National MP Barbara Kuriger’s blindness to her obvious conflict of interest as agriculture spokesperson has almost certainly cost her any seat at a future Cabinet table

National’s Taranaki-King Country MP came to Parliament in hope that she would one day become Minister for Primary Industries, but on Friday her leader called time on that dream.

Not only that, but the size of Barbara Kuriger’s lapse of judgment in the past few years has in reality put an end to her being considered for any ministerial portfolio at all.

It was a third party who forced it into public view when contacting National leader Christopher Luxon’s office earlier this month outlining concerns about the MP’s conflict of interest, particularly as agriculture spokesperson and a potential future minister.

Luxon was left with no choice but to strip Kuriger of her portfolios for failing to see the scale of her mistakes, let alone raise or even attempt to manage them.

In 2020 Kuriger’s son was sentenced after pleading guilty to animal cruelty offences that resulted in more than 20 cows being euthanised – charges against her husband Louis Kuriger had earlier been dropped.

Newsroom understands she had been in a back and forth for years with the Ministry for Primary Industries, using her official capacity as an MP to seek information about the case it brought against her son.

In recent months King’s Counsel Michael Heron was brought in to review the way MPI dealt with the Kuriger investigation, after some perceived failings were identified.

But not even Heron’s involvement, which could yet prove Kuriger’s complaints against MPI to be right, prompted her to confide in Luxon as to how conflicted she had become.

While Luxon will be rightly perplexed that Kuriger couldn’t see how serious the conflict of interest was, he isn’t completely without blame.

Luxon knew about the sentencing, and in 2020 media reported Kuriger had taken issue with dairy giant Fonterra’s role in her son’s case.

In a New Zealand Herald article Kuriger is quoted saying, “that kind of leads me, and with the evidence I have around emails and stuff, to believe there’s a political element to this, definitely.”

At the time Fonterra accepted the issue could have been handled better.

In December when Luxon announced his new shadow cabinet, Newsroom asked him whether Kuriger was the right person for the job given her family’s history, in particular her son’s sentencing for animal cruelty.

Luxon defended Kuriger saying she was highly respected in rural communities and that the matter before the court had been dealt with.

While he might have thought that was the end of it, it’s now clear Luxon at no point actually asked his MP if the issue had been fully resolved.

This is a leader who earlier this year had performance reviews with each of his MPs to assess their appropriateness for each of the portfolios they hold.

Kuriger may well see the writing on the wall and take the opportunity to exit Parliament altogether, giving someone else time to build a profile in her Taranaki-King Country seat ahead of the election.

Kuriger is an award-winning dairy farmer who until Friday was ranked number 10 and held agriculture, biosecurity and food safety porftolios for National.

Kuriger has been rising through the ranks since coming to Parliament in 2014 – holding onto her huge electorate seat against the red Labour tidal wave in 2020 – reaching chief whip before finally getting the shadow agriculture role in August last year.

It was under then-leader Judith Collins that Kuriger was rewarded with agriculture after taking out her main rival for the job, Todd Muller, when she dobbed him into Collins for speaking ill of their returning colleague Harete Hipango.

Kuriger and Muller had been friends long before they both entered Parliament in 2014 – the pair are both highly respected in the rural sector.

Muller comes from a kiwifruit farming background and had a career at Zespri and Fonterra before winning the Bay of Plenty seat for National.

When Muller spoke to Newsroom for an anonymous story about Hipango’s return to Parliament, he did so in front of Kuriger.

She was in the car at the time of the phone call, and later took the opportunity to use that information to see his political career take a hit.

It led to Collins and the rest of the caucus pressuring Muller to announce his resignation ahead of next year’s election and two months later Kuriger was promoted from chief whip to agriculture spokesperson.

When Luxon took over the leadership in December, Muller unwound his resignation and announced he would stay on.

Kuriger held onto her portfolios and has kept her eye on the ministerial prize as the polls tighten ahead of next year’s election.

With her career now crashing down around her, it is Muller – who she so desperately sought to beat – who has picked up the agriculture and biosecurity portfolios.

In coming months Luxon will again reshuffle his shadow cabinet, taking into account any retirements, as he looks ahead to next year’s election.

Kuriger may well see the writing on the wall and take the opportunity to exit Parliament, giving someone else time to build a profile in her Taranaki-King Country seat ahead of the election.

And while she will be replaying over and over in her memory all the times she could have come clean to her leader, Luxon will be left wondering if there are any other unresolved issues that might come back to haunt him and his caucus.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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