So, today we have news that veteran broadcaster and former senior manager at RNZ, Carol Hirschfeld, has resigned over lying for her Minister, covering up that she had a secret meeting in a fairly busy café in central Wellington, despite it later having been revealed that the meeting was pre-arranged. This looks like a case of extraordinary bungling from Clare Curran, who is our Minister for Open Government, and now potentially faces consequences for misleading the house, making her official title seem a bizarre parody. (no doubt, Curran will maintain her line that she simply regarded the meeting to be informal, which is clearly nonsense, but an arguable excuse in terms of procedure, but keeping to that line might convince the opposition to accuse her of misleading the House if they can drum up more evidence) The Minister for Open Government really does have one, and one job only: to be frank with the truth, and not only to never get caught lying, but to never actually lie in the first place. Having found someone backing up her story had lied makes it quite obvious Curran is concealing something here, and as is often said, the cover-up may in fact be worse than the crime here.
It’s also very sad that Carol Hirschfeld, who is a respected broadcaster with a long and productive career on both TVNZ and TV3, has been a victim of this fiasco, and losing her will be an absolute tragedy for Radio New Zealand, but it was absolutely a situation of her resigning or being fired after lying about the nature of her meeting, so the real tragedy here is that she bothered to cover it up at all.
For full disclosure, I was a critic of Curran from before her appointment, and have previously stated I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to say she is qualified to be a Minister, and that she must have somehow leveraged her way into the appointment politically. Given that Labour determines who gets into cabinet by a vote of their caucus, there is no easy way to tell if she did manage to do so, so I will admit to pure speculation there, but I honestly can’t see her impressing the rest of caucus with any actual skills, so it’s either a reward for some sort of favour, or she knows where some bodies are buried.
If Jacinda Ardern hasn’t already asked for a Please Explain note from Curran, I imagine she’s done so first thing today. Misleading Parliament is about as big a deal as you can get, and the House sits tomorrow, so the clock is ticking for Ardern to decide what she wants to do.
There is a very real argument that being overly defensive of infractions against the public trust is part of what helped John Key bring Helen Clark down, as much of his victory was in demotivating Labour supporters as well as in persuading swing voters and turning out his own base. With low polling for both her support partners either below or at the party vote threshold respectively, and neither holding electorate seats, Ardern can’t really afford any perception of public weakness, even though Bridges’ opposition is looking like a fish out of water right now, handing them ammunition seems like a terrible idea.
Firing Curran as a Minister over this, despite no evidence of actual wrongdoing in the meeting itself, is absolutely in the cards, especially given the high level of public trust she needs to maintain to be effective in her portfolios. There is absolutely an argument to do so immediately- it strengthens Ardern’s hand in saying she had accepted her Minister’s assurances and had no idea what was going on, it allows her to shed a minister who is clearly a drag on the Government- despite having portfolios which are incredibly minor, she has been the persistent target of questions from the opposition, who clearly perceive her appointment as a weak spot to harass the Government with.
Despite that, Ardern has been making moves suggesting she’s buying time today. This may just be her waiting to hear more about what went on, or it may suggest she doesn’t yet regard the story as serious enough to fire Curran. Likewise, Bridges is playing his attack a little cautious, suggesting he doesn’t know if there’s really evidence for a knockout blow here.
What’s really troubling, however, is that this takes the sheen of idealism off a government that rode it like a wave into power. We have Peters trying to force the Greens into passing an anti-defection law that legal experts are up in arms about, even if in the short term it may not be disastrous. We have our Minister for Open Government concealing meetings, and stonewalling on written questions to the opposition, and neither the Prime Minister or Speaker are calling her on it. (she can be forgiven for not single-handedly fixing the culture around the OIA in less than half a year, at least, so that’s not on the list) We have ministers defending a $114m subsidy for a private yachting competition as somehow not a drain on public money. (there is no good economic evidence spending on sports events like this is effective economically, so the argument surely has to be it’s worth it in terms of our participation in the event itself?) We have an entire third of Labour’s coalition partner’s caucus under attack for various small issues, and the expected attacks on the Greens for looking too liberal. We have the opposition attempting to separate Labour and the Greens from New Zealand First on permits for new oil drilling, a thoroughly moronic idea that nonetheless both New Zealand First and National somehow support in principle, despite us already having found at least four times as many fossil fuels as we can afford to burn within our estimated carbon-equivalent budget for 2° warming. (In fact, I’ve seen claims that it’s now five times as much as we can safely burn) This is dangerous ground for Labour, and they need to seriously consider if it isn’t time to change course so that they can maintain credible defense as an idealistic, hopeful new government. This story heating up is a perfect excuse to dump a minister who, regardless of whether she has actually done anything wrong, has absolutely passed the line in terms of the perception of corruption, and who is demonstrably doing the opposite of her job.
There is a reason that people say that in politics, the tripod is the most unstable of all structures- all three government parties are putting a lot of effort into hanging together, but it will require high standards from all of them for this government to succeed and last into subsequent terms.
Here is a selection of reactions on Twitter:
National MPs are rejoicing Curran has not been sacked. They want her to remain in office as long as possible!
— David Farrar (@dpfdpf) March 26, 2018
Status: extremely unimpressed with the conduct of the Minister of Broadcasting.
— Russell Brown (@publicaddress) March 26, 2018
I don't think it's Carol Hirschfeld who should be resigning over this. Hirschfeld has had a long and distinguished career as one of NZ's best journalists and news leaders. It's Clare Curran who misled Parliament over the nature of this meeting. https://t.co/nc5SZkkHKS #nzpol
— Gwynn Compton (@gwynncompton) March 26, 2018
RNZ has lost another one of its assets. I feel bad for her because she must really care about RNZ to have resorted to doing this. https://t.co/v2wtHCCJDo
— Jo Bond Loves RNZ (@Jo_Bond) March 26, 2018
There are good people in Cabinet already, or on the backbenches, who could pick up at least one of Curran’s portfolios, if Ardern were to do the brave thing and let her go proactively for not meeting the high standards she requires of the Minister for Open Government. Kris Faafoi could easily take on Broadcasting, and ICT would be a great portfolio to promote a talented or dedicated backbencher into- I have been a persistent advocate for Louisa Wall, who in opposition made very clear she can wrangle support from other parties for important bills, has the technical skills to be a minister, and is one of the most veteran MPs to be left on the backbench without official responsibilities, and of course ICT too could be reshuffled to free up a portfolio well-suited for a particular minister in some other area.
The fact is that organizational politics is not a sufficient reason to make someone a Minister, and Curran was always a time-bomb waiting to go off for Labour. I take no pleasure in seeing her in trouble, because it’s bad for the country as a whole and RNZ in particular, but it does convince me that I was right that she needs to go. I hope Ardern has at least seriously considered where the line is that Curran has to cross, regardless of what she’s decided to do by tomorrow.
Update: Curran is about to speak to media about Hirschfeld’s resignation. You can watch live, and I’ll update the post again once she’s finished.
Update 2: Curran is defending the meeting as “not secret,” that she was mistaken to consider it informal even though it was scheduled, and is framing Hirschfeld’s description as “differing stories,” rather than a lie. So she is expecting to be able to tough this out and not need to resign, and therefore has likely been warned rather than fired. This is disappointing given how badly she has managed to stuff up such a minor issue, and her lack of progress in all her portfolios when compared to literally any other minister- even Shane Jones has made tangible announcements. She has admitted to “making a mistake” in describing the meeting as informal and attending it at all. Not knowing RNZ’s policies around ministerial meetings, as she claims, and not thinking to ask, however, is not a mistake, it is negligence, and Curran should absolutely be publicly apologizing to RNZ for putting a talented manager in this position.
Update 3: Articles released later have made it clear that Hirschfeld was not egged on by Curran, and in fact Curran appears to have tipped RNZ off to the inaccuracy of her statement which were repeated at Select Committee. Apologies for getting that wrong- initial reports were a little confusing.