18 Oct 2022

MP Barbara Kuriger spoke with minister about MPI dispute

4:30 pm on 18 October 2022
National MP Barbara Kuriger in the House

National MP Barbara Kuriger in the House Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor says he met with National's Barbara Kuriger and her son - who have both been involved in an ongoing dispute with the ministry - at an event.

He says it will be up to an individual investigation to decide if her handling of the matter was appropriate.

National's leader Christopher Luxon says he was not aware the MP - who resigned her portfolios last week over a conflict of interest - had spoken to the minister, but he is proud of the party's handling of Kuriger's conflict of interest.

Kuriger, the MP for Taranaki-King Country, resigned all her portfolios including agriculture late last week over a "personal dispute" with the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).

Her son Tony and her husband had been charged with animal cruelty offences in relation to a herd of cattle who were lame and suffering white line disease in 2016 and 2017.

The charges against her husband were dropped, but her son pleaded guilty to seven charges relating to not changing bandages on cows in January 2020. Following the case, Kuriger complained to the media of a political element to the way the case had been handled.

High-profile lawyer Mike Heron has been hired by MPI to investigate the handling of the case and the processes the ministry went through.

O'Connor this morning said he was aware of the Heron investigation and he would not preclude it by making a judgement on whether the ministry or Kuriger's involvement was appropriate.

"I've known about the case obviously for quite some time and we're really careful to make sure that it's conducted fairly and appropriately but I've left it up to MPI," he said.

Labour MP Damien O'Connor

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

He said he had brief discussions with Kuriger, including speaking with her and her son at an agriculture event.

"The discussions I've had - the brief ones I've had with Barbara - was to reassure her that the process has been conducted, as far as I'm concerned, fairly and to make sure that as an MP she had to be careful.

"It was an incident that had occurred before I was minister but obviously as the incoming minister she'd raised it with me briefly. I had met with her son on one occasion, he'd been brought up to talk with me and I was really careful.

"He was at an event, an agricultural event, and met with me ... I didn't engage in long conversation, I didn't think it would have been appropriate to have done that, but I meet a lot of people. I don't consider that inappropriate but, you know, anything that flows from that might have been."

Asked if she had been trying to lobby him on the matter, he said she had simply raised it.

"We might have had a couple of discussions over the years and she said the case is still ongoing. I didn't seek information about it.

"I just said it's not for me to make a judgement on this, there's a process under way, and I just reassured her - and I said to MPI to make sure this was handled appropriately.

"My dealings with Barbara have always been upfront and honest. I've found her to be a good person and obviously it's a difficult situation with her family, I'm not making a judgement on that. I have to make sure that from an MPI perspective the way that we handle those cases is appropriate."

Luxon told reporters this morning he had been unaware Kuriger had raised the matter with O'Connor until he was asked about it today. He said he had not been aware of her ongoing involvement in the dispute until he confronted her about it after being informed by a third party.

"I was unaware of her ongoing involvement in it and the ongoing nature of that dispute. It wasn't until we sat down, I went through all the situation with her that I registered that," he said.

National Party Leader Christopher Luxon

National leader Christopher Luxon Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"Essentially a conflict of interest has been started because she didn't recognise it, she didn't manage it, and as a result it's a lack of judgement and that's why she resigned her portfolios."

What he described as a "pretty straight-up conversation" had led her to resign, he said.

"She came to the conclusion that it was appropriate that she resign, I agree and it was entirely appropriate."

He said he relied on his MPs to raise conflicts of interest with him.

"I'm relying on my MPs, as I've reminded all of caucus, to be honest about your disclosures, to be really honest about managing conflicts. I think we've been incredibly decisive and clear on this issue, I think we've actually managed it incredibly quickly.

"I'm very proud of the decisiveness and the speed by which we've taken leadership on these kinds of issues and how we've been handling them."

He said he would be comfortable with Kuriger contesting her Taranaki-King Country seat at the next election.

"Barb's got a lot to offer. She's got a lot of great experience and we'll leave the door open for her in due course.

"She will learn from this experience, I'm very confident about that, and yes Barb has recognised that she didn't manage the conflict, she didn't recognise or manage the conflict well."

O'Connor said he had not got involved with the processes at the ministry.

"Her son was involved, and she was involved in the farm that had obviously been brought to the attention of MPI, I didn't get into the details of that - that was for a legal process to be followed," he said.

"I'm not going to make a judgement on what dealings she had directly with those people ... that's for Mike Heron to make a judgement, it's not for you or I to make that judgement, it will be independently assessed."

He said it was important for MPs to manage conflicts of interest carefully.

"I think she had the right as a parent to help her son. At what point you draw the line is something that Mike Heron would make a judgement on. I think as individual MPs my view is that actually I have to be extra careful when it comes to anything that my family might be involved in."

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