Curran may have breached Cabinet manual

: RNZ CEO Paul Thompson
 

Radio New Zealand executives have had their appearance before Parliament's Economic Development Committee postponed till next Thursday.

Committee chair Jonathan Young said the Committee would discuss the re-appearance tomorrow.

In the meantime, Broadcasting Minister, Clare Curran,  is expected to appear on TVOne’s “Q+A” on Sunday.

Her future remains unclear as it now appears – despite the Prime Minister’s assertion otherwise – that she may have breached the Cabinet Manual’s rules over how Ministers should relate to public servants.

It became clear yesterday that the controversial meeting between Curran and RNZ’s now resigned head of content, Carol Hirschfeld, had discussed some heavyweight matters.

Curran told Parliament yesterday that the discussion at the meeting had been about “very high-level discussions about the future of broadcasting in New Zealand, policy ideas that were already on record, and there was very high-level discussion that included potential funding.”

At the time RNZ was developing a new strategic plan for the proposed RNZ+ service.

Labour had promised $38 million to develop RNZ+.

RNZ proposed developing its services across both conventional and new digital platforms so that it more than doubled its current audience.

Within that, it proposed becoming a leader in online news and information, social media and video.

It argued that this initial proposal could then ultimately be scaled up to the television channel that Curran had promised in Labour’s election manifesto.

But it was an open secret within the media in Wellington that Curran regarded RNZ as pushing back on her proposal.

RNZ had costed its proposal at slightly less than what Labour was offering – but POLITIK believes that as the budget round has progressed the money on offer may have been significantly reduced.

But though that may have been the substance of the differences between the Minister and the broadcaster, the bigger question has become her political management of the fallout from the meeting with Hirschfeld which both initially denied had been a pre-arranged meeting and claimed it was just a casual encounter.

Curran’s text messages to Hirschfeld were released yesterday, and it is clear from them that the two knew each other quite well.

More worryingly for Curran was that the messages clearly showed that the meeting had been set up in advance.

However, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday (partly)  defended her Minister.

”The Minister, in holding this meeting, was not acting in breach of the Cabinet Manual,” she told Parliament.

“Nor is it unusual for Ministers to meet with people who work within Crown entities.

“She should have been transparent about the fact that it happened.”

That is why she has apologised, but the fact that she did not include it in a written question is the primary error, not the fact of the meeting itself.”

What Ardern said does not appear to square with that section of the Cabinet Manual that deals with public servants having private meetings with Ministers.

The manual has no constitutional status; it is a guide rather than a set of instructions.

But in Section 3.81 it says that “if an employee (of a department or state agency like RNZ) wishes to communicate privately with a Minister about a matter concerning the agency by which he or she is employed the Minister should ensure that the employee has first raised the matter with the agency’s Chief Executive.”

It would appear from that, that the obligation was on Curran to ensure that RNZ CEO, Paul Thompson, knew in advance of the meeting.

Apparently, he did not.

It’s is certainly not raised in the texts between Curran and Hirschfeld.

The texts were initiated by Curran with this one to Hirschfeld: “Hi Carol Clare Curran here. Keen to catch up soon. Be in touch early next week.”

Hirschfeld replied: “Hi  Clare - Lovely to hear from you. I'm in Wellington Wednesday and Thursday next week. Look forward to talking soon. cheers Carol.”

Then followed a series of texts trying to establish a date when the pair could meet.

Curran's texts did not ask whether Thompson knew of the meeting nor was that information volunteered by Hirschfeld.

National have stopped short of calling for Curran’s resignation.

They seem happy enough for her to sweat it out as they continue to press the Prime Minister with questions on the issue.

And that looks likely because of the Select Committee  delay to continue for at least another week.

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