Clare Curran initiated the fateful meeting with Carol Hirschfeld in late 2017. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Clare Curran and co must take more care not to put public servants at risk

Coffee with an acquaintance can still be an attempt to influence. Cabinet members simply should not be approaching public servants the way the broadcasting minister did Carol Hirschfeld, writes the PSA’s Glenn Barclay 

The circumstances around Carol Hirschfeld’s meeting with broadcasting minister Clare Curran – and what both sides sought to gain from it – are as opaque as the depths of a finely-brewed long black from Astoria, the Wellington institution where the two met.

At first this was described a simple catch-up between acquaintances. The chance to exchange gossip, perhaps, the real fuel of the Wellington beltway, whatever the dozens of coffee vendors may say. An informal bumping-into, nothing to see here.

But as we now know, this was in fact a planned meeting, negotiated over numerous texts. And it’s clear that both sides should have been a lot more forthcoming in their accounts of that meeting, both to their respective bosses and the public.

The problem is that public servants who accept invitations like this are putting themselves in an extremely delicate position. The optics – that phrase so beloved by political analysts – are not good. It may have been held in a very public café, where regulars scan the room to see if there are any interesting pairings to be seen. It may indeed only have covered areas that – as Jacinda Ardern put in – Ms Curran has “canvassed” publicly. But this doesn’t matter. Both sides potentially had something to gain. How can we know what was said, and whether minds were changed?

It’s clear from the text messages released by Ms Curran that she initiated this meeting. But she should know ministers of the Crown can’t just approach public servants in this way. This may have been perfectly acceptable when Ms Curran was in opposition. But in a ministerial context, it’s putting the public servant and the minister at risk. A coffee is never just a coffee. It’s never just friands-with-benefits.

Ms Curran may not have been aware of RNZ’s internal policies about who she could and could not meet, but she should have been aware of the wider constitutional context and the guidance in the Cabinet Manual about communications between ministers and public servants. Even the most senior state services employees need to maintain their distance from government – independent, required by law to give free, frank and fearless advice to ministers.

At the PSA we support our members in the state services to retain their neutrality and their integrity. If New Zealanders are to trust their public servants – and their elected representatives – there needs to be that separation. Integrity isn’t always easy, but it is mandatory. So is transparency. If the public service’s reputation suffers, New Zealand suffers.

Ms Hirschfeld has paid the price. In these situations, sadly, the public servant generally does. The consequences for Ms Curran are, as yet, unknown. At the very least, Labour needs to learn from this, and fast.

Glenn Barclay is national secretary of the New Zealand Public Service Association


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