Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The Barbara Kuriger controversy raises further questions about political integrity

Jacqui Van Der Kaay: The Barbara Kuriger controversy raises further questions about political integrity

It seems beyond belief that a three-term MP could not have understood that there was a clear conflict of interest in being the shadow Minister of Agriculture Biosecurity and Food Safety, while having a personal dispute with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).

National MP for Taranaki – King Country Barbara Kuriger resigned from her portfolios last week when National Party leader Christopher Luxon received an email alerting him that the dispute that began several years ago was ongoing.

Kuriger’s son pleaded guilty to animal cruelty offences and was sentenced in 2020. Charges against her husband were dropped. Newsroom reported that Kuriger “had been in a back and forth for years with MPI, using her official capacity as an MP to seek information about the case it brought against her son”.

Her role as shadow Minister of Agriculture involves working directly with MPI.

In her resignation statement, Kuriger said: “Although the dispute is, for me, a personal matter which I have endeavoured at all times to keep separate from my professional role, I accept there has been a conflict of interest which I should have recognised sooner, and managed.”

The media coverage of the scandal went quiet after Kuriger’s resignation, but today the Herald reported that she had met with Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor to discuss the case and he even met her son at an event. O’Connor advised her to be careful to avoid a conflict of interest with her role as an MP.

It would appear that his advice went unheeded, and worse, that the interactions with the Minister were not declared to leader Christopher Luxon or acknowledged in her resignation letter.

Raises questions about the general culture in parliament

This latest conflict of interest scandal raises some interesting questions. The first is around personal integrity and the responsibility elected representatives must uphold this while in office. The second is more of a cultural question. In New Zealand’s parliament is there a culture of normalisation around conflicts of interest?

It’s interesting that O’Connor advised Kuriger to be careful rather than saying that the behaviour was inappropriate or unacceptable. It’s also interesting that it appears that Luxon wasn’t keeping a closer eye on this issue given he was aware of the court case involving Kuriger’s son, where there was the potential for lines to become blurred.

There’s already an inquiry into workplace culture at Parliament, perhaps it’s time that this was extended to include integrity issues as well.


Voters put their trust in MPs

Members of Parliament are elected public officials. Voters trust them to represent their interests in Parliament.  And as such, it is vital that they do not use their position to advocate for their personal interests. To do so is absolutely a conflict of interest. It really is hard to imagine how Kuriger thought her actions would not be seen as such.

The scandal follows hot on the heels of the Sam Uffindell saga. Like Uffindell, Kuriger was naïve to think that this would not become public at some stage, particularly with a high-profile court case.

For an elected politician, the personal is political. Sam Uffindell was a newly elected MP and his naivety could, arguably, be more understood. Further, his transgressions were from his youth. Kuriger, who has eight years of parliamentary experience behind her, should have known better. The personal nature of the issue clearly clouded her judgement. But this is not an excuse, and New Zealanders deserve better from their elected representatives.

As well as raising questions about Kuriger’s personal integrity, this case also surfaces questions about Christopher Luxon and the National Party which has supposedly been reformed following scandals with multiple MPs around the start of the decade. There have now been two cases, in reasonably quick succession, which show that issues of integrity are not top of mind in the party or in their elected representatives. Luxon will surely be hoping there are no more revelations to come.


Jacqui Van Der Kaay is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington. She is a former journalist, holds a Masters degree in Political Science from Victoria University of Wellington and has a specialist interest in political leadership, voter behaviour, immigration and how social media affects democracy.