This government has lost its new car smell

by Bryce Edwards*

Opinion – Jacinda Ardern's mildness towards degraded MP Clare Curran leads to simple comparisons with the actions of the last government, writes Bryce Edwards.

Minister for Broadcasting, Clare Curran answers questions from journalists

Minister for Broadcasting, Clare Curran answers questions from journalists
Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

They say that the smell of a new car never lasts long. And Clare Curran has made an important contribution to a slight hint that now belongs to this government.

Although the Prime Minister himself was an important asset in projecting an image of novelty and change, the behavior of Mrs Curran – and now Jacinda Ardern's relative mildness in dealing with that – has had a tarnishing effect.

The first major stumbling block of Mrs Curran, earlier in the year during the meeting with Carol Hirschfeld, was bad enough. But others, in particular Mrs Hirschfeld, paid the price, while Mrs Curran largely escaped despite a misleading Parliament.

That it was the Minister of Open Government who concealed a meeting with a senior official at the beginning of a major restructuring was, to put it mildly, not a good look. Many Labor supporters hoped for a real change, not only in the policy, but also in the fundamental approach of the government, the avoidance of crony capitalism and "jobs for the boys and girls", which the previous government rightly often criticized.

In March they would have had a sinking feeling. What happened last Friday at four o'clock, perhaps that promise has finally sunk.

Premier Jacinda Ardern announces the removal of Clare Curran from the cabinet.

Premier Jacinda Ardern announces the removal of Clare Curran from the cabinet.
Photo: RNZ

Real mistakes and mistakes of new ministers can be forgiven. But the same mistake, by the same person, leading to the same serious outcome – misleading the Parliament – within a few months is corrosive.

The difference with this time is that the prime minister had no choice but to act, and so the behavior and reaction of Mrs Ardern to the crimes of Mrs Curran is now in the spotlight.

First, there is the news dump from Friday 4:00 PM. Despite Prime Minister's constant defense of the Prime Minister, it was so blatant, so brutal and contrary to the basic principles of transparency and openness that it is worthy of the last days of a third or fourth term of office.

Secondly, the refusal to undermine two times the same basic and fundamental mistake within a few months also undermines the notions of basic responsibility. New prime ministers usually start by trying to raise the bar and the bar is gradually reduced as the ministerial victims increase.

It seems that the bar for dismiss is "intentional" rather than "incompetence". And that is why Mrs Curran has been spared from exile to the back seat and only "half fired".

Partial punishments are usually tailored to the crime. Phil Twyford was stripped of his Civil Aviation portfolio because he violated the rules of civil aviation. On the other hand, Curran's sins did not specifically relate to the portfolios that were involved at the time, but rather to the basic procedures that a minister must follow.

Despite having failed publicly twice, she remains a minister, albeit outside the cabinet. So, as she loses $ 47,000 and does not sit at the big table, she still makes a salary of $ 250,000 and she still has ministerial responsibilities for broadcasting – an important piece of work for the government.

It will continue to negotiate and communicate with many commercial, public and consumer interests, all lobbying fiercely to hold on to government funding that they already have and get a piece of promised new financing.

What is extraordinary is that the undeclared meeting with Derek Handley took place in February and lasted until last Monday before Mrs Curran had it. After the previous saga you would think that her communication (including a personal Gmail account she used – shades of Hilary Clinton's private e-mail server) would be forensically analyzed for any other possible problems. But clearly not. We can only assume that it has happened now, although that was probably the mistaken assumption made by Mrs Ardern in March.

Ms Curran should have known the ins and outs of appointments in the public sector long before she even entered Parliament, after experiencing a potential conflict of interest in the center of a State Services Commission investigation of her own work at the Ministry of Environment after a recommendation from the minister, David Parker.

With a large number of experienced members of parliament who crave cabinet positions, it is difficult to see how Mrs Curran could not be replaced. She clearly invested a great deal in the broadcasting portfolio, but that also applies to the government, together with a large number of large media organizations that are facing their biggest crisis in a century.

Half of her dismissal may have been an attempt to minimize the sense of impropriety and scandal for the government as a whole. The prime minister made a real show by telling Ms. Curran, but emphasized that she thought this was simply inattention. If the concern really is about minimizing damage, we can assume that Ms. Curran will be permanently barred from the Cabinet or even further degraded in the next governmental rearrangement.

However, if Mrs. Curran retains Broadcasting because she is seen as central to the government's plans there, so we can expect her to be restored to the cabinet.

Anyway, the whole saga has begun to give this government an all too familiar smell within a year.

* Dr. Bryce Edwards is a Victoria University of Wellington academic whose principal research areas are political parties, elections and parliament.

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