Did the Culture Minister overstep with Te Papa letter?

Facing accusations he’s overstepped his power, Culture Minister Paul Goldsmith is sticking by his decisions lobby the chair of Te Papa Tonagrewa to remove a spray painted copy of The Treaty of Waitangi.

Opposition parties are now calling for Prime Minister Christopher Luxon to intervene, while accusing Goldsmith of breaching the rules governing Te Papa, the national museum. “The Minister may not give a direction to the Board in relation to cultural matters,” rules say.

Last year, protesters abseiled down the Treaty exhibit at Te Papa and spray painted a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi (English version). Their protest was against the understanding of Te Tiriti, saying the display was not relevant. They said Te Tiriti (the Māori text) was paramount, and claimed this exhibit gave wrongly placed prominence with both documents on a level playing field.

The spray paint was left on the exhibit over summer, and Te Papa staff reported an increased level of attendance to see the damage.

Why it matters

Ministers are prohibited from over stepping their powers or placing undue influence on operational decision making.

Goldsmith has vocally campaigned for Te Papa to remove the damaged exhibit. This has included repeated comments to reporters, a letter to Te Papa chairperson Dame Fran Wilde, and calls directly to Wilde.

After requests from reporters on Thursday, Goldsmith released the letter he sent to Wilde.

Goldsmith is not the first minister in this Government to face accusations of over-stepping their authority.

The arguments

Goldsmith said his letter and calls were sharing “expectations” and his opinion - not “instructing” or “directing” the museum.

“It’s just giving a clear indication of what I expected. They were quite clear it wouldn’t be able to come down over summer. While, the summer has ended and it’s time to have it replaced,” he said, doubling down when Stuff asked if he’d breached the Act.

“It’s about giving my ministerial view and I think all New Zealanders would expect a minister will have a view on these matters and should articulate that to the chair of the board.”

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said the National Party would have come down hard on ministers caught doing this while it was on the Opposition benches.

“They were very clear about ministers not swerving into the lane of breaking rules. He is their minister, he’s got massive powers, he’s gonna rock up to the board and say ‘please take the sign down’. How is that not supposed to be received other than a ‘direction’?

She said this wasn’t the first time Luxon’s ministers have faced questions about overstepping their mark.

“The prime minister needs to get a handle on these ministers already starting to break those laws,” she said.

Labour’s culture spokesperson, Rachel Boyack, said the letter was in breach of the rules governing Te Papa.

“As minister, he should not be determining what is and isn’t displayed, and he certainly shouldn’t be calling the board chair about it,” she said.

Luxon denied there was a trend of ministers overstepping their mark.

Wilde said she didn’t think Goldsmith had directed her.

“The museum said last year the panel would be removed after the summer season and that work continues, with the minister receiving regular updates on progress,” she said.

The history

Earlier this month, Luxon faced questions about whether David Seymour - as a shareholding minister of TVNZ - had overstepped by directly critiquing 1 News.

His comments led Broadcasting Minister Melissa Lee to intervene, and she “spoke to him” about the comments.

Last year, the National Party was highly critical of former broadcasting minister Willie Jackson and former police minister Stuart Nash over their comments to TVNZ and police.

Nash resigned as police minister after he admitted to encouraging Police Commissioner Andrew Coster to appeal a court decision.

And National called for Jackson to resign after he told TVNZ’s Jack Tame that he would send him to Celebrity Treasure Island after his “negative” questions during an interview.