Clare’s secret meetings: second blunder leaves Nick Smith “gobsmacked”

The   current Parliamentary  session  has  yielded few events, or  speeches, which linger  in the memory  for  more than  a few  minutes. The  Opposition, despite its  strength  in numbers at  least,  has landed   few hits  on  the   government.

That  is  until  this  week   when  it  called for, and  was granted,  a  snap  debate  on  the demotion  of Clare  Curran  from   Cabinet and her resignation  from two portfolios.

Perhaps surprisingly, one of the  most effective speeches  from the Opposition  benches  came from  veteran MP  Nick Smith.  Some  of the newcomers within  the Opposition  could  take  it  as  a  model of   its kind,  marshalling  the facts  before the  house  and  then   building  to  a  powerful  climax.

Here’s  how   Smith  made his  case:

“We have a Minister of Open Government—actually, the very first Minister of Open Government that’s ever existed in this Parliament—and the promise of the Minister of Open Government was to be the most open and transparent Government that this country has ever had, and then what we find out from that Minister is that not once but twice that Minister behaved in a secretive, in a sneaky, and in a dirty way.

“Now, let’s come to the events that have led to Clare Curran’s resignation as the Minister of Open Government. Firstly, we had the incident with Radio New Zealand.

“Let’s understand how important that is. A free, politically neutral media goes to the heart of how our democracy works.

“We are not …  one of those countries where we have a State media that just spins the Government line, like you might get in a North Korea or a Zimbabwe. Here we have Clare Curran having private, secret meetings with the head of news—not some public servant.

“What is the Minister of Broadcasting doing having meetings—secret meetings—with the head of news at Radio New Zealand? There wouldn’t be a member in this House, not even my newest colleagues, that wouldn’t have a feeling that, well, that doesn’t feel quite right. ‘I’m the Minister of Broadcasting; I shouldn’t really be having secret meetings with the head of Radio New Zealand news.’

“But here’s the part that has me gobsmacked: the week after this Parliament admonishes her for being dishonest about the secret meeting, guess what Clare Curran does? She arranges another secret meeting, this time wearing the portfolio as the Minister of Digital Technologies.

“I’ve been here for 28 years. I’ve seen some Ministers goof it up. What I have never seen is a dicky Minister commit exactly the same crime just one week after there’s a massive controversy.

“Now there are only two possibilities here. Either she’s dumb, or she’s dishonest. I’m sorry, there can only be two explanations for that course of events that has occurred.

“Let’s dig into the issue of the appointment of the information officer for the Government. Now, is there a single member of this Parliament that doesn’t understand the neutrality of the public service?

“I heard lectures all the time, when we are in Government, about respecting the neutrality. I even heard speeches from Clare Curran lecturing the previous Government about the neutrality of the public service. I have never heard of a Minister privately and secretly meeting about the appointment of a very senior public servant to be made by this Government.

“I challenge members opposite, tell me a single example that you can think of in the last 20-30 years, where a Government appointment has been made, and that has been done in a secret meeting.

“I can tell you I’ve had 14 different ministerial portfolios. I have never had a meeting in 14 years of which my ministerial staff did not know. What is going on in the culture of the ministerial offices of this Government that they have to keep meetings that they’ve having secret?

“The members opposite campaigned on being the most open, transparent Government ever.

“My criticism is not just of Clare Curran. I want to go to the Prime Minister. How open and transparent was it for the Prime Minister to announce Clare Curran’s resignation at 4pm on a Friday? Does that meet members opposite standard for the standards of openness and transparency?

“Strange silence. They have their heads hung across on those Government benches, and appropriately so, because this actually goes deeper—deeper than just Clare Curran. This goes to the heart of and to the character of the Government we now have, because it’s not just in the area of open and transparent Government that there is a canyon between the promise and the performance. Actually, if you dig into every single area of this Government, it’s all as though if they say words, somehow that delivers results for New Zealanders.

“Here’s the bit from Clare Curran that I found extraordinary from the Government. You have the Government announce that open government is so important that we’re going to have to have a strategy for open government. So members of the Cabinet opposite produce a 24-page open government strategy, and members on this side of the House ask Clare Curran, can we have a copy of this strategy under the Official Information Act?

“And here’s the comical part: every single page of the open government strategy was kept secret—was kept secret. Now, it would hilarious if it were not so serious. Again, it illustrates the gulf between the promise of this government and its performance.

“Here’s the last part: does any member of this House recall any time in the last 30 years where you’ve had two Ministers effectively fall over in one week?

“That is a shambles. That is the sort of incompetence that is now being shown in this Government, and it’s more serious than this. This is a Government that’s been lecturing New Zealanders about issues of physical violence, and it’s being practised by one of its Ministers.

“Isn’t that extraordinary? And then we have the incident over the same recess of their secret report on the Labour Party camp. I challenge members opposite: where is the openness and transparency when you commission a report about the awful incident that occurred at the Labour camp over the sexual abuse of young people and keep it secret?

“So whether it is on sexual abuse issues, whether it’s on physical violence, or whether it is on open Government, this is a Government that says one thing and does the opposite. They have lost their moral authority, and the resignation of Clare Curran is just a smell of the rot that exists within this Government, in which they are promising New Zealanders one thing and delivering the exact opposite.

“Any Prime Minister—whether it was Bill English, whether it was John Key, whether it was Helen Clark—would have dealt with the Clare Curran issue that occurred way back in February far more decisively and equally so applies to the very serious accusations that I have not heard in 30 years of a Minister assaulting a staff member.

“The rot in this Government runs very, very deep indeed”.

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