Why did Labour let Curran go

: Former Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran
 

Clare Curran was at Shane Jones’ annual Waitangi party this year.

She drew me aside and in a corner of the garden outlined the opposition she felt she faced from within the broadcasting industry over her plans to have Radio New Zealand develop a free to air public service TV channel.

Her conversation with me was not long but as it wound up and we walked back to join the main body of guests she reminded me that she had worked for the Australian Labor Party.

It was something her opponents didn’t seem to realise, she said.

“I learned how to be tough there,” she said.

Sadly, it is now obvious. She didn’t.

When the news broke about Curran meeting RNZ news boss Carol Hirschfeld in Astoria and what in effect was an attempted cover-up of the meeting by both Hirschfeld and Curran, it was clear that RNZ chair, Richard Griffin, was furious.

He rightly felt he had been betrayed by both his employee and the woman who was essentially his boss.

Even Labour MPs at a Select Committee meeting with Griffin seemed to find it difficult to defend Curran.

POLITIK ran a piece suggesting she had breached the Cabinet manual by holding the meeting.

She invited me up to her office to tell me why it was wrong.

We had a difficult discussion during which she shuffled around emails from the Cabinet office supporting her contention.

But two things struck me about the meeting.

If the Cabinet Secretary had been called in to rule on her actions, then she was in deeper trouble than I had originally thought.

And it was obvious from her demeanour that the affair was taking a personal toll on her.

She was under pressure not only from the Hirschfeld affair but also the fact that the broadcasting industry, for one reason or another, was at odds with her. 

All of these factors alone should have meant she would come under tight political management from someone higher up the Beehive.

We now know that this did not happen and because of that she was doomed.

It may be that management was attempted, and maybe it was rejected. We don't know.

But the Hirschfeld affair eventually passed over; Griffin's term as chair ended, and things seemed to get back on track with what amounted to a back down by her over the TV channel.

(Though she did bring it up again at a press conference a month ago about the first report of the Public Broadcasting Advisory group.)

However, around Parliament it was clear she was no longer the often bubbling, and forceful personality she had been before the news of the Astoria meeting had broken.

Melissa Lee, no fan of the kind of public broadcasting that Curran was proposing, obviously had some good sources and produced evidence of another secret meeting, this time with a candidate for the position of Government Chief Technology Officer.

Two strikes and Curran was partially out. She lost two portfolios and got demoted out of Cabinet.

And then the fateful question last Wednesday in Parliament about her use of Gmail.

Curran often seemed to be somewhat obsessive about privacy; hence her discussion at the party in the shadows on the fringe.

Maybe that was why she had a Gmail account.

She wouldn’t have been the first MP or Minister to do so; Speaker Trevor Mallard suggested (as an aside) that much of the previous Government’s foreign policy was conducted by Gmail, a reference to the notoriously private Murray McCully.

But when Lee asked her questions in Parliament on Wednesday Curran looked like someone who had totally lost it; it was embarrassing to watch. This was a woman under considerable stress and obviously in some pain.

This was not the way an ALP hard person would have reacted.

But also, nor would the ALP have reacted the way the NZ Labour Party did.

Right from the start, they would have circled their wagons around her and set out on a mission to neutralise her opponent, Lee.

That didn’t happen.

Or if it did, it didn’t work.

Either way, it points to a systemic fault within the Beehive and one that Labour and its supporters ought to worry about.

The casualty this time is a Minister who may have made some mistakes but who at least came into office with a developed policy that she tried to implement.

But there is just a hint that the lack of political management we appear to have seen might pose a much wider existential threat to Labour.

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