Jacinda Ardern pushed the ejector-seat button on Clare Curran yesterday but instead of sending her out into open political skies it just tumbled her over into the back seat.
Curran had twice failed Ardern’s standards for ministers through identical memory lapses over off-diary meetings with players within the sectors her portfolios oversaw.
The first time, she was ticked-off and told to put on her seatbelt. This time she felt the full fury of Prime Minister Ardern’s discipline – continuation as a minister but no longer within the cabinet and a reduced workload by losing her responsibility for Government Digital Services and open government.
Curran keeps the prime Broadcasting and Communications portfolio as well as assisting on Accident Compensation, with broadcasting of course being the scene of her first crime, a coffee meeting with Carol Hirschfeld, then of RNZ which both kept under the radar of transparency.
This second meeting could not be spun as a chance encounter in a coffee queue. Curran arranged it and met Derek Handley, a digital entrepreneur interested in the new role of Government Chief Technology Officer, in her office at Parliament after-hours and away from the diarising gaze of her officials.
Curran would probably have seen both meetings as an active minister going direct, hearing the raw voices of experts unfiltered by the cautions of officials.
In Ardern’s eyes the problem was not so much the meeting and its absence from a standard ministerial diary, but Curran’s failure to recall it when answering a written Parliamentary question on her activities.
The Prime Minister told a late-notice press conference at her Mt Albert electorate office on Friday that Curran could not explain why she hadn’t remembered that meeting.
When she did remember, conveniently during a week the House was in recess, her office told Ardern’s office and once the PM had investigated and signed the paperwork to strip the digital and open government roles from Curran and reallocate them, the half-ejection occurred. Late afternoon on a Friday. When Australia was changing its Prime Minister.
No one needed to dwell on the fact the minister responsible for open government had not been, well, open. Ardern noted it several times to draw its sting.
The announcement of the new CTO had been expected shortly. Whether Handley was or is a contender is unconfirmed. The process will now be finished by State Services Minister Chris Hipkins.
What the episode says about the coalition Government’s thresholds for disciplining ministers is debatable. On one hand Ardern has been prepared to act on a second offence, arguably technical in nature – albeit with a tinge of gravity because of the misleading answer to the Parliamentary question. On the other, she has not been prepared to do anything meaningful about a minister with a poor recall, poor organisation and, probably, poor judgment.
The last National administration under John Key was notable for ministers being ejected once Key scented any or all of those factors. He may have been trigger-happy at times but created a clear line for his ministers.
For Ardern, it is hard to escape the feeling she is trying to break with that hardline approach and wants to make it, first, to her Government’s one year anniversary and then beyond without losing one of her team.
She would not be drawn into a ‘two strikes and the next time you’re really out’ warning for Curran, claiming all ministers were constantly on notice and she, as Prime Minister, would treat each case on its facts.
Broadcasting policy and priority could be regarded as a loser. Curran is in the Ministers outside Cabinet zone and so are her remaining portfolios. She is not replaced in cabinet either, meaning Labour loses one more woman from a cabinet which had not delivered on its own expectations for gender equality.
And the most-open-government-in-history myth stoked by Curran and others is further undone. Labour’s record of deletions and obstructions under the Official Information Act, for example, has been as bad or worse than its economical-with-the-truth predecessors.
Ardern wouldn’t say if she expected the new minister handling this to improve her Government’s performance in openness, but said she knew it had more work to do in proactively providing cabinet papers and the like to the media and public.
Perhaps Curran’s secret squirrel instincts might have a legacy of reminding the Labour-led coalition of the benefits of real transparency.