Clare Curran

Clare Curran seemingly in breach of Cabinet Manual again

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Cabinet Minister Clare current looks to have fallen foul of the Cabinet Manual for the second time this month, with a tweet that appears to simultaneously question the Police's decision not to prosecute as well as imply that they were somehow involved in a conspiracy.

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Section 4.14 of the Cabinet Manual is a hugely important one, in that it prohibits Ministers from commenting on, or involving themselves in Police investigations or the decision on whether or not to prosecute someone. As far as I'm aware, that prohibition extends to decisions that have been made, as it's entirely possible for Police to reopen an investigation, or revisit a decision to prosecute and as such, any comment made by a Minister on a previous decision, could be seen as an act of political interference in an operational matter for the police.

Regardless of whatever your personal viewpoint on whether Todd Barclay should have been charged or not, one of the most fundamental rules of government in New Zealand is that politicians do not seek to influence or interfere with the operational work of Police. As an example of that, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern followed the Cabinet Manual correctly when asked about the decision of Police not to prosecute anyone over the collapse of the CTV building in the 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Despite emotions running very high, and many people, including the families of those who died in the tragedy, being angered by that decision, Ardern correctly said that she couldn't comment on the prosecution decision due to it being an operational matter.

As former Beehive advisor Hamish Price tweeted last night, the Cabinet Manual acts as a check on the formidable powers of Ministers and government to not unduly influence the operations of the Police. Commenting, critiquing, and insinuating as Curran has done risks turning the police from non-partisan arbiters of the law, to enforces of political whims. Doubly so in this case given that the subject of the Police decision is a former politician from the opposite side of the House to Curran.

Combined with her previous minor breach of the Cabinet Manual, as well as a generally incompetent performance in the House fronting up about her portfolios in Question Time, which has seen her not once, but twice, hidden away from scrutiny from the opposition, Clare Curran's time in the Ardern Ministry appears to be on its final countdown.

It will be telling to see how Jacinda Ardern responds to this, and whether she's able to match all her rhetoric of integrity and doing things differently by sacking Curran, or whether she'll gamble that this breach gets swept under the holiday carpet.

As an interesting post-script, Green Party Minister Julie Anne Genter also briefly seemed to run foul of the Cabinet Manual too, as she tweeted her criticism of Police for raiding, and destroying $16,000 worth of hemp (for which the Police were apologising for). Unlike Curran, Genter appears to have realised her mistake very quickly, and deleted the tweet within a minute.

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Is Clare Curran the first Minister to breach the Cabinet Manual?

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Has Clare Curran become the first Minister of the Sixth Labour-led government to breach the Cabinet Manual? Judging by the above tweet (which you can find here) it would seem so, with Minister Curran appearing to fall foul of section 2.99 of the Cabinet Manual which states "No Minister should endorse in any media any product or service."

At first glance Curran's tweet seems innocent enough. Who doesn't have a favourite TV show at a given time? Things are a bit different though when you're a Minister of the Crown, especially so when you're the Minister for Broadcasting, Communications, and Digital Media.

The problem for Curran here arises from the fact that not only has she effectively endorsed the show Better Things by declaring it to be her "favourite thing atm", but she's also singled out the only streaming service that carries Better Things in New Zealand in the tweet - Spark's Lightbox. A quick search this afternoon reveals that none of Neon, Netflix, TVNZ On Demand, or ThreeNow carry the show.

If this had been any other Minister (other than possibly the Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister who also has some regulatory responsibility that touches on this industry), you'd be justified in just shrugging your shoulders and ignoring it. It still looks like an endorsement, but the if the Minister doesn't have any responsibility for that sector of the economy, it's not worth losing any sleep over.

Where Curran falls especially foul of the Cabinet Manual in this instance though is that through her ministerial portfolios, she's directly responsible for the industries which both Lightbox and its parent Spark operate in. In effect, Curran is endorsing a show that's exclusively on Lightbox, which could have the impact of causing potential customers of streaming services to choose Lightbox over one of its competitors.

Evidently Lightbox was pretty chuffed with having the Minister responsible for their industry endorsing a show that's exclusively on their streaming service. They ended both retweeting and liking Curran's endorsement. It's the digital equivalent of having Clare Curran holding their product and giving it a thumbs up.

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It's also worth noting that this was entirely proactive on Curran's part too. It's not like she's been invited to a Lightbox event, or a similar situation where Ministers might be photographed such as visiting or opening a business. Curran has seemingly on her own initiative, promoted her favouritism of a show that's found exclusively on Lightbox. Likewise, it's not as if she's declared her love for a specific varietal of something (e.g. saying her favourite wine is chardonnay, or that her favourite ice cream flavour is hokey pokey), she's singled out a specific product and the sole service provider of that product.

Now let's be clear: this isn't the Cabinet Manual breach of the century and I don't think Curran should resign over it. It is, however, a very bad look for a Minister who is already under significant pressure with regards to the government's commitment to being open and transparent, and who has been hidden by the government after two disastrous appearances in Question Time.

At the very least though, Curran should delete the tweet and publicly apologise.