Cabinet Secretary says Curran has not breached Cabinet Manual

: Clare Curran at Government House last October being sworn in as broadcasting Minister
 

Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran says she does not believe her relaitonship with Radio New Zealand CEO, Paul Thompson, has been damaged by the fallout from her café meeting with the broadcaster’s now-resigned head of Content, Carol Hirschfeld.

At the heart of the controversy over that meeting is the question of whether public servants can go behind their CEO’s back and have a private meeting with their Minister to discuss Government policy.

For a Minister to take part in such a meeting would appear to breach the Cabinet Manual.

On the face of it, the meeting between Hirschfeld and Curran would seem to be such a breach.

But because it appears that neither person kept notes on the meeting and because there was no official there to keep notes, no-one knows exactly what was discussed.

Sitting in her Beehive office on Thursday with a sheaf of emails from the Cabinet Office in front of her, Curran maintained that her meeting did not breach the Cabinet Manual.

And POLITIK has also received a text from a spokesperson for the Prime Minister saying that there was “sound advice” supporting the argument that Curran had not breached the Manual.

Curran herself can see the importance of the issue.

“I think it has implications for how other Ministers can have meetings with people who aren't at Chief Executive or Board Chair level," she told POLITIK.

“That was the substance of the advice that was sought from the Cabinet office three times, and I have that advice in writing.”

At that point in the interview Curran read Section 3.81 of the Cabinet Manual:

“If an employee 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."

She says that the advice she has had does not describe the meeting, which she now accepts was an "official meeting".

She says that her earlier claim that the meeting was an "unofficial" one was a consequence of her having been a Minister for only five weeks when it took place.

‘”The meeting was in the nature of a meeting between a Minister and a senior official to discuss high-level matters relating to the broadcasting portfolio.

“The point of that is that Ministers have to be able to speak to a range of senior officials.

“if we weren’t able to do that then that would seriously compromise our ability to do our jobs."

That much is entirely consistent with the Cabinet Manual.

But Section 3.81 also requires that the Minister, before the meeting takes place, should first ensure that the employee has raised the matter with the CEO.

“That goes to the responsibility of Carol Hirschfeld to have cleared off through her internal protocols in RNZ with whoever it was that she should have cleared that off.”

But asked why she did not – as 3.81 requires --- ensure that Hirschfeld had done that, Curran said:

“But three point eight one doesn’t apply.

“That is the basis of the advice I have had.”

Curran argues that instead, 3.81 applies to someone who is "essentially in a whistleblowing activity.”

She admits that is an assumption her part.

However, she says that the meeting was not about Hirschfeld being an employee wishing "to communicate privately with a Minister about a matter concerning the agency.”

“That was not the case in this meeting.

“Therefore three point eight one does not apply.

“Therefore the responsibility on me does not apply.”

"For instance, the Labour Party's policy in particular around RNZ Plus is free and available for everyone to see."

"Very much what the Minister, I'm advised, discussed was what's already in the public domain.

The emphasis Curran places on "privately" communicating may explain why the Prime Minister was at pains during Question Time on Wednesday to stress that the issues discussed at the meeting were public ones.

Despite all this, and despite Radio New Zealand’s Chair and CEO request to return to the Economic Development Select Committee to correct the record, she believes her relationship with the broadcaster has not been compromised.

"This is an unfortunate set of circumstances and I've acknowledged the mistake that I have made.

"There is a bigger picture, and there is a very important bigger picture, and it's incumbent on the Board and the Minister and the entity to work closely together, and I believe that is quite possible and I don’t have any concerns from my end.”

There will be public servants who will question what appears to be the Cabinet Office interpretation of Section 3.81 --- but ultimately the Office is the guardian of the Cabinet Manual and also ultimately, it is only an advisory Manual, not a set of mandatory instructions.

At this stage, given the interpretation of the Manual, Curran would appear to have committed only political errors.

But even so, the saga is not over.

There is the Select Committee on Thursday where it is entirely possible new information may come to light.

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