The Curran affair has ended with the Dunedin South MP confessing she could not stand the “intolerable pressure” she had been placed under. Voters may not care much about either her departure from the Ardern ministry, nor the causes which lay behind it.
But her resignation has altered the dynamics within the current government. Some of the gloss has washed off the coalition and – more particularly – has washed off PM Jacinda Ardern (although she can claim the choice of Clare Curran as a minister was made by the Labour caucus, not by herself).
There may be a degree of sympathy for Curran who – some say – had good instincts for the issues within her portfolios. But then there’s the old saying, if you can’t stand the heat….
The modern politician has to be able to withstand not just the heat within the parliamentary chamber but also that of the social media. One of the disturbing aspects of the Curran affair is that she did not appear to understand all the protocols a minister is supposed to work to; nor did she fully grasp the standards she should have been setting within the portfolio of open government which she held.
It’s that aspect which may come back to bite the government. The Opposition is demanding a thorough scrutiny of the private G-mail account which she used for government business.
Beyond that the government inherits the headache which Curran created with her plan to establish a new post of chief technology officer. This was an initiative which Curran had promoted in Opposition and which became a feature of Labour Party policy in the 2017 election campaign.
It won favour with many in the technology sector, who saw it as an opportunity to deliver the same kind of authoritative advice to the government as Sir Peter Gluckman provided in his role as chief science adviser to the Key-English government.
When the post was advertised it drew 60 applicants, some of them very highly qualified in their field. But somehow none appeared to meet requirements and a second round was called. This drew an even stronger response with more than 100 applications.
According to media reports, that second round featured applications from some of the country’s most respected figures in the sector, who saw an opportunity not only to serve their country but also to accelerate the use of technology, both in business and in the government sector.
None of those figures, however, seemed to meet what Curran wanted, and it’s her private communications with marketing entrepreneur Derek Handley which led to her demise.
Speculation persists that she intended to recommend his appointment to Cabinet. There is even the suggestion he has got the role, but because this is now in the hands of Chris Hipkins, it is being reviewed.
Writing about the issue, Mike O’Donnell in the Dominion Post said the suggestion Handley had got the job “ froze the waters of the private sector and acted as the catalyst for a yeasty social media outburst”.
Given the fast pace of technology development, the long-drawn-out process of appointing the CTO in itself is an indictment, but if the government persists with the appointment Curran is said to have lined up, it could blow up in the government’s face with even greater force than Curran’s own resignation.