Comment

Parliament’s pressure cooker claims Curran

The axe has fallen on the first minister in Jacinda Ardern’s Government. Clare Curran’s resignation raises a number of questions about the Prime Minister’s judgment, the gender balance in the executive, and the fate of broadcasting reforms, Sam Sachdeva writes.

It was not a difficult question to anticipate, or to answer.

“What government business has she conducted via her Gmail account?”, National’s Melissa Lee asked Clare Curran during Question Time on Wednesday.

The stuttering, stumbling response was genuinely painful to watch, a reflection of the immense pressure Curran was under - pressure that has forced her hand, and her resignation.

In truth, Curran was always marked as the likely first departure from Ardern’s Cabinet, cruel as it seems to say.

Her passion - for public media, for improving government transparency - was not in doubt.

Instead, it has been her base competency which has been repeatedly called into question.

“I have come to the conclusion the current heat being placed on me is unlikely to go away. This pressure has become intolerable.”

Her failure to properly record meetings with former RNZ broadcaster Carol Hirschfeld and chief technology officer candidate Derek Handley may have seemed minor, but were unforgivable for a minister who promised "the most open, most transparent government that New Zealand has ever had”.

In the Hirschfeld case, Curran’s instincts after the scandal broke were also alarming: she allegedly discouraged then-RNZ board chairman  Richard Griffin from attending a select committee to discuss the issue.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Curran had cited the “unacceptable distraction for the Government and immense pressure on her personally” when she resigned, and a further statement from Curran made clear the toll the scandals had taken.

“I have come to the conclusion the current heat being placed on me is unlikely to go away. This pressure has become intolerable.”

Should Jacinda Ardern have been quicker to cut Clare Curran loose? Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

That raises the issue of Ardern’s judgment, having only demoted Curran from Cabinet following news of the secret meeting with Handley.

At the time, the Prime Minister insisted the demotion, coupled with Curran resigning her Open Government and Digital Services portfolios, was “a hefty price to pay”.

The more relevant question was not whether it was a suitable punishment, but whether Curran was likely to dispel those issues of confidence and competence even with a reduced workload.

Speculation about whether John Key or Helen Clark would have exercised the same mercy on a poorly-performing minister is not unreasonable, even if now Curran is no longer a problem for the Prime Minister.

Falling female numbers in executive

Ardern does still have some Curran-related problems to deal with, chiefly the diminishing number of female ministers from a ratio she was already unhappy with.

Only six of Labour’s 20 ministers are women - and that count includes Meka Whaitiri, whose fate is still in the balance as a Ministerial Services inquiry takes place.

Looking further down the party’s list, there is a paucity of experienced politicians or safe hands to take on a ministerial role, unsurprising given any heavy hitters mulling a run would have looked at Labour’s pre-Ardern polling numbers and thought twice.

There are some first-term MPs with potential, such as Deborah Russell and Kiri Allan, but the step up from learning the ropes in Parliament to Cabinet seems a massive leap to make.

RNZ+ on the ropes?

Then there is the issue of the broadcasting reforms which Curran was leading.

Her RNZ+ plans, based around a full-service TV channel run by the state broadcaster, had already been the subject of criticism from the media industry and what must have been a disappointingly small Budget package.

Kris Faafoi, a strong performer who has taken on Curran’s role as Broadcasting Minister, was in a former life a journalist with TVNZ.

Faafoi’s broadcasting experience may mean he is more aware of the challenges of setting up a TV channel from scratch.

Could he decide the investment planned for RNZ would be better spent at TVNZ if it was to be given an explicit public service mandate?

That may depend on whether the latter is willing to play ball, but it could be that in Faafoi TVNZ sees a more friendly face.

As for Curran, she faces two painful years as the MP for Dunedin South before potentially stepping down at the next election; it seems unlikely she could hope for a second coming into the ministerial ranks further down the line.

As much as commentators enjoy likening politics to bloodsport, it is important to remember that MPs are as prone to strains on their mental health as anyone else - if not more so.

A little bit of sympathy could go a long way now Curran has succumbed to the inevitable.

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