Why would a PM want to retain as a minister someone who has committed a cardinal mistake not once but twice? It’s a question with no immediately transparent answers.
Losing a seat in Cabinet and some portfolios may seem a severe setback, if not a mortal blow, to a political career — but if you keep the two portfolios you really covet it’s not too much of a hardship.
The financial penalty isn’t too severe either – a Cabinet minister’s annual salary is $296,007. This drops to $249,839 for ministers outside cabinet.
Clare Curran can count herself lucky she’s serving under Jacinda Ardern rather than Helen Clark, who never blinked when despatching an errant minister.
To the average New Zealander, Curran’s gaffes as a Cabinet minister may not add up to much. Holding meetings with people to talk about issues in your portfolios would be part of the job, right? .
But as New Zealand Herald political editor Audrey Young pointed out, the crime was not just giving a wrong answer in a written parliamentary question by failing to declare a meeting she had had with a particular person.
“It was failure to do the absolute basics – record her meeting with a prospective candidate for the role of chief technology officer, Derek Handley.
“There were two aggravating features: she was Minister for Open Government, and this meeting was anything but open. It was also a second offence, having failed earlier this year to declare a meeting she had with Carol Hirschfeld which ultimately cost the broadcaster her job.
“In both cases, it was not the meetings themselves, it was the false information given in written answers about meetings she had had. In both cases, the plea in mitigation from Curran was that they were genuine oversights”.
Ardern didn’t seem to believe they were “genuine oversights”. Her language was suitably severe when Curran last week offered her resignation.
Ardern said the failure to record the meeting over the vacant Chief Technology Officer role left Curran open to the accusation “she deliberately sought to hide the meeting”.
“That’s not good enough, and that’s why she’s been removed by Cabinet,” Ardern said at a press conference at her electorate office in Morningside. The omissions created an “impression and perception that lacks transparency and is not something I will tolerate, particularly from a Minister for Open Government”
Speaking at her Dunedin South electorate office, Curran apologised for her second mistake.
“I just want to say I am very sorry for what has happened I’ve let myself down, I’ve let the prime minister down, I’ve let my government down.”
So, if you’re not doing the “absolute basics”, as Audrey Young puts it, how come Curran is still a minister?
Some may argue she is too valuable for the government to lose, that she is doing a great job in her portfolios — though there has been little concrete evidence of that so far.
Others may say Curran’s gaffes reflect the difficulty politicians have adjusting to a ministerial office after a party has had a long spell in Opposition.
In an earlier era, a novice minister would have the benefit of being served by professional, and politically neutral, private secretaries who moved seamlessly from one administration to another, bringing with them the inside knowledge and institutional memory that saved many a minister from the kind of error which Curran committed.
Alec McLean, one of the best of that corps of public servants, worked for several ministers of both Labour and National governments, among them a succession of prime ministers. He retired in 2017, one of the last of his breed.
In the current era, ministers tend to be served in their ministerial offices by executive assistants of their own choosing, and generally of their particular political persuasion, but without the experience and memory so essential as a guide for newly minted ministers.
Still, the retention of Curran as a minister, though outside Cabinet, has left a cocktail of puzzles in its wake.
Why did it take so long for the meeting of Curran and Derek Handley back in February to emerge as a political issue?
Were Curran’s colleagues concerned she might decide she had blotted her copybook so badly she would have to quit?
Curran is determined to hold on as an MP, however, telling the Otago Daily Times:
“I just want to put my head down now and focus on my portfolio.
“I think the people of Dunedin South know that I work pretty hard on their behalf and I hope that I can continue to do so and have their trust”
Asked if she hoped to return to Cabinet she said she was just focused on “doing the best job I can in the portfolios I have”.
She said “to the absolute best of my knowledge” there were no other undeclared meetings.
“As with any MP and any Minister mistakes get made.The most important thing is to be as accountable as possible and I think I am certainly being accountable and paying a fairly heavy price”.
A Government press statement released on August 24 said Curran met Derek Handley at her Beehive office in February this year in her capacity as Minister of Government Digital Services to discuss Handley’s interest in the vacant Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role.
This meeting took place after the first unsuccessful recruitment round for the CTO. As with approaches from other interested parties, the Minister directed Handley to register his interest with MBIE officials.
Applications reopened for the CTO role in May.
The meeting was not recorded in the Minister’s diary and neither the Minister’s staff nor officials were made aware of it. The meeting was subsequently mistakenly left out of an answer to a recent parliamentary question for written answer.
The meeting should have been included in the answer and the error had been corrected, the Government said in its statement.
Curran had advised there had been no other meetings between herself and Handley outside the application process.
“The failure to record the meeting in her diary; inform her staff and officials; and accurately answer Parliamentary questions has left the Minister open to the accusation that she deliberately sought to hide the meeting.
“While this was not the Minister’s intention, this is the second misjudgement and is not in keeping with my expectations, or the Minister’s expectations of herself. As a result I have chosen to remove Minister Curran from Cabinet.
“Transparency is important, even more so for Hon Curran given her Open Government responsibilities.”
The PM said State Services Minister Chris Hipkins will take back the Open Government responsibilities and Megan Woods will take over the Government Digital Services portfolio, which aligns with her Research, Science and Innovation responsibilities.
“The CTO appointment process is in its final stages. Minister Curran will have no further involvement in it and State Services Minister Hipkins will take over that process and finalise the details of the appointment and the implementation of the CTO role.
“Hipkins has asked the State Services Commission to take a look at the CTO appointment process to ensure it has been robust, and that the meeting between Curran and Handley had no bearing on the process or outcome. The SSC will report back next week before the appointment process is concluded.
“I want to express my sincere apologies to Handley who has been brought into this issue through no fault of his own. He is a qualified and capable candidate who has made it through to the final stages of the appointment process based on his talent, and experience. The issue is entirely about the Minister’s conduct, not Handley’s.”
As Audrey Young commented:
“Exercising discipline, in the punishment sense, can be one of the trickiest tasks for any party leader, especially a prime minister”.
If the assessment of voters is that the PM has acted correctly (even compassionately), the question left hanging is whether Curran in the months ahead can earn her redemption.