Curran on leave as pressure persists

A week after being dumped from Cabinet (but keeping the Broadcasting portfolio) Clare Curran is still under pressure, so much so that she took leave from Parliament yesterday rather than face more questions.

ODT: Questions left unanswered – Curran a no-show

It is not known when under-fire Dunedin South MP Clare Curran will return to Parliament.

The Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media was a no-show in the House yesterday, a day after she gave a fumbling performance over questions about her use of a private email account.

In oral questions, National MP Melissa Lee again wanted to ask the minister if she stood by all her answers to oral and written questions.

Ms Lee sought leave to hold over her questions until Ms Curran was present but her request was denied.

Labour Cabinet minister Megan Woods answered questions on her behalf.

Woods didn’t actually answer any questions – this was a poor play by Labour.

Ms Curran did not respond to calls and her staff have told media she would not be available today either.

She has gone to ground, leaving a mess that so far Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not addressed anywhere near adequately.

But Ardern (actually Chris Hipkins) is at least addressing the use of private email accounts by Ministers. Newstalk ZB: Curran takes leave as focus turns to email use

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is making sure ministers know her expectations around the use of personal email accounts being used for Government business, after Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran was caught out by the practice.

There is nothing in the Cabinet Manual, the rulebook for ministers, about the use of alternative email accounts.

But Minister of Ministerial Services Chris Hipkins said today that Ardern had asked the Cabinet Office to issue guidance on the use of alternative email accounts by ministers to clarify the issue.

That is expected to happen this week.

“There is nothing specifically in the Cabinet Manual about use of alternate email accounts. However, ministers, in the vast majority of cases, use the parliamentary email for ministerial/government business,” Hipkins said.

“There are very practical reasons why ministers sometimes use Gmail … It is good practice on these occasions to CC any Government business emails to their parliamentary emails. It is important to note also that Gmail use is subject to relevant transparency legislation: OIA, Public Records Act,” Hipkins said in a statement.

It is remarkable this hadn’t been dealt with already, but use of Gmail is only a part of Curran’s problem. Her confidence looks shot, and she has become a festering liability for Ardern’s Government.

I think Curran does ok as an electorate MP, but she has had a less stellar political career away from Dunedin.

She became embroiled in controversy in Parliament before becoming an MP. Wikipedia:

In May 2006 Curran was appointed to a contractual role within the Ministry for the Environment following a recommendation from Environment Minister David Parker’s office to provide communications advice on the Government’s climate change strategy. This appointment was the subject of an investigation by the State Services Commission into the appropriateness of Curran’s engagement. The report found that the Ministry had failed to adequately identify Curran’s conflict of interest with respect to her relationship with Minister Parker.

The report found that a staff member in Parker’s office had described Curran as Parker’s “right-hand woman” and in an email to Environment Ministry Chief Executive Hugh Logan, and recommended that Curran meet with Logan to discuss communications. Logan resigned as Chief Executive of the Ministry hours before the State Services Commission’s report into the Curran affair was released.

She denied links to Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party in 2014: Curran again denies links to Dotcom

Dunedin South MP Clare Curran has again been forced to deny she is the electorate MP aligned with Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party.

Ms Curran was originally outed as an MP who had visited the internet mogul but in her role as Labour’s associate ICT spokeswoman, she could have been seen as just doing her job.

She stayed at Dotcom’s ‘mansion’.

Speculation has abounded about Mr Dotcom’s claims he has signed up an electorate MP to stand for his party in the September 20 election.

”I can categorically state ‘it’s not me’. I have been confirmed as the Labour candidate in Dunedin South.

It was remarkable she was given the Open Government portfolio when she has had conflictions with openness going well back – she was one of the MPs whose overbearing control made the Labour ‘Red Alert’ blog a farce, banning people who posted things she didn’t like, including Labour Party members.

It is impossible to know how MPs will measure up as Ministers until they are given a chance. She was elected in 2008 in Dunedin South, so she had more than enough experience as an MP.

She has rendered Labour’s ‘Open Government’ a farce.

Curran simply hasn’t been good enough. She has made a major hash of things at least twice now, doing things she should have known better about. She seems to think that rules and appropriate conduct as a Minister don’t apply to her.

It’s hard to see her retaining her position as a Minister. Ardern has already been criticised for her half handling of Curran late last Friday, and ‘the optics’ have deteriorated significantly since then.

Whether she will recover enough to be able to chug along as an electorate MP is yet to be seen, but she is not a good look for Labour at a time they have a number of unfavourable issues seriously questioning their competence.

Minister embarrassed by Advisory Group failing to keep minutes

Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister, and Associate Minister for ACC and of State Services (Open Government) Clare Curran has been embarrassed by a letter that shows an advisory group she set up failed to take minutes at meetings when they found out they would be subject to the Official Information Act.

In Parliament today:

12. MELISSA LEE (National) to the Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government): Has she provided any guidance to State agencies and Government bodies about best practice to achieve open and transparent Government?

Hon CLARE CURRAN (Associate Minister of State Services): No, and that’s because the State Services Commissioner provides leadership to the State services on these matters.

Melissa Lee: How concerned would she be if she were to learn that a Government-appointed body had decided not to minute their meetings because those minutes could be subject to the Official Information Act?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: Well, the State Services Commissioner provides, as I said, leadership to the State services. Some examples of that: guidance is provided on the Official Information Act (OIA) to increase public access to information, there is guidance on providing free and frank advice and codes of conduct for staff in ministerial offices, as well as speaking up guidance—so a range of advice on a range of matters. So that’s good advice to the State services, and if there are instances of concern, then I suggest that she raise them with the State services.

Melissa Lee: Is she concerned that the ministerial advisory group appointed by the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media to decide the future of public media funding in New Zealand has decided not to keep minutes of their meetings because they would be subject to the Official Information Act?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I’m not aware of that, but what I would say is that that the ministerial advisory group has provided reports to the Minister, which will be provided in due course publicly.

Melissa Lee: Is it open and transparent for the public media ministerial advisory group responsible for millions of taxpayers’ dollars for public broadcasting to no longer take minutes of their meetings in order to avoid being subject to the Official Information Act?

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I think I’ve already answered that, but I’ll repeat that ministerial advisory groups provide advice to Ministers—that’s what they’re set up to do. That advice is made public to the media in due course as the process goes through.

Melissa Lee: Is it open and transparent for the public media ministerial advisory group responsible for millions of taxpayer dollars for public broadcasting to no longer take minutes of their meetings—

Hon CLARE CURRAN: I’m unaware of any allegation of that sort. My understanding is that my ministerial advisory group is providing reports to me which will be made public in due course. I’m unaware of that matter that that member is raising.

Melissa Lee: I seek leave to table a letter dated 19 June 2018 from Te Manatū Taonga, which is the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and the 27 February 2018 minutes of the public media advisory group, released from the Minister’s office under the OIA.

Mr SPEAKER: Is there any objection to those documents being tabled? There appears to be none.

Documents, by leave, laid on the Table of the House.

A screenshot of the minute recorded.A screenshot of the minute recorded. Photo credit: Screengrab/Newshub. (more…)

Redacted document dump, closed communications by Open Government minister

Clare Curran has dumped a pile of documents related to the RNZ saga on journalists tonight.

ODT (NZME):  Curran releases information on RNZ saga

The office of Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran has released a raft of documents, text messages and other information, including a voicemail left on her phone by Radio New Zealand chairman Richard Griffin.

The documents, loaded on to the Beehive website late today, are Curran’s response to requests made under the Official Information Act in the wake of the resignation of RNZ’s former head of content Carol Hirschfeld.

The large wad of documents contained many redactions but no smoking gun.

It looks like the Minister of Open Government has closed down the barrel.

One text exchange, released today but with identifying information redacted, said: “If it comes up again the answer will be that it was arranged at short notice. It’s clear from talking to her that it was not spur of the moment.”

The response came back: “Can you send a copy of the staff announcement please.”

Today’s release of information includes a text from Curran following her voice mail which says: “Hi Richard I have left a voicemail message re a written correction to the select committee that is needed today. Can you please advise you have received the message and it can be done. Thanks.”

Griffin then left a message for Curran which said: “Good afternoon Minister I just picked up your call this morning, and your text. The fact is we agreed last … I agreed last Monday with the Chairman that we would appear … we have since requested such an action and on Tuesday amended the appearance date from 1 o’clock today to 9am next Thursday. I can only suggest you have a word with the Chair if necessary but, we’ve already got a signed deal with them to have it on 9 o’clock on Thursday and we’re taking legal advice … we took legal advice yesterday with Hugh Rennie QC so that’s where the situation is from my point of view. The same applies to the message I got from Paul James today. Call me back if you’ve got a problem. Cheers.”

Curran declined to comment this evening.

The Minister of Broadcasting and Minister of Open Government has closed down communications.

Labour, Green MPs block holding Curran to account

The Government that promised more openness and transparency has taken another step backwards, with Labour and Green MPs on the Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee voting against asking Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran to appear before it to clarify unanswered questions about her meeting with ex-RNZ employee Carol Hirschfeld and her communications with RNZ chairman Richard Griffin.

NZH: National members blocked from getting Clare Curran to appear before committee over meeting with RNZ Carol Hirschfeld

National was blocked from asking Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran to appear at a select committee to clear up unanswered questions around her communications with former RNZ executive Carol Hirschfeld, a report says.

The Economic Development, Science and Innovation Committee released its report
today on a briefing in which the committee was inadvertently misled by RNZ chairman Richard Griffin and chief executive Paul Thompson about a meeting between Curran and Hirschfeld last December.

A minority report by the five National Party members of the select committee said questions remained unanswered regarding the appropriateness of communications initiated by Curran, with Hirschfeld and Griffin.

Curran’s behaviour was potentially in breach of parliamentary standing orders covering “intimidating, preventing, or hindering a witness from giving evidence, or giving evidence in full, to the House or a committee”, the National members said.

The National members also sought to invite Curran to the committee to give her the opportunity to clear up the unanswered questions.

“Regretfully, this resolution was not supported by other members of the committee, once again leaving the matter unresolved.”

The National members of the committee – chairman Jonathan Young, Andrew Falloon, Paul Goldsmith, Melissa Lee and Parmjeet Parmar – said they felt Parliament itself had been impugned by the inadvertent misleading of the committee by RNZ and actions of the minister.

The MPs who blocked holding Curran to account:

  • Paul Eagle (Labour, Rongotai)
  • Tamati Coffey (Labour, Waiariki)
  • Michael Wood (Labour, Mt Roskill)
  • Deborah Russell (Labour, New Lynn)
  • Gareth Hughes (Greens, list)

Coffey had a surprise win against Maori Party leader Te Ururoa Flavell in last year’s election.

Eagle, Wood and Russell scored fairly safe Labour electorates – Wood got into Parliament in a by-election in 2016 after Phil Goff resigned, while Eagle and Russell are first term MPs. Russell was rated as a good prospect as an MP, but she is putting party before principles here.

Hughes keeps a low profile in Parliament these days – Greens are also supposed to be strong supporters of open and transparent government and of holding the government to account (going by James Shaw’s comments in handing Parliamentary questions over to National) but joining the blocking of holding Curran to account suggests big talk, walk away from responsibilities.

Tn the whole scheme of things this isn’t a big deal, but it leaves a cloud over Curran’s ambitions to significantly boost RNZ, and she is likely to be reminded of this embarrassment whenever she tries to do anything on open government.

The final commitment in the Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement:

20. Strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information.

Labour and Greens have weakened democracy through their weasel blocking in the committee.

Newsroom: When ‘open government’ becomes a joke

Curran isn’t just the Minister of Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media but the Minster of Government Digital Services and Associate Minister for ACC and Open Government (via a State Services portfolio).

Open Government now becomes something of a joke under Curran at a time when we need it to be the very opposite.

What’s important now is RNZ and the many other initiatives Curran is involved with don’t keep on paying the price for her mistake. Curran’s copybook may well be blotted but she presides over portfolios that are far too important for us to allow that stain to spread.

That was on 2 April. Labour and Green MPs on the committee have spread the stain further.

Most of the public won’t know or care about this festering, but it remains hovering over Curran, and it is a confirmation that Labour and the Greens are in Government more for themselves than for integrity.

“The silence of National and Labour on transparency is noted”

Neither of the two large parties, Labour or National, show any sign of following the Green Party example of transparency and a refusal to accept corporate baubles. Neither does NZ First. This is a shame, but it’s unsurprising.

The Green announcement: Green Party announces new transparency measures

Green Party Co-leader James Shaw has today announced two important new transparency measures, which will apply to Green Party Ministers, MPs and staff, to help counter the influence of money in politics.

Green Party Ministers will soon proactively release their ministerial diaries, to show who they’ve met with and why. Additionally, Green Ministers, MPs and staff will not accept corporate hospitality, such as free tickets to events unrelated to their work.

ODT editorial: Green Party transparency welcomed

Transparency is a hallmark of any functioning government and the Green Party says it will continue to aim to uphold that – in Parliament and in Government.

Green co-leader James Shaw recently announced two important new transparency measures which will apply to Green Party ministers, MPs and staff to help show what he says is the influence of money in politics.

The actions are a major step forward in transparency and one which should be held up as an example to other political parties, both inside and outside Parliament.

The power of big business over politicians has become insidious in the United States. It is possible many New Zealand voters will be surprised by the influence of lobbyists in New Zealand.

Because New Zealand is such a small country, MPs, or their staff, often move into areas of influence outside of Parliament while retaining their close ties with the parties with which they previously worked.

Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran was blindsided in Parliament recently when questioned about her relationship with public broadcaster Radio New Zealand. It was revealed Ms Curran, the Dunedin South MP, had met privately with a highly ranked staff member of RNZ.

Then, National revealed an employee of the Prime Minister’s Office promoted Government policy while participating in an opinion segment on Radio New Zealand National, only describing herself as a public relations consultant from a private company for which she no longer worked.

The silence of National and Labour on transparency is noted.

There should be no reason why big wealthier corporates have better or more access to politicians than those organisations who cannot afford to shout free tickets to the rugby or a corporate box at the tennis.

Some will view the Greens’ actions as naive. However, the party must be congratulated and voters should push hard for other ministers and MPs to also start opening their diaries.

Yes, the Greens should be congratulated on walking the transparency walk.

Pressure needs to be put on Labour in particular to front up on this. They have an agreement with the Greens to do this – their Confidence and Supply agreement:

20. Strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information.

Labour agrees to work with the Green Party on these and other policy areas as may be identified from time to time, and in good faith.

There is little sign that Labour is living up to their agreement. There is one Beehive release from Associate Minister for State Services (Open Government) Clare Curran that touches on it: Continued effort needed against corruption

“While we continue to hold the position of least corrupt country, and already have high standards of conduct and integrity, we must not be complacent. These results show we are not immune to behaviour and actions that can erode the great work done by the majority of people in the public sector.

“Our focus must be on building and maintaining the public’s trust in the integrity of the public sector, a key enabler in our ability to do better for New Zealand and New Zealanders. I expect a continued commitment to transparency and the highest levels of integrity,” Ms Curran says.

“This government is also committed to reviewing and improving our access to information frameworks and is currently initiating work on human rights in the digital environment.

“Our commitment to open government plays an important role in New Zealand’s democratic system, underpinning the public’s respect, trust, and confidence in the integrity of government.”

That’s just talk from Curran – and she has been embarrassed twice in Parliament over questionable actions of herself and of Government advisor and lobbyist Tracey Bridges.

Greens have shown Curran up by committing to having open diaries and not accepting corporate baubles, while all she seems to have done is waffle and duck and dive.

If all parties currently in government establish more open and transparent procedures and practices then whenever National next gets into Government they should be under pressure to continue with similar levels of transparency and openness.

Talking of National, they don’t make it easy finding their list of MPs on their website. Todd McClay is their spokesperson for State Services – I can’t find anything from him on open government, although Nikki Kaye has called for greater transparency over Partnership Schools.

See:

 

Time to give a push for more open government

Bryce Edwards is being an open political activist, calling for support to “guide the new government” into being “more open with its information”.

Newsroom: It’s time to open up the Closed Government Act

Calling all journalists, academics, public servants, political activists, and members of the public who believe in the need for government to be more open with its information. We need to form a coalition to fix the Official Information Act (OIA).

It’s time for everyone who believes in reforming the OIA processes to join together and campaign to make that actually happen. Such a coalition could guide the new government in making the necessary changes so that New Zealand is once again a world leader in open government, the way we were in 1982 when the extraordinary act was introduced.

The OIA itself may still be fit for purpose, but the wider official information system desperately needs review, especially in the way that the act is adhered to by government. At the moment, it often functions more as the Closed Government Act.

Now is the perfect time to act. Whenever a new government is formed, it’s normally enthusiastic and idealistic about fixing problems in the system. And when it comes to problems with the OIA, the parties coming in from opposition are highly sensitive to its faults because they’ve been on the receiving end of governments keeping an overly-tight grip on information.

The parties making up the new coalition government have protested strongly against abuses of the OIA that occurred under National. So, hopefully they’ll want to prioritise some sort of review aimed at fixing the problems.

Clare Curran is the minister with responsibility for “Open Government”, as part of her role as Associate Minister for State Services. She has already committed her government to doing much better than the last government in terms of releasing information.

But in a recent interview with the Otago Daily Times’ Eileen Goodwin, Curran wasn’t very clear about whether any reform of the OIA would be forthcoming.

Hence the need to ‘guide’ the Government.

Instead, journalists are now leading the way in calls for reform. Newsroom’s Shane Cowlishaw has recently explored all of these issues in his must-read article, The OIA is broken, can it be fixed? He says, “the spirit of this law has dissolved in an air of contempt that has spread, like a stain, from the top down”.

Cowlishaw reflects on his own experiences as a journalist, noting the growth of government department spin-doctors, and saying that the “ever-growing mighty wall of ‘comms staff’ has seemingly forgotten its obligation to the public in a desire to protect its Ministers from embarrassment.”

The new government – as well as the opposition – need some constructive encouragement to take this key area of democracy very seriously and make sure it’s fit for purpose.

I’m keen to bring together participants, set up forums, and help establish a way for interested parties to come up with ideas about how to move ahead. At the very least, such a campaign could compile all the complaints and examples of how the OIA isn’t working, or is being thwarted and put everyone in touch who has an interest in OIA reform.

There’s a lot to consider. For example: Does the legislation need fixing, or just the way that the OIA is observed? Is there a need for a new Information Authority that would be responsible for overseeing the operation of the OIA, and teach government departments and the public how to use and adhere to it? Or is the Ombudsman’s Office best placed to carry out these functions? And is it resourced and empowered enough to fulfil such a role? Should there be stronger penalties for abuse of the OIA? Does the OIA need to be extended to Parliament, or at least to some of its agencies such as the Parliamentary Service?

The new coalition government has specifically made a commitment to “strengthen New Zealand’s democracy by increasing public participation, openness, and transparency around official information”. This wording is in the confidence and supply coalition agreement between Labour the Greens, and it could quite easily also be the stated focus of a new Campaign for Open Government.

Sounds like a worthwhile aim. As well as journalists and media it should get support from blogs from across the spectrum, as well as from other online forums.

If you’re interested, please get in touch. Contact me: bryce.edwards@vuw.ac.nz

 

Clare Curran’s accusations

Clare Curran has been busy on social media this week criticising National, especially Bill English, about a lack of availability to constituents. She posted on Red Alert:

A message to Bill

Bill English, it appears many people in your electorate don’t want you to sell our assets. And how about being a bit more available to them!

She tagged this ‘representation’. Clare has often talked about more open government. This is something I’m also interested in, it is the main reason why I got involved in politics.

Clare followed up with another post on Red Alert:

How many electorates aren’t being well served by National MPs?

Posted by  on September 4th, 2012

My post yesterday on Bill English and his mostly closed electorate offices in Balclutha and Gore has attracted some interest on Red Alert and on facebook.

A number of people commented that they were experiencing the same issues in other National-held electorates.

I’m wondering how many National Party electorate offices are actually staffed on a regular basis?

And how much direct constituency work they do and what options are open to constituents if they try to approach their local MP and are rebuffed, ignored or can’t make contact because it’s always closed.

Would be interesting to find out.

As it happens, I’ve been ‘rebuffed, ignored or can’t make contact’ with Clare and also my electorate MP David Clark. Both usually ignore emails. And both have blocked me from their social media. So I commented:

Pete George says:
September 4, 2012 at 7:38 pm
MPs can be too busy to be available all the time.

Both my local Dunedin electorate MPs don’t usually respond to my emails.

And my own electorate MP (Dunedin North)seems to want to avoid contact on Twitter:
“You have been blocked from following this account at the request of the user.”

I was having a dig for sure, but Clare was having a dig at the unavailability of Bill English and National MPs so I think it’s fair to point out her own deliberate unavailability.

(I have once had an email reply from Bill English but he usually ignores my emails too).

Clare responded:

Clare Curran says:
September 4, 2012 at 7:50 pm

Oh Pete George let’s be honest here. I didn’t know you had been blocked on twitter, but I have unfriended you on facebook.

You are a troll. You are one of Cameron Slater’s (Whaleoil’s) tipsters. You pretend to be something you aren’t and you remain a commenter on Red Alert on notice.

I am a very liberal person. I believe in free speech, but I also believe in honesty and accountability. I don’t believe in pushing false information.

My response:

“You are one of Cameron Slater’s (Whaleoil’s) tipsters.”

What do you base that claim on?

“You pretend to be something you aren’t”

What do you base that claim on? I’ve been very open about who I am and what I do.

Calling me a troll is a cheap and/or ignorant shot. At times I promote and publicise what Labour (and you) do. At times I question you. Shouldn’t MPs and parties be open to scrutiny?

“I am a very liberal person. I believe in free speech, but I also believe in honesty and accountability.”

That’s not how you are acting here.

“I don’t believe in pushing false information.”

Can you clarify the intent of that comment?

I’m very active in social media but I’m not a troll – that’s a term that’s often misused.

I’m not ‘one of Cameron Slater’s (Whaleoil’s) tipsters’.  I’ve had some contact with him as I’ve had with other bloggers, that’s common. And I comment on his blog as I comment on others, including Red Alert.

‘You pretend to be something you aren’t’ is an outlandish accusation, I’m one of the most open people on political blogs. What on earth does Clare think I’m pretending to be? She ignores me, blocks me, she refuses to engage and then thinks she knows about me. She is wrong.

I also believe in free speech. On the same blog thread:

whodunnit says:

Offensive. Banned. Clare

I don’t know how offensive the comment was so can’t judge on how justified this was.

I also believe in honesty and accountability. Clare seems to actively avoid accountability while criticising other MPs for being unavailable.

“I don’t believe in pushing false information” – neither do I, I don’t know what she is implying by saying this. I’ve asked her to explain but she hasn’t responded yet.

I first contacted Clare about three years ago and have tried to actively engage with her and other MPs in Dunedin. I’ve criticised her at times, but I’ve also praised her and published positive information about her.

One of my main aims in politics is to improve communication between Dunedin MPs and the people of the city. This has to be two way. And it means MPs have to be prepared to communicate with people outside their comfort bubble.

People want to be heard more. In Clare’s own words, “how about being a bit more available to them!”

If Clare is serious about open government and if she’s serious about MPs being available to the people then I invite her to work together with me to achieve a better connection between MPs and people in Dunedin.

I’ll email Clare as well to make sure she gets this invitation.