14 Oct 2022

Luxon: Barbara Kuriger's position was 'untenable'

7:43 pm on 14 October 2022
National Party leader Christopher Luxon (right) says Barbara Kuriger's (left) position had become untenable.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon (right) says Barbara Kuriger's (left) position had become untenable. Photo: RNZ

National Party leader Christopher Luxon says his MP Barbara Kuriger's position had become "untenable," something Kuriger herself also admitted.

The Taranaki-King Country MP has resigned from her agriculture, biosecurity, and food safety portfolios over a "significant" conflict of interest, related to an ongoing dispute she and her family have with the Ministry for Primary Industries.

"You just cannot be holding agricultural portfolios that interface, that MPI manage, while you also have a family dispute with MPI," Luxon said.

"There was an obvious conflict of interest. It wasn't registered, it wasn't recognised, it wasn't well-managed, and as a consequence that represents a serious lapse of judgement."

In 2018, Kuriger's son Tony and husband Louis were charged with animal cruelty offences, in relation to a herd of cattle which were lame and suffering white line disease in 2016 and 2017. More than 20 cows had to be euthanised.

Tony Kuriger was convicted after pleading guilty in January 2020, while charges against Louis Kuriger were dropped.

"My family has a long history of caring for animals, and holds animal welfare as one of our strongest values. I can confirm that I've kept National Party leadership fully informed throughout the investigation," Kuriger said in 2018, when the charges were initially laid.

However, it seems Kuriger did not keep leadership informed of what happened after the case.

In a New Zealand Herald interview in June 2020, shortly after her son's bid to be discharged without conviction failed, Kuriger complained of a political element to the way the case was handled by staff of Fonterra.

As for the specifics of the Kuriger family's dispute with MPI, Luxon said it was a matter for the Kuriger family to talk about.

But Kuriger said she would not be commenting beyond a statement, which said she accepted the conflict should have been recognised sooner, but she worked to keep it separate from her work.

"This has created a blurred line with my portfolio responsibilities and in order to continue to support my family, I am stepping aside," she said.

"Although the dispute is, for me, a personal matter which I have endeavoured at all times to keep separate from my professional role, I accept there has been a conflict of interest which I should have recognised sooner, and managed."

National Party leader Christopher Luxon reading a statement about outgoing Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger in Rolleston on 14 October, 2022.

Christopher Luxon reading a statement about outgoing Taranaki-King Country MP Barbara Kuriger in Rolleston today. Photo: RNZ / Adam Burns

Luxon said the matter was raised with him by a third party "a week or so ago," and admitted the outcome might have been different had he known earlier. He said he was aware of the court proceedings, which happened before his time in politics, but it was not until the full a conversation with Kuriger on Thursday night that he became aware of the ongoing nature of the dispute, and her involvement with it.

During the conversation, it became clear there was only one option, although Luxon would not say whether Kuriger chose to resign, or was pushed to.

"We had a very good conversation going through the detail of it all of last night, and it became apparent that maintaining and holding onto those portfolios was untenable," Luxon said.

Luxon would not be drawn on questions over whether Kuriger used her official email address of National Party letterhead in the dispute.

"Regardless of whether she's using her email, what email address she's using, the big substantive issue here is there is no doubt about it, there is a major conflict of interest."

Nearly a year into the job as leader, and a year out from the election, Luxon is spinning the situation positively, saying it's an example of his party and team facing up to their behaviour. But he has indicated he is not afraid to wield the axe.

"I want to be able to run with a team that has the highest possible standards, that's really important to me. Where there are obvious conflicts of interest, where there are disclosures that need to be made, I expect each of my 33 MPs to do so," he said.

When Kuriger was appointed National's agriculture spokesperson in August last year, she told Rural News Group the appointment was a "dream come true," and her "reason for being in Parliament."

Luxon said she still had a lot to offer, but all but ruled out a return to her favoured role.

"It's highly unlikely she'll have agricultural portfolios going forward."

For now, Kuriger is staying on as Taranaki-King Country MP, the electorate she has held since 2014. Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller will take on all of her portfolios, in an acting capacity.

Luxon said he still intended to undertake a wider caucus reshuffle in the coming months.

The Ministry for Primary Industries declined to comment.