John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Curran makes new man squirm over NZ On Air job

Labour MP Clare Curran. Photo / Supplied.
Labour MP Clare Curran. Photo / Supplied.

When the most pressing items before the House include racecourse safety, the long-term state of the balance of payments and David Cunliffe's new beard, you know it could be a dreary afternoon.

MPs were no doubt relieved to hear that new Racing Minister Nathan Guy considers health and safety an important issue. But such reassurance would not satisfy Winston Peters, not least because he was a racing minister and established the safety fund - something he wanted the House to know given that Guy was claiming credit for funding the initiative.

The New Zealand First leader demanded Guy spell out exactly what he had done for the industry on crucial matters like taxation and stake money - a bit rough considering Guy has held the post for all of two months.

Also new in his job is Broadcasting Minister Craig Foss. Whereas Guy got a ribbing for not doing something, Foss continued to get an old-fashioned roasting for something not of his doing.

Foss had the bad luck to pick up a portfolio with a ticking time-bomb in John Key's post-election reshuffle.

Mainly as a result of a sustained offensive in recent weeks by Labour MP Clare Curran, the appointment of Stephen McElrea, John Key's National Party electorate chairman, to the board of New Zealand On Air is fast looking like one of the more politically stupid examples of political patronage.

Curran yesterday revealed that McElrea had lodged a complaint about the NZ On Air-funded documentary on child poverty screened on TV3 in the week before last year's election.

Not only that. The complaint had been lodged before the screening, adding further fuel to Labour's allegations of political interference.

Foss is in an impossible position. So far his stratagem has been to stand poker-faced and try to blunt Curran's questions by repeatedly saying he has full confidence in the board, the board's decisions are for it to make, it is inappropriate for him to comment on board matters ... and so on. Judging by his obvious discomfort, not even Foss is convinced.

Yesterday Curran asked whether McElrea's political connection to the Prime Minister had been considered during the appointment process. Foss' response was that all board appointments follow the standard due diligence process for Crown entities.

Labour MPs claimed Foss had failed to answer the question. Speaker Lockwood Smith then surprisingly intervened, saying it would be normal for the appointments procedure to consider whether political affiliations could be compromising.

Amazed by Smith's contribution, Labour's Trevor Mallard expressed gratitude for the interpretation. But, along with Peters, Mallard wanted to hear the same from the horse's mouth. Smith insisted he could not force Foss to give a certain answer.

But Labour's moral victory left another question unanswered. Having unsuccessfully sought to trip up Key for so long over relative trivia, Labour (finally) is making headway on something of real concern.

So why isn't the party giving more priority to Curran's questions? Yesterday she was bottom of the list. She deserves better.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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