Fighting for causes, staying true to oneself

Dunedin South MP Clare Curran with phone, files, paper and coffee. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Dunedin South MP Clare Curran with phone, files, paper and coffee. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
The meeting room in Clare Curran’s Dunedin South electorate office is cluttered with boxes, four terms as local MP being neatly filed before being dispatched to the Hocken Collections archives.

It is a lot of paper for an MP who spent much of her 12 years in Parliament calling for a greater focus on digitalisation, but it does demonstrate the breadth of issues faced by someone who was always an energetic advocate for her patch.

"The things I didn’t do loom large," Ms Curran reflected as she cast an eye around the room.

"I have partly achieved things, but I think we focus as human beings on the things we didn’t do, rather than things we did do.

"I remember the moments of triumph and relief and excitement when you could achieve something really important for an individual in their lives, and sometimes there would even be a few tears, but I always found myself saying ‘right, I’ve done that now, on to the next thing’."

Quite what that next thing is for Ms Curran (60), she is not sure.

On election night in 2008. PHOTO: CRAIG BAXTER
On election night in 2008. PHOTO: CRAIG BAXTER

Plans to travel have been postponed by Covid-19, there are few deadlines other than her valedictory speech in Parliament next week and the course requirements for a university paper on Scottish crime fiction she is doing.

"It feels like a blank page, really," Ms Curran said.

"I really need to take some time for myself, I do feel exhausted mentally, and I think it’s important to take a bit of time to regroup.

"I really just want to rediscover what it’s like to be a civilian."

It is a major understatement that Ms Curran’s last three years in Parliament have been tough ones.

The elation of entering Government and becoming a minister were rapidly tempered by difficulties handling the public duties of Ms Curran’s roles overseeing the broadcasting, communications, and digital media and government digital services portfolios, as well as serving as Associate Minister for Accident Compensation and the State Services Commission.

Not helping was a sense Ms Curran had, now confirmed by former National Party chief whip Jami-Lee Ross, that the Opposition was targeting her.

"I really loved being a minister, I thought I was really quite good at parts of being a minister," Ms Curran said.

"I am an innovator and I was trying to practise what I preached in years in opposition, I was one of the few ministers who come in with already formed policy and clear ideas about how to achieve things, but I wasn’t senior and my priorities were not the Government’s core priorities and I was a target, so I guess I was vulnerable on a number of fronts.

"Plus I didn’t have the adequate skills, which you need in the skill set of a minister, to act in that bear pit.

"I would have developed them, and if I’d been given another year I would have developed them as other new ministers have developed them who didn’t have a lot of leadership experience in the party.

"But I wasn’t given that opportunity."

Ms Curran’s first misstep, an off-diary meeting with then RNZ senior manager Carol Hirschfeld, was followed by a major stumble when a second such meeting, with tech entrepreneur Derek Handley, was revealed.

Ms Curran apologised and lost some portfolios and her cabinet minister status.

However, a fortnight later she resigned all her portfolios, citing "relentless pressure".

"On a personal level I have had some pretty terrible days which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, and they do really overshadow my experience in government," Ms Curran said.

"When I resigned as a minister I had 10 Cabinet papers in the mix and that was one of the hardest things, seeing other people take those things through ... one of my biggest problems was that I had portfolios with chunks of other ministries or departments, and I didn’t have a lot of money, and I didn’t have a lot of legislation that was mine, except for the Telecommunications Act reforms which went through just a couple of weeks after I resigned.

"I did all the work on that and I have to say it was painful."

Not everything about her final term in Parliament has been as agonising.

A few hundred metres up the road from Ms Curran’s electorate office is KiwiRail’s Hillside workshop, a cathedral of industry which was destined for the scrapheap when she was first elected as the local MP in 2008.

Last year, Ms Curran looked on proudly as regional economic development minister Shane Jones announced the funding which might well see Hillside’s future secured.

"What we have to ensure is that there is a continued pipeline of work coming through Hillside and that it steadily grows," Ms Curran said.

"The fight is not over yet, but I feel a huge sense of relief and satisfaction that it went from being a lost cause and people deriding me for pushing it and saying it was a sunset industry and all of that — and that was basically most of the powers that be in this city really who gave up on it ... it wasn’t [a lost cause] and it isn’t and there is money being spent on refurbishing it and more people being employed."

While the southern part of the city gave her electorate its name, Dunedin South has big boundaries and many kilometres of terrain.

To handle the workload the electorate generated, Ms Curran divided it into seven areas, and found each had different interests and things which mattered to the people there.

One issue was universal across her electorate, though: the mental health system.

Like all local MPs, Ms Curran helped constituents navigate their interactions with the Government, but mental health patients and how they were treated were a constant issue — and she became personally involved in many of their battles.

"That is one of the things I won’t stop advocating for, it is an endemic issue across New Zealand," Ms Curran said.

"No matter how many millions of dollars we have put into mental health, it still has not seen changed attitudes or changed behaviours, or enhanced services for a lot of people.

"I believe our mental health system is systemically flawed, and many people cannot access it: there is still a lot of work to be done on that.’

There is one more piece of Parliamentary business Ms Curran wants to see through: the Holidays (Bereavement Leave for Miscarriage) Amendment Bill (No2).

The law change, which would allow couples who had experienced miscarriage or stillbirth to take bereavement leave, was inspired by a visit to Ms Curran’s office by Dunedin writer Kathryn van Beek.

Ms Curran, a minister at the time, could not advance a Member’s Bill; Wellington MP Ginny Anderson has taken up the cause, and Ms Curran has closely monitored its progress.

Ms Curran gives her valedictory speech in Parliament on Tuesday, and soon after the relentless, 24/7 life of an MP will suddenly stop.

"I don’t think people understand that you never stop, but that’s just what you take on ... one of the things about walking away from this job is that I might get my weekends back, and I have to come up with some hobbies.

"In the end you can only be who you are, and I never tried to be anybody else."

mike.houlahan@odt.co.nz


 

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