Clare Curran at the Labour Party Congress, 2014 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Clare Curran at the Labour Party Congress, 2014 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

PoliticsJuly 4, 2020

‘I physically felt like I was going to die’: Clare Curran opens up on politics, toxicity and trauma

Clare Curran at the Labour Party Congress, 2014 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Clare Curran at the Labour Party Congress, 2014 (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Sacked cabinet minister Clare Curran speaks for the first time about the brutal end to her political career – and what she calls the toxicity and bullying that marked her years in parliament. By Donna Chisholm.

Of all the humiliations – often self-inflicted – that Clare Curran endured during her 12-year parliamentary career, the one she can barely bring herself to speak about is one most of us never heard of. Even eight years on, she’s still disgusted by the memory.

During an exclusive interview in her Auckland hotel room in June, Curran brings out a plastic folder of grainy images from a debate held before the National Party’s Mainland Region conference in April 2012, attended by MPs including Nick Smith, Michael Woodhouse, Jacqui Dean and Eric Roy. They were posted in a Facebook group that was “not quite private”, and later sent to her. One of them shows Woodhouse posing with a bright blue toilet seat emblazoned with a photograph of Curran.

The toilet seat was apparently the trophy presented to the winning debating team, headed by author and former broadcaster Jim Hopkins, a Waitaki District councillor. The moot: “That South Dunedin is turning blue.” Hopkins says “one of the Dunedin MPs” – presumably Woodhouse, a Dunedin based list MP, and not Curran who represented Dunedin South – had been given the seat after Curran was labelled “potty mouth”. She’d told the Otago Daily Times that KiwiRail’s decision to sell the Hillside Engineering workshops in Dunedin meant “KiwiRail and the government have pissed on Dunedin”. Hopkins says the moot referenced both politics and language.

The photo from the debate, posted on Facebook, was sent to Curran by a friend

Some might call it toilet humour, but Curran says it’s worse than dirty politics – it’s just nasty. “I was so shocked when I saw it I have never been able to speak of it publicly because I felt embarrassed. I still feel quite traumatised by it … I imagine whether they have used it or not and it’s a sense of humiliation and weirdness. There’s something sick about that. People who are prepared to do that … What else are they prepared to do? They were literally encouraging people to piss on me.”

Curran says she was a top target for the likes of rightwing blogger Cameron Slater and lobbyist and commentator Matthew Hooton throughout her four terms. “They hated me.” In some of his many posts about her, Slater described Curran as “something dreadful” and “dumber than a bag of hammers”. On May 10, before deleting his Twitter account when he began working for new National Party leader Todd Muller, Hooton wrote that he had blocked Curran on the platform “because she is a dishonest idiot and it adds nothing to read anything she says”.

Jacinda Ardern sacked Curran from Cabinet in August 2018 and stripped her of open government portfolios after she failed to disclose a meeting with tech entrepreneur Derek Handley, who was interested in the role of chief technology officer. It was a second-strike offence after controversy over an earlier ill-advised meeting at Astoria café in Wellington with Radio New Zealand news executive Carol Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld later resigned after telling CEO Paul Thompson that the meeting had been coincidental, when it in fact it had been scheduled. Curran resigned as a minister a month later, immediately after a question time train wreck in parliament during which she gave halting and at times almost incoherent replies to queries from National MP Melissa Lee about her use of her personal Gmail for official business.

She left parliament on personal leave, flew home to Dunedin, and that night decided to resign as a minister. She phoned Ardern to tell her, and the prime minister told her to sleep on it. She had pizza with her family, slept with the aid of a pill, and woke the next morning with her mind unchanged.

Clare Curran announces her resignation, as fellow Dunedin MP David Clark watches on (Photo: RNZ)

Curran received six to eight months of psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder after that disastrous afternoon. “I’m not Shane Jones. I didn’t have a pat answer. I don’t do bluster and I was trying to answer honestly and I couldn’t come up with the words and my mind went blank. It was the worst nightmare in front of everyone. I remember a sensation of pressure that built up, and quite honestly, during those first few days I felt like I was literally going to die. I felt physically that I was going to die because the stress had got so much and there was nowhere else for it to go.”

At times, she admits, she thought she might even quite like to die. “Being put under any pressure, negative type stuff, I would mentally be right back in that place.” Following treatment, she says, “I can think about standing up in parliament and fluffing my way through question time with everyone laughing and jeering and my colleagues being horrified around me and the media turning that into nightly news and that clip basically becoming a YouTube meme or something … and not feel the same set of feelings.” The steady flow of tears she swipes away with a balled tissue suggests strong feelings remain, even if time and therapy has softened them.

In August 2019, she announced she would retire at the 2020 election and on August 4, she will give her valedictory address, which she says she will try to keep positive. But in this, her only interview, she wants to reveal the extent of what she regards as a relentless campaign against her and the toll it’s taken on her mental health.

Curran says within weeks of the formation of the coalition government in 2017, a person she won’t name told her that she was the main target for the opposition. “Around the time I came into parliament, and even before, I was squarely on the radar of Hooton and Slater and [blogger and pollster] David Farrar. I had a disproportionate amount of focus on me. I was seen as an easy picking.”

She says senior National MP Nick Smith labelled her “Goebbels” after her 2006 paper to a regional Labour Party conference, in which she discussed how the party could reframe public debate and resonate with voters by communicating with “values-based” language. When she became a minister in 2017, she says her efforts to reform public broadcasting faced “hostility and disdain” from media commentators.

Curran can see why they might see her as a weak link and, in the manner of a pack of lions hunting a gazelle, pick her off from the rest of the herd. She accepts that’s a reasonable strategy to embarrass a government. “Oh yeah, and I’m not angry about that. This is the business we are in. But there was a coming together … In my opinion there was a view within the press gallery that they were on board with that.

“I have strengths but I also have weaknesses and one of those is that in the political arena, I’m not a great orator. I’m not hugely quick off the mark. You are either naturally good at it or you have to learn how to do it at question time.”

Labour’s leadership roundabout during its time in opposition, when it cycled through David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little at the helm, had involved supporters or opponents of the various candidates being shuffled up or down their party rankings. “I had been promoted, demoted, promoted and demoted at various times.” As a result, she says, she didn’t get the required practice at question time. “I wasn’t allowed into the front bench environment”.

Her problems in those early weeks and months as a minister were exacerbated by what she acknowledges was the somewhat chaotic environment of a new coalition government. “We were a new government that we didn’t really expect to be and, quite frankly, a lot of scrambling around went on.” This left her without key support staff in those crucial first months. “It’s very hierarchical and if you’re at the top of the hierarchy, you have much better access to the pick of the pool of people who were making themselves available. If you were towards the bottom, which I was, you didn’t. I had no ministerial adviser and no press secretary and a senior private secretary who was not hugely experienced.”

Asked if these gaps contributed directly to her demise, Curran says, “There was an element of that. I had thousands of written questions that started coming at me immediately. There was a lot of putting me on the spot about policy decisions we made prior to the election; ‘why haven’t you delivered on them’, ‘where are they’ and ‘what does this or that mean’. I did it in opposition, putting the person under scrutiny, but I imagine there would have been strategic discussions [in the opposition] about who were the people who could be picked off – and I was on the top of that list.”

It’s fair enough to hold her accountable for her mistakes, she says. “It’s the kind of accountability that you get held to, it’s inequitable for some people. It became apparent to me reasonably quickly, by February, around the time of the Carol Hirschfeld scrutiny, that it was an unrelenting focus.”

Clare Curran’s career came unstuck around questions over meetings with Derek Handley and Carol Hirschfeld

Curran commissioned research on coverage of her from September 30, 2017 (the week after the general election) to October 27, 2018. Of the 509 (non-broadcast) articles about her, 139 were negative blogs on Cameron Slater’s WhaleOil site. The Otago Daily Times produced just 62 articles.  Slater produced the most articles about Curran – more than twice as many as any other writer.

In November last year, the regional economic development minister, Shane Jones, was required to correct 20 answers to questions from the National Party after failing to disclose 61 meetings, including some relating to the Provincial Growth Fund. Yet these “oversights” resulted in just 16 articles between November 11 and December 10.

Curran believes the adverse coverage about her – 344 of the 509 were rated as negative or very negative – was “gendered” and included words such as “hopeless”, “hapless” and “useless”. The feedback from her own community, on the other hand, was positive, she says. “People could see that mistakes were made but they were mistakes and I paid an incredibly high price. I was set upon by what felt like a pack of dogs to tear me to shreds.”

Even so, Curran remains both defensive about what exactly, if anything, she did wrong by meeting Hirschfeld and at times frustratingly vague about how and why her meeting with Handley wasn’t diaried, particularly when she was already on notice after Hirschfeld. It was, says Curran, simply an oversight. But how on earth could it be, when it followed the Hirschfeld affair so closely?

“It’s a perfectly legitimate question and I don’t know the answer to it apart from the fact it was a complete stuff up. It was not found out by a journalist – it was offered up to the public. But when it was discovered [within her office], I had that moment of cold dread. It went from the top of my head to my toes, when I realised I had had a meeting and it all had to be completely revealed. That’s transparency. My blood went cold because I thought to myself, ‘How could that happen?’ and I just went ‘Oh fuck,’ or something to that effect. I guess if you ask anybody who has a really high-pressure job and is under a lot of scrutiny, there are things that fall though. I’d gone through a big process at one point of trying to work out whether I had had any meetings with people before the Derek Handley thing came out and for some reason it did not compute. I don’t know why.”

The cabinet of 2017. Photograph: DPMC

As Ardern said when she sacked Curran from cabinet: “The failure to record the meeting in her diary; inform her staff and officials; and accurately answer parliamentary questions has left the minister open to the accusation that she deliberately sought to hide the meeting.”

Curran’s beef seems to be not with the fact that she was held to account, but that the persistence of the pursuit was out of order. Asked why she did what she did, she replies: “Tell me what it was that I did”, seeming still not to grasp why an apparent lack of openness – even if unintended – is especially problematic for the minister for open government. She then gives a lengthy explanation about how, with Hirschfeld, her sin was one of omission. That she answered a written question about meetings she had had with individuals related to Radio New Zealand and Television New Zealand, but omitted the breakfast meeting with Hirschfeld.

Later, in reply to a Melissa Lee question in the house asking if she had met Hirschfeld on a certain date, she had replied that she did. “I wasn’t trying to hide it.” She hadn’t originally included it, she says, because “I thought it was an informal meeting, which was a genuinely held view”. After checking with the speaker, Trevor Mallard, she says, she was told it was indeed a formal meeting and she corrected her answer the same day with the leader of the house.

But wasn’t her diary entry of the meeting, which included Hirschfeld’s initials but not her name, somewhat oblique?  “It could have been, yeah.”  Asked why she was meeting with Hirschfeld at all, when she should have been dealing directly with Thompson, Curran is again somewhat unconvincing. “It was really no particular reason at all, as I have said over and over again.”

That seems to make little sense. Why would a busy minister have a meeting for no reason at all with a high-powered executive at Radio New Zealand? “Because I was having discussions around the traps with various people around the policy [to set up Radio New Zealand as a multi-platform, non-commercial entity including a free-to-air TV channel in competition with Television New Zealand and other commercial outlets] that we had introduced, and just to basically socialise it. It was nothing more and nothing less.”

That the well-respected Hirschfeld lied about the origins of the meeting added to the stench surrounding it. Curran says she wasn’t responsible for that “but was held responsible for it”. “I wish I hadn’t met with Carol. I’m really sorry what happened to her and I really wish her well. The same with Derek, who I didn’t really know.”

Clare Curran revealing plans for media reform during a press conference at Radio New Zealand on July 11, 2018 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Although Curran says she had the support of 90% of her colleagues, she believes a few had the knives out for her. “At the end of my first year in parliament, one of my senior colleagues told me that I was a victim, a femme fatale, and that I used my sexuality as a weapon. He’d had a few drinks, but it was vicious and I was horrified. He was using his words to demean me in one of the worst ways it is possible to do.” She later confronted him “when no drinks had been had” and told him his comments were out of line. “I said, ‘I want you to tell me if it’s because you don’t support me being in this place’. He said he would go away and think about it. He came back a week later and said he couldn’t answer yes or no to that question.”

The parliamentary cauldron is especially tough for women and those who have been in senior positions in their careers before politics, she says. Childless women – such as Ardern when she entered politics – have also been subject to derision from National MPs, including Maggie Barry and Amy Adams.

New MPs find themselves “at the bottom of the class being treated like third formers when they are grownups” even when they have been respected in senior positions before their political career. Women have it worse, she says, “because they are more likely to absorb rather than brush it off. Where they’ve been ignored, spoken over, put down in front of other people, instead of perhaps pushing harder, next time they are more likely to take a back seat.” Curran was the mother of then eight-year-old twin boys when she entered politics. Her relationship with their father ended about a year later. The couple shared care for a number of years before Curran ended up with the boys full-time while juggling her work commitments. They are now “great young men” at university and polytechnic.

It’s impossible not to feel some sympathy for Curran and the ignominy of her downfall. Certainly, she retains the affection of senior Labour MPs, some of whom – Ardern and Grant Robertson among them – entered parliament the same year. Ardern described Curran as totally people-focused, and genuine and passionate about the work she did on public broadcasting and technology issues. She did not pressure her to resign. Robertson tweeted that Curran was “the type of courageous, heart-on-sleeve politician we need”.

So where to now for Curran? Covid-19 has derailed the plans she had to walk the “transforming” 780km Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s trail from France to northern Spain – she’d been booked to fly out on August 20. It’s still a dream, but it’s on hold for now.

“I’m on the market,” she says. Prior to Covid, she’d thought about trying her luck overseas again after spending years in Australia working on union-related campaigns. “But the rest of the world seems very far away at the moment.”

She’s left with an abiding sense of personal failure, despite her tenacity and advocacy on behalf of the causes and people she represented. “I’ve let myself down. Usually, when people are leaving parliament, it’s, ‘I did this and I did that.’ I guess my reflections are more about what I couldn’t achieve and how I wasn’t up to it. Ultimately, as a person, I reached my limit and that really worries me … that people who come in, who have ideas about what is wrong in our country and society are torn apart. I don’t think that’s a good thing and that’s what happened to me.

“Kindness is the thing, and that’s not kind, it’s ugly. People say, ‘It’s politics’. But is that really what politics is? Is that really what it should be – such a gladiatorial sport that scalps are counted and you measure success by whether or not you survived or whether you got someone’s scalp? That’s not the political system that I aspire to.”

Clare Curran and the Labour Party

  • 2006: Joins the Labour Party
  • 2008: Elected as MP for Dunedin South after winning selection over sitting MP David Benson-Pope.
  • 2011 and 2014: Re-elected in Dunedin South.
  • 2017: Re-elected and becomes a cabinet minister in the Jacinda Ardern-led coalition government. She takes the portfolios of minister of broadcasting, communications and digital media, minister for government digital services and becomes associate minister for the Accident Compensation Corporation and State Services Commission.
  • August 2018: Dismissed from cabinet after admitting failing to diary a meeting with Derek Handley, a potential candidate for the role of chief technology officer. This follows a similar slip-up over a meeting with Radio New Zealand senior manager Carol Hirschfeld.
  • September 2018: After a disastrous question time in parliament where she flubs answers to questions from National MP Melissa Lee about her use of a personal Gmail account, Curran decides to resign as a minister the following day.
  • August 2019: Announces she will not seek re-election in 2020.
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