The Speaker, Trevor Mallard, is surprised a Select Committee cut short its investigation into an alleged attempt by Broadcasting Minister Clare Curran to pressure a witness before the Committee.
He is suggesting he may have disagreed with a decision by the Economic Development Select Committee not to further investigate alleged attempts by Broadcasting Minister, Clare Curran, to stop Radio New Zealand chair, Richard Griffin from appearing before the committee.
The Government used its majority on the committee to end the investigation.
The worst case for scenario for Curran, if the Committee had continued its investigations, may have been that she was found in contempt of Parliament which would have placed her Ministerial appointment at jeopardy.
Mallard’s comments in a letter to a National MP and in an interview with POLITIK cast doubt on Curran’s claims that she has been cleared by the Economic Development Select Committee and the implication that she has been exonerated.
Mallard clearly believes that the National MPs on the Committee were correct when they said there were still unanswered questions.
The decision not to take the matter any further was made by the three Labour MPs and one Green and one NZ First MP on the Committee over the objections of the five National MPs.
The chair is National MP, Jonathan Young, effectively giving the Government a majority on the committee.
The issue centres around a voicemail message left by Curran on Griffin’s phone allegedly suggesting he simply provide the Committee with a written statement rather than appearing before it.
He had asked to appear to clear up earlier statements he had made to the committee about a meeting between Curran and a Radio NZ executive, Carol Hirschfeld.
Griffin had been led to believe by Hirschfeld that the meeting was a casual encounter and Curran did not tell him it wasn’t until after he made his initial appearance before the committee.
Hirschfeld was forced to resign from Radio NZ as a consequence and National MP, Melissa Lee, began to pursue Curran in Parliament‘a Question Time suggesting that the meeting was an improper attempt by the Minister to compromise RNZ’s political independence.
Griffin did re-appear a second time and revealed that he had received a message from Curran.
“She (Curran) made it very clear that she wanted me to write a letter to the Chair of the Select Committee to be on his desk before one o’clock that day which would then ensure there wasn’t a public hearing,” said Griffin.
National MP Paul Goldsmith asked: “So did you receive an implication that you shouldn’t attend the Select Committee?”
Griffin: “The implication, as far as I was concerned, was that it would be far more satisfactory to all concerned if we just put a letter on the table and left it at that.”
Curran has subsequently contested Griffin’s account of the call though without providing any detail.
Lee asked Griffin if he would provide the committee with the voicemail.
Lee then wrote to the Speaker alleging that Curran had breached Parliamentary Privilege by improperly attempting to pressure a witness before a Select Committee.
Mallard replied that the way to get to the bottom of the matter was through further questioning of those involved.
“On the evidence presented it is not clear that there was any attempt to intimidate, prevent or hinder the chairperson of Radio New Zealand,” he said in his reply to Lee.
“Therefore I find that no question of privilege is involved.”
In an email to POLITIK Curran has argued that his decision has “cleared” her.
But that may not be the way Mallard sees it.
In his letter to Lee, he makes it clear that he believes the Committee had not exhausted its potential investigation into the matter.
What he doesn’t say – but which he has previously told POLITIK —- is that the Committee has the power to refer the request for the voicemail message to him.
Any refusal by Griffin to then provide it could also potentially be a Contempt of Parliament, possibly punishable by a fine.
But the Government used its majority on the committee to not refer the matter to Mallard, thereby protecting Curran.
Mallard was surprised by this decision.
“I had expected and had prepared for the committee asking me to send for a copy of the recording,” he told POLITIK.
”I thought that was a way to make absolutely clear which of the incompatible versions was correct.
“if I had had a request I would have taken action to require Mr Griffin to provide the message, as far as possible, because it had been deleted, but if it was possible that it could be recovered and that way make it clear what had occurred, and I was surprised that the committee did not ask for that to happen.”
Curran has been anxious that media understand that she has been cleared by the Committee, but Mallard’s letter to Lee and his statements to POLITIK suggest that he remains unconvinced that she iwas not at risk of facing a Privileges Committee hearing for contempt of Parliament.
However she is right that she is now clear because the committee presented its report to Parliament yesterday with no recommendation for any further action. But that does not mean she has been exonerated.