It was remarkable to pick up the Herald yesterday and find their coverage of the SFO prosecutions over the donations to the National Party given over to some “gotcha” attacks on Jami-Lee Ross. The huge headline is “Own Goal” and the next level down is “Jami-Lee Ross’ spectacular political faux pas”. Almost as if it were some sort of National Party newsletter.
Three things struck me about the Herald’s coverage (and, as far as I could see, other mainstream media were not that much different).
The first was that this jeering at Jami Lee-Ross’s comeuppance seems a weird approach for a major media outlet to take, when we’d not have known anything about the events now subject to prosecutions on serious charges without Jami-Lee Ross’s disclosures. There was certainly no sign the Herald had been getting to the bottom of the issues. Whistleblowers have a wide variety of motives, and not all of them are noble – and even those with elements of nobility are not infrequently tinged with more than a little of the less savoury side of things. And yet we rely on whistleblowers to uncover lots of wrongdoing: in specific circumstances, we even have statutory protections for them (but whistleblowing often comes with costs to the whistleblower, perhaps especially if they themselves have been directly involved in the alleged wrongdoing).
I guess I could understand the attacks at Ross’s expense had he, prior to all this coming out, been a longstanding public campaigner for clean elections, transparent financing of political parties, keeping foreign influence out of politics etc etc. The (apparent) hypocrisy would be stunning – akin to, for example, the morals campaigner caught in an extra-marital affair. But that wasn’t Ross. Did anyone ever mistake him for the moral face of politics when he was rising rapidly up the ranks of the National Party?
Perhaps he just generally was not a very nice or admirable person – there are, for example. those reports of his flagrant, repeated, violations of his marriage vows etc. But the fact remains that this wrongdoing (as alleged by the prosecutors for the SFO) would not be known had Ross simply stayed silent, whether that had involved continuing his efforts to climb National’s greasy pole, or just moving on quietly. Either might have suited the National Party. But it isn’t clear why such silence – about these specific donations, or about his involvement with others (Todd McClay and the PRC billionaire) that aren’t illegal but aren’t universally regarded as proper either – would have been in the wider public interest. Unless, somehow, all that now matters to the New Zealand elite (political, media or whoever) is maintaining that veneer of cleanness, even when they know the substance has become very different.
Perhaps some of the jeering might have seemed reasonable to some back in late 2018 when the story first broke. But the SFO clearly seem to think there is enough evidence that makes it worth a severely resource-constrained organisation actually laying charges on points of substance. It doesn’t have the feel any longer of something just relying one (motivated) individual’s words.
And to Ross’s credit, since the story first broke (and all the drama of that time) Ross does seem to made some effort to contribute constructively to the public debate on some of the policy issues around donations to political parties. He participated in the Justice committee’s (rather lame) inquiry into foreign interference, and spoke very forcefully in the House when the government was pushing through its travesty of a foreign donations law in December (the one that accomplished almost nothing useful,but perhaps looked/sounded to some like action). Who knows quite what mix of motivations he has. Perhaps some desire to bring down the existing National Party leadership (in Parliament and outside) with whom he previously worked so closely. Perhaps some element of genuine remorse, or recognition of how far he himself had been part of the system degrading. In a way, his motives don’t matter – it is the facts and the merits (or otherwise) of his arguments. No one appears to have contested the facts around the Todd McClay/billionaire donation. Few appear willing to openly champion the current law which allows tightly-held foreign-owned New Zealand registered companies to donate freely to our political parties (even as none of the parties is willing to end that provision). Ross’s call – having been a key figure in the alternative model in recent years – that only those registered to vote in New Zealand should be able to donate is a constructive contribution to the debate on our future laws (one I happen to agree with, but that isn’t the main point here).
In many ways, Ross seems an unsympathetic character – down to and including the claims about whether he had ever wanted his name suppressed – but when alleged serious wrongdoing is only brought to light by the voluntary choices of one individual (however self-destructive some of those choices might also be for now), there is something a bit tawdry and desperate about media kicking the man when he is down. Better, surely, to encourage Ross to tell us all he knows – and then test and scrutinise such claims/records – whether or not particular actions happen to skirt inside current law or pass to other side of the law.
Perhaps the second thing that struck me was how little all of the coverage tied back to the National Party. Jami-Lee Ross was re-elected to Parliament at the 2017 election under National’s imprimatur, and he was hardly a peripheral figure. In fact, he’d risen quite rapidly and might have seemed to be a face of the future. He was Chief Whip, and then was moved further up into senior spokesman roles. Most likely, he’d have been a Minister of the Crown had National remained in office after 2017. The (alleged) donation splitting occurred both when National was in office (under Bill English) and while it was out of office (under Simon Bridges). Not only had Bridges promoted him, but read the transcript of one of those calls between the two of them – only a few months before all this became public – and this clearly wasn’t someone on the outer with the leadership, no matter how quickly they later jettisoned him (while still trying to pretend nothing was wrong).
Before the names of those being charged become public, National had sought to distance itself with a statement welcoming the fact that no one now involved in the National Party had been charged. But it doesn’t really wash does it, when (mostly from that transcript)
- the donations involved were to the National Party,
- the recipient of the donation (the Botany National Party account), and liaison with the donors, was a front-bench National MP,
- one of those charged had hosted Bridges and Ross to dinner at his house, and Bridges was planning to host him for dinner at his own house (with Ross also to be invited),
- one of the others of those charged was quite openly being championed for a place on the National Party list, and – we are told – had put his name in to go through National’s “candidates’ college” – which presumably would require either prior party membership or some high level support from somewhere in the party,
- one of those charged had been nominated not long previously for an honour by another National MP.
Very conveniently, National is now saying nothing further on the grounds that “the matter” is before the courts. And isn’t it convenient for them, in an election year, that the justice system works so very slowly that the cases are unlikely to come to trial before the election (and then, of course, we’ll have excuses about rights of appeal etc). The defendants are entitled to a fair trial, but the public – voting just a few months from now – is also entitled to some straight answers from National and its leaders.
I’m not here taking a view on whether Bill English or Simon Bridges (or perhaps John Key before them) knew about the specific transactions and conduct over which the four individuals have been charged, in ways that might render them liable themselves to prosecution. Who knows (perhaps Ross, but he has yet to produce firm proof). And frankly, I’m less interested in prosecutions as such, than in the underlying culture and conduct. And there it is very hard to believe that the party leaders (in Parliament and outside) were somehow oblivious to that, especially when a rising MP is involved. Organisations are rarely like that, when something pretty central (for a political party these days, fundraising) is involved, even if key people sometimes deliberately refuse to inquire more deeply into methods, lest that knowledge prove awkward.
This is the bit from the transcript that struck me
JLR: [laughs] Hey um you know at Paul Goldsmith’s function you saw those two Chinese guys, Zhang Yikun and Colin? You had dinner at their home?
JLR: They talked to you about a hundred thousand dollar donation –
JLR: That is now in.
and, a little later,
JLR: Donations can only be raised two ways – party donation or candidate donation. Party donation has a different disclosure which is fine, and the way they’ve done it meets the disclosure requirements – sorry, it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level because they’re a big association and there’s multiple people and multiple people make donations, so that’s all fine, but if it was a candidate donation it’s different. So making them party donations is the way to do it. Legally, though, if they’re party donations they’re kind of under Greg’s name as the party secretary, so –
Bridges doesn’t challenge, dispute, express surprise or anything here. The conversation just moves on.
It just beggars belief that Bridges did not know that what was being talked about here was, at very least, sailing extremely close to the legal line. Note that “hundred thousnad dollar donation” and the description “it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level because they’re a big association and there’s multiple people and multiple people make donations”. No talk of 20 people independently chipping in and the total happening to come up to $100000, no talk of an aim that a group might look to raise something like $100000 – but explicit prior talk (with a key figure being someone we are told does not speak English) about “a $100000 donation” – a description Bridges clearly recognised – and then once the money is in talk about how “it” meets the requirements. Bridges either knew/realised, or actively preferred not to. Neither should be acceptable in someone who wants to be Prime Minister.
It is remarkable that Bridges is not facing more scrutiny, relentlessly, whether from the media (every time he faces the media), in Parliament, or from other political parties more generally. Even just straightforward questions like were any of the other defendants (notably Colin Zheng) ever National Party members, for how long, when did that membership cease? Have other caucus members dined privately with any of the other three defendants? What exact role does the leader play in party fundraising? And so on.
(For the record, and in case it has not long been clear, while this particular issue involves the National Party, I have no unusual animus towards them – except perhaps as a party for whom a social conservative pro-market middle-aged person might more normally be inclined to vote for.)
The third aspect of the coverage that I find perhaps most troubling is the near-complete media silence on the connections of one of the defendants, the Auckland businessman Yikun Zhang. These are issues which have no direct bearing, it would appear, on the cases to come before the courts, and yet nothing.
It isn’t as if Yikun Zhang is some independent and private individual who just happened to one day invite the Leader of Opposition (and his senior offsider Ross) home to dinner and out of the goodness of his heart popped a modest donation into the National Party account. Apart from anything, media reports of a statement issued on behalf of the defendants suggests they claim to have given to various different parties (a point which really should be verified). But when you don’t speak English, you don’t invite senior politicans home for dinner – let alone welcome an invitation to dinner at the Leader of the Opposition’s (no doubt much less fancy – as Bridges says, less-good wine) house – for the quality of the sparkling intellectual debate around, policy, political philosophy or the mechanics of government.
This rather is someone who seems to assiduously cultivate associations – how much substantive, how much photo-op isn’t clear – with almost anyone in New Zealand political circles. Before his background was widely known, he pops up in photos with Andrew Little, Jacinda Ardern, Raymond Huo, Phil Goff, Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges, Jami-Lee Ross, Jian Yang, Simeon Brown, Paul Goldsmith and more. He was nominated for his 2018 Queen’s Birthday honour – conferred under Labour, initiated (we are told) under National – with nominations from prominent National and Labour politicians. Not the sort of thing that happens to your run-of-the-mill community-oriented private citizen.
Yikun Zhang’s net stretches more widely: there are the ties to the Gary Tong, Mayor of Southland, which came to light a couple of year ago. Tong went to China with Yikun Zhang. Not a typical connection for a businessman with an Auckland construction company. [UPDATE: Anne-Marie Brady reminds us of this interview with Gary Tong, acting as some sort of mouthpiece for, and defender of, Yikun Zhang in 2018.]
And what of Yikun Zhang’s associations back in the PRC? Auckland ethnic Chinese writer Chen Weijian documented those a couple of a years ago. I wrote about it here, where I observed
On my reading, the author’s key point is that the evidence of Zhang Yikun’s close association with the Chinese Communist Party, and the high regard in which he is held by the Party, is crystal clear. Among that evidence is his very rapid ascent in various significant organisations that are part of the party-state’s overall United Front programme.
and there is a translation of the original article here. None of this seems to have been disputed. It looks a lot as though Yikun Zhang’s principal orientation – despite now being a New Zealand citizen (how do we let people become citizens when can’t speak English – or, presumably, Maori?) is to the CCP/PRC. Since then specialist China commentators have further highlighted the prominent position Yikun Zhang has in the regime’s United Front activities, advancing the interests of the CCP at home and abroad. (There is no suggestion that any of this is illegal.)
All this became public knowledge more than a year ago. You’d have hoped that political leaders would have done due diligence on people their leaders are regularly photographed with, but even if they’d chosen to keep their eyes wide shut before late 2018, they had no such excuse since.
And yet remarkably, even after the material about his background, even after the allegations re donations emerged, there is little or no sign that either side of politics has become warier of Yikun Zhang. One of his big activities last year was the international conference for a grouping of people from the area he originally came from in China, which was held in Auckland.
He’d managed to get the National Party’s president – known for his past praise of the PRC regime and of Xi Jinping – to serve as honorary chairman of this conference, and the turnout of prominent political people, from both sides, is striking. There is an article from the PRC consulate here (open in Chrome for a translation), featuring (perhaps among others) John Key, Jian Yang, Anne Tolley, David Parker, Jenny Salesa, Willy Jackson, Peter Goodfellow, Raymond Huo, Nicky Kaye and Phil Goff.
This is one very well-connected person, across both sides of politics, with considerable pulling power, who was gifted a New Zealand honour essentially for services to Beijing……who is now facing serious charges around electoral donations. Who was known for months to have been caught up in allegations around party donations. And yet our politicians – National and Labour – just wouldn’t stay away.
I hope at least somewhere in our media one assiduous journalist, working with people who can navigate the Chinese language sources, is doing a serious investigative piece on Yikun Zhang and his connections – local, and in Beijing. Perhaps it wouldn’t sell many papers on the day – all those confusing acronyms etc – but it is the sort of scrutiny our tarnished democracy needs.
It all looks, from the outside, like that combined New Zealand “elite” determination to do all its possibly can to never ever upset Beijing, to pander in public and behind the scenes, to tap apparently generous sources of donations from people without regard to their ties to an alien regime with no regard for democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights. Keep the deals flowing, keep the dollars flowing, make sure no one can ever drive a wedge between the CCP and the National and Labour parties. It is why, to me, the big issue isn’t really whether or not Yikun Zhang, Jami-Lee Ross or the other split donations to get round the law – courts can and eventually will rule on that – but the value-free mentality that has taken over our political “leadership”. What was Simon Bridges doing going to dinner at the house of someone with such close regime ties, discussing party donations with, and soliciting from, him – he was hardly a personal friend (that English language gap is telling)? Why were MPs, mayor, and the Cabinet getting together to honour him? Why was such a galaxy of political figures turning up at his event, all of them surely realising the regime-affiliation and interests of all such events? But then why was Jacinda Ardern posing alonside Xi Jinping in Beijing a few months ago, why was Simon Bridges meeting the Politburo person in charge of domestic security (Xinjiang and all that), and so on? The pander continued as recently as this week, with the PM reportedly calling for a minute’s silence at the Lunar New Year function at Parliament for those who’ve died of the coronavirus – nothing wrong with that perhaps in its own right but, of course,she’s never called out the deaths and mass imprisonments in Xinjiang, the imprisonments and persecutions that inhibit freedom of speech and worship and politics in the PRC, or the tens of millions of live that regime has claimed.
Then again, these are the parties that (in National’s case) keep Jian Yang in Parliament and (in the case of all the other parties) do and say nothing about it, the parties that administer a government adminstration that seems unbothered by Jian Yang’s acknowledgement that he had lied about his past to get into the country. It is shameful, and it is mostly not covered by our media.
In ending, some kudos to David Seymour, the ACT MP, re Yikun Zhang. On his telling
“I’m pretty happy I didn’t take the invitation to a private dinner at Yikun Zhang’s house right now,” Seymour, leader of the ACT Party, told reporters on Wednesday.
“Multiple times the guy invited me to have a private dinner at his house and I thought ‘that sounds dodgy’ and never went…I have no idea what his intentions were.”
Seymour said he received the invitation in 2018, adding: “I don’t normally go to their house for dinner if I don’t know them and we can’t speak the same language – very unusual.”
He said Zhang Yikun “made frequent appearances at various Chinese events on the calendar that a lot of MPs go to” and that he would usually have “several intermediaries standing around who would speak English”.
Seymour said, “On multiple occasions he tried to get me to have dinner at his house, I said I won’t do that, he said ‘I own a restaurant and we could meet there’, and I said that sounds worse.
“So, as a result I never had any kind of arranged meeting with the guy and I’m pleased about that.”
It can be done.