Local democracy came to Island Bay this evening, and I – an undecided voter – joined the crowd at the local candidates’ meeting, in the Rongotai electorate. Candidates congratulated themselves on a well-fought campaign – as the National Party’s candidate put it, not a cross word had been spoken between any of them through all the various meetings they’ve attended together. Most of tonight’s meeting was like that. Most.
Over the years, I’ve heard nothing to suggest that the National Party’s candidate was other than an honourable and decent man. The Hon. Chris Finlayson is the 8th ranked Cabinet minister, minister responsible for the intelligence services, and Attorney-General. He appoints our judges. And as he described himself tonight, he is “the first law officer in the land”. You’d imagine he’d be at the forefront of defending the integrity of our democratic system and its institutions. But not based on his performance tonight.
The format of the meeting allowed questions from the floor. Each question had to be addressed to one particular candidate, but each other candidate also had a chance to answer. On almost all the questions, almost all the candidates took the opportunity to answer. But not on one question.
I got up and asked a question of Chris Finlayson, explicitly noting that I was not asking him as a minister responsible for the intelligence services (where I would have expected a fob-off) but as a senior National Party figure. My question ran roughly as follows:
“Mr Finlayson, last week one of the world’s leading newspapers, the Financial Times gave considerable prominence to a story about a New Zealand MP. That MP had been a member of the Chinese communist party, and part of the Chinese intelligence services. He never disclosed that past to the public when he stood for Parliament, and has never taken the opportunity to denounce the evils of the Chinese regime. Can you comment on why it is appropriate for such a person to be in our Parliament? And could you also comment on the new paper by Professor Anne-Marie Brady raising concerns about the extent of China’s attempts to exert political influence in New Zealand, and about the close ties of various senior National Party figures with Chinese interests?”
The question was greeted not with embarrassed silence, but with pretty vigorous applause from the floor.
Finlayson – our Attorney-General, first law officer of the land, senior National Party minister – got up, briefly. His answer ran roughly as follows:
“That was a Newsroom article, timed to damage the man politically. I’m not going to respond to any of the allegations that have been made about/against him. I think it is disgraceful that a whole class of people have been singled out for racial abuse. As for Professor Brady, I don’t think she likes any foreigners at all.”
And as I shouted back “the claim was about one man”, our Attorney-General sat down. He’d simply refused to answer, or even address, the question, at any level other than suggesting that anyone raising these quite serious issues was a racist or a xenophobe. Starting, presumably, with the Asia editor of the Financial Times, Jamil Anderlini a Kuwaiti-born Italian-American New Zealander who has spent almost 20 years in China, including more than a decade reporting from Beijing (and now is based in Hong Kong) through to Professor Brady, with all the other serious media outlets and China-focused commentators overseas who have reported the concerns somewhere in-between? It was preposterous. Plus, one couldn’t help thinking that he knew he was on weak ground. After all, if there was a clear, simple, authoritative and compelling explanation, presumably he’d have given it.
I hold the Attorney-General – first law officer of the land – to a considerably higher standard than other local candidates. And the specific question was actually about a National Party MP, National Party selection choices, and the ties of National Party figures to Chinese business and political interests.
And, as I said, on every other question this evening, all the other candidates rushed to the microphone to have their say, on everything from apprentices to housing to guidance counsellors. But not one of the others said a word on the Chinese government’s politicial influence seeking in New Zealand, or specifically on Jian Yang’s position. Not the Labour candidate – deputy mayor of Wellington, and sure to become a member of Parliament on Saturday. Not the quite highly ranked, and apparently very able, Greens candidate. Not the TOP candidate, or the Conservative candidate. Strangely, not even the New Zealand First candidate, who was presumably unaware that his party had taken a stand, both on Yang, and on the more general issues Professor Brady has raised about the activities in New Zealand of the Chinese government. Not a word, from a single one of them. It left me wondering about what our democracy was coming to.
As it happens, there was someone in the room who knew Professor Brady; in fact, this woman had done her masters thesis under Brady’s guidance. Noting that Finlayson had tried to claim that Professor Brady didn’t like any foreigners, she proceeded to point out that not only was Brady fluent in Mandarin, but that her husband was Chinese. Cue to guffaws and applause, and a rather grudging apology by the Attorney-General for his specific claims about one of our leading experts on China and its international activities.
It was a shameful performance all round. The candidates can congratulate themselves all they like on the bonhomie of the campaign, but when not one of them will even address a serious question, raising concerns themselves raised by serious international publications and respected experts – and Brady’s paper has been linked to and report quite widely – it rather gives the game away. As Professor Brady put it in her paper, the fear of giving any offence to the government of the People’s Republic of China – a brutal and aggressive dictatorship – seems to have been raised to a defining feature of New Zealand politics, and not just by National.
We saw it on display tonight, nowhere more so than in the despicable performance by our Attorney-General and first law officer. How safe is our democracy, our values and freedoms, our laws, in such hands?