With the Government’s openness and transparency under attack, new Minister Clare Curran has had a busy first few months. She tells Shane Cowlishaw how she plans to shake-up both her own colleagues and the broadcasting sector she is now responsible for.
The new Minister for Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media is running late.
Returning from Auckland on an early morning flight, Clare Curran is fresh from meeting with the NZ On Air Board and industry stakeholders for the first time as, essentially, their new boss.
“There’s so much enthusiasm," she says. "I have to say everywhere I go, outside, every time I give a talk, people are rushing up to me, and this is in the tech environment, in the media environment and also the people who are passionate about openness and transparency...they are just so hopeful and excited.”
That there’s such enthusiasm from the public broadcasting sector for the new Government is perhaps unsurprising.
Radio New Zealand (RNZ) languished for years under a funding freeze before a boost in the election-year budget, while the general consensus is that NZ On Air could also do with some extra cash and a clearer remit on who it doles it out to.
After nine years toiling away in the Opposition, Curran says she has plans to not only make changes in her portfolios but change the way Government as a whole does business.
Coming up roses for RNZ, looking bleak for TVNZ
The Labour-led Government will indeed pump cash back into RNZ (referred to as ‘Red Radio’’ by some in the corridors of Parliament).
Under the current plan, the station will likely receive between an additional $20-30 million of a new $38m public media fund with the remainder to be divvied out to other media outlets doing investigative journalism through NZ On Air and an overarching public media funding commission.
The idea is for that money to be used by RNZ to launch itself into the television space, complementing its already strong radio offering and growing multimedia presence.
Curran sees it as a 'lite' version of Australia’s ABC and says it's a necessary investment to ensure the survival of public media that has been “hanging on by their fingertips”.
“I believe that media, the fourth estate, is incredibly important. In a democracy it’s that fourth pillar and even though there’s a public investment the operational decisions have to be kept very separate from Ministers and Government.”
A question that has repeatedly popped up since the plan was announced earlier in the year is whether the money will be enough to run a fully-fledged television station.
Curran is obviously expecting the funding question and bristles slightly, pointing out that there won’t be a need to build a station from scratch considering RNZ’s current resources and the ability of TVNZ to help out.
“I know there’s quite a lot of chatter out there in media land at the moment from people scoffing and carrying on saying ‘it’s not enough blah blah blah’, well, gee, it’s a damn sight more than has been invested in decades.
“People don’t know what it’s like to live in a country that has public interest television. I do, I lived in Australia for 14 and a half years...and the importance of it in terms of quality of debates, emphasis on local content, the ability to have media that focuses on the population and its needs rather than advertisers'.”
That statement naturally leads on to the question of corporate cousin TVNZ.
The station has been struggling alongside the rest of the media to chart a path in the digital age, with its profit plummeting 89 percent in the latest financial year.
It no longer has a public charter (that was scrapped by the last Government) but it is still required to return a dividend if possible.
Curran is cagey when quizzed about TVNZ’s fate, describing it as having a future “in the short to medium term” with revenue tracking higher in the next few years.
But a Treasury paper released on the department's website reveals that the Government may have to begin propping up the station itself from as early as 2021.
While not agreeing with Treasury completely, Curran admits things are worse than she expected and she was exploring ways the Government could assist in the short-term.
“What I will say is it’s more of an issue, more quickly, than I expected.
“I think that’s a conversation that’s going to evolve as to its future direction...it’s a hard environment but there are other levers Government can use to assist in the short term. I’m looking at those.”
More transparency, or a pipe dream?
Broadcasting aside, Curran has also been given the newly created role as the Minister in charge of ‘open government’.
Falling under her Associate State Services portfolio it’s a natural fit for Curran who during her years in opposition was a loud campaigner for greater transparency.
She repeatedly criticised the National-led coalition for refusing to improve government practice in the area and for gaming the Official Information Act (OIA).
But, of course, when the shoe is on the other foot those strong views can sometimes mellow.
Curran was apparently “half-hearted” when asked by the Otago Daily Times if she agreed the OIA was being manipulated for political purposes but is clearer now that it has happened in the past, but won’t in the future.
How can she be sure that a Labour Minister won’t do the same thing a year or two down the line, once they’re feeling more secure in their power?
“Through better processes and protocols being in place that we all sign up to and agree to. I don’t think it is being made to agree to it (formally), it’s about a will and getting things right.”
To push through this change, she and Justice Minister Andrew Little will review the Act and previous recommendations from the Law Commission and the Ombudsman and take a policy to Cabinet.
While the final result may not be a major legislative change, Curran is supportive of a former Labour Private Member’s Bill that called for the Ombudsman to be given the power to fine departments and Minister’s offices that inappropriately withheld information.
Real change will take time, she says, with a culture shift within the public service needed.
“To change the way that advice is provided, to the way in which it is released to the public, is not something that can be turned around overnight.
“It’s hugely frustrating, it means that people feel there’s a deliberate attempt to keep every piece of information withheld from public scrutiny. That is the thing that has to be turned around.”
While Curran has been a champion for transparency for several years, she probably did not expect it to become the centre point of Opposition attacks on the new Government so quickly.
A refusal to answer a flurry of Parliamentary written questions grabbed the media’s attention, followed by the decision to withhold a secret coalition document that led to accusations of hypocrisy and complaints to the Ombudsman.
Curran is critical of National’s written question tactic while claiming it was a good look for the Ombudsman to be investigating the new Government so early.
“I acknowledge the last few weeks have been confusing and difficult while we’re trying to work out how to respond. Having a tsunami of fairly pointless questions coming at you, in amongst those pointless questions are some valid questions and I think when everyone calms down and the opposition is putting in general requests, they should be answered.
“As far as I know any other material that’s being spoken about, whether it’s 38, 33 [pages], whatever, in whatever font it’s in - I’d love to know what font it’s in, is it comic sans? - is not part of the coalition agreement.
“I don’t know if it’s a draft, I know the Prime Minister has described it as notes and it’s not her document, what I do know is the Ombudsman has been asked to look at it and I think we’ve got to trust the Ombudsman.”
The new poverty measure
Another area Curran wants more transparency in is internet access.
Between 40,000 and 62,000 households with children don’t have the internet at home, which she describes as a damaging barrier to the education and future prospects of those young people.
While the previous Government focused heavily on delivering ultra-fast broadband (something she is quick to give Steven Joyce credit for), they had failed to heed the growing gap between those who could afford the internet and those that could not, Curran says.
“The divides between the people who have internet access and those that don’t, I call them the internet haves and the internet have-nots, is exposing the new measure of poverty.”
To solve that problem Curran is not ruling out intervening in market pricing or subsidising low-income families.
She also wants to work with Shane Jones to get proper broadband access rolled out to the regions faster and is a proponent of stringing fibre on electricity lines across private land.
When it comes to New Zealand’s overall approach to digital, she believes the country is lacking.
Though she has yet to get approval from Cabinet the introduction of a chief technology officer, similar to the role of chief science advisor Peter Gluckman, looks likely.
The position would set out a roadmap for the next five to ten years to close the digital divide and boost the ICT sector.
“I think [the previous Government] had run out of ideas and vision and they just didn’t have the will or oomph to do it," Curran says.
“I don’t want to put down MBIE, but when I look at the work programmes they’re very underwhelming around a vision, there’s no sort of hanging together of a digital strategy.”