Curran committed what were two significant strikes, meeting secretly with people who sought to gain from her role in Government, she should have been fired after the first and after the second it was a no-brainer.”

Also unsympathetic to Curran’s plight is broadcaster Kerre McIvor, who says “Her press conference on Friday afternoon was full of self pity and delusional justification” – see: Clare Curran had to go but must own mistakes. She suggests that some self-reflection is in order: “Come on, Clare! Whose fault is it that the media are asking questions and the Nats are taking chunks out of you?”

McIvor explains in detail why Curran’s misdemeanours were actually very serious, and she is worth quoting at length: “the clandestine meeting with Radio NZ’s head of news was a shining example of what NOT to do to create a thriving democratic system… The point is that in an open democracy, you cannot have a government interfering, or appearing to interfere, with the media. The Minister of Broadcasting held a meeting with a senior member of management at Radio NZ. The Cabinet Manual says that if a minister wants to meet with an employee of a government agency, then the minister must first have ensured the employee has raised the matter with the chief executive. That clearly didn’t happen. Who knows what sweetheart deals could be arranged in meetings between taxpayer funded ministers and members of taxpayer funded organisations?”

Ardern’s failure to be “cruel to be kind”

I’ve written about how Curran has faced “one of the most wretched weeks of her life”, and how this might be partly due to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern failing to be “cruel to be kind” in not removing her earlier – see: Curran’s misery at an end, but the PM’s goes on.

Here’s my main point about Ardern’s “kindness” in keeping Curran in the job as long as she did: “If it was a matter of personal friendship or loyalty, of giving a colleague another chance, then it will be a tough lesson for everyone concerned. The phrase “cruel to be kind” springs to mind, because allowing Ms Curran to stagger on did her no favours and certainly did not help the government.”

Similarly, Tracy Watkins has written, that “Sometimes in politics, you have to be cruel to be kind” and “Forcing Curran to limp on until then would have been as cruel as it was unwise politically” – see: Wounded Clare Curran had no choice but to quit.

Watkins suggests that it might be Ardern’s intended approach of being “kind in government” that has let her down: “Her popularity in huge part was based on her putting a softer kinder face on Government. But there is a fine line and strong leadership isn’t always just an image thing.”

In his article today on the issue, Richard Harman also draws attention to whether Ardern and the rest of the Government’s leadership and advisers did enough to help Curran during her difficulties, saying that normally these problems would mean “she would come under tight political management from someone higher up the Beehive. We now know that this did not happen and because of that she was doomed. It may be that management was attempted, and maybe it was rejected. We don’t know.”

Finally, despite the question of whether Clare Curran was the author of her own misfortune, clearly there is a need to remember that such politicians are – as the former minister rightly put it, “human beings”. And the pressures of life in politics need to be considered in the current focus on mental health issues. In this regard it’s worth considering Laura Walters’ thoughtful article, asking: Where is politics’ John Kirwan?