Contemptible

I’m sure many, perhaps even most, of those who purport to be “leaders” in New Zealand are at some level decent people.  Mostly, they probably love their spouses, hope for the best for their kids, and at some private level many probably conduct themselves according to some sort of values and morality the rest of us might recognise.

But I’ve increasingly come to doubt that many (if any) in their public roles care for anything much at all beyond deals, donations, keeping their job, and perhaps the sugar-high of costlessly cheering on popular causes.  If the only true measure of the values of a (purported) leader is what they are willing to pay a price, or incur a cost, for, there aren’t many other values on display at all.

There is a myriad of issues which could be used to illustrate my point: in the economic sphere one could point to the utter failure to deal with the regulatory disaster that puts home-ownership out of the reach of so many (at a time when it should –  global low real and nominal interest rates –  be more readily achievable than ever), or the indifference and lets-pretend approach taken to the decades-long disaster that is the New Zealand productivity performance.  How does almost anyone who has been in elected government over the last 25 years not hang their head in shame?

But the issue that finally crystallised my own total disillusionment with “leaders” in New Zealand is the obsequious, deferential, cowardly, values-free approach taken to the People’s Republic of China, which continues to deepen even as the regime’s excesses, including attempts to exert influence in New Zealand, become more apparent and better known.    Perhaps  –  not really though, these were the butchers of Tiananmen –  there were excuses 15 years ago (all those somewhat-deluded dreams of the PRC evolving towards (semi-free) Singapore). But even if there were excuses then, there are none now.  It is hard to think of a single dimension on which the CCP-controlled PRC operates according to the sorts of values, practices and precepts which New Zealanders have typically sought to live by, and which New Zealand has been willing to fight for.  No rule of law, no freedom of speech, no political freedom, no religious freedom, mass incarceration of minorities who fall foul of the regime, kidnapping of law-abiding foreigners, sustained and intensifying threats to a free and democratic neighbour, claims to the loyalties of ethnic Chinese in other countries (regardless of citizenship), wholesale state-sponsored intellectual property theft, attempts to shutdown critics in other countries, and so on.   There is mounting evidence of the aggressive activities of the regime in New Zealand and countries like ours.

And yet our leaders –  political, business, religious or whatever – almost without exception say nothing, ever.  And do nothing either, other than continue to pander, to ask only “how high?” when the regime suggests that jumping might be a good idea.  Deals, donations, customers I guess.  Never mind any sort of morality, any sort of decency.  Any meaningful values.

We’ve seen it on display this week, in two cases that directly involve the activities of the PRC embassy and its consulates in New Zealand.   First, there was the AUT case, in which the Vice-Chancellor and his senior management rushed around madly trying to assuage the hurt feelings of the PRC, ensuring that a booking for a meeting to mark the 30th anniversary of the Tainanmen Square massacre (“incident” as the AUT senior managers descrived it) was cancelled.    They can play diversion all they want, talking of how the building wouldn’t have been open on a public holiday anyway, but everyone recognises how thin that excuse is, when we see the Vice-Chancellor of a New Zealand university writing to the consulate

“Happily, on this instance your concerns and ours coincided, and the event did not proceed at the university,”

“Happily”?   The man seems to have no decency at all when dollars might be at stake.  It reads and sounds a lot like the only value left in his university –  well, our university actually –  is the dollars.  Not truth, not freedom of expression, nothing of the sort  (those reminders occasionally of a statutory role of universities to be “critic and conscience of society” –  not something I’d look to overwhelmingly left-wing institutions for, but let that be for now), just dollars.

There has been some blowback against McCormack and his managers.  I was left wondering how different any other New Zealand university Vice-Chancellor would have been –  perhaps some would have phrased things a bit more neutrally, or even avoided writing things down (the OIA and all that), but they seem as bad as each other.   Have you heard a senior New Zealand academic figure ever criticise the PRC, including for the intensifying restrictions on the “freedoms” of academics in the PRC.  I haven’t.   None of them came out this week and distanced themselves from AUT.

But what was really striking was how feeble the political response was. Only David Seymour seemed to care enough to speak.  Not a single National Party MP was heard to comment.  And the Minister of Education was reduced to mouthing a few cliched points and then spluttering about how important the relationship with the PRC was.    We didn’t see the China Council –  who often tells us how important New Zealand values are to them (but never tell us which ones) –  saying that this sort of conduct –  from the Consulate, but particularly from the university –  stepped over the mark, or suggesting that –  in the face of the PRC refusal to acknowledge what went on in 1989, and to offer any contrition – in a free society we should encourage efforts to remember and draw attention to what Beijing did.    “Friends” and “partners” in Beijing seem more important to all of them: “friends” was what National called the CCP/PRC in their international affairs document just a few months ago, “partners” seems to be what successive governments call these tyrants (just last month the current government signed up to a defence cooperation agreement with them).

That episode was bad.  But the real low point of the week was the open effort by the PRC embassy/consulate to laud those students who sought to disrupt a peaceful protest at the University of Auckland –  a foreign embassy cheering on lawlessness in New Zealand.   As the Herald reported the initial events

The university launched a formal investigation after three Chinese men were filmed clashing on campus with protesters who were against a controversial extradition bill.
A woman was pushed to the ground by one of the men, and the police are now seeking the identities of those involved in the incident.

The PRC consulate statement is here.

The Consulate General expresses its appreciation to the students for their spontaneous patriotism, and opposes any form of secessionism. We strongly condemn those engaged in activities of demonizing the images of China and HKSAR government, inciting anti-China sentiment and confrontation between mainland and Hong Kong students, through distorting the factual situation in Hong Kong under the pretext of so-called freedom of expression.

As far as I can tell, of our entire Parliament and our entire “establishment” more generally, again only David Seymour was moved to comment.   About a flagrant intervention by a foreign embassy into the internal affairs of New Zealanders, encouraging and celebrating lawlessness.     Even for the China Council, or the National Party, or the budding National Party candidate currently running Air New Zealand, perhaps this might have been a step too far.  Or what about the group of university vice-chancellors collectively?  The best proof that you actually have limits –  values, self-respect etc –  is when you demonstrate it, by calling out an egregious breach of acceptable standards.  This was surely one of those, to anyone of any decency.   Does Don McKinnon –  chair of the China Council –  really regard this as acceptable conduct?  And if not –  and surely he doesn’t really –  why won’t he say so?   China Council Executive Director Stephen Jacobi seems to be a decent chap personally –  occasionally, he even gets let off the leash and has made the odd mildly critical comment on his personal Twitter account.  He objected strongly a couple of weeks ago when I suggested that the China Council functioned to provide cover for the CCP, writing to (cc’ed to one of his Advisory Board members) in a Twitter exchange

“Say what you like but associating the NZ China Council with the CPC is really rather silly.”

Wouldn’t this episode have been an ideal opportunity for him and the China Council to have demonstrated that there are limits, that there is such a thing as unacceptable activities by the PRC Embassy in New Zealand (who they mostly champion and celebrate).  But not a word.  I guess Beijing prefers it that way.

And, which is really the point, probably Wellington too.  I imagine that there was a collective intake of breath at MFAT when they saw the Consulate statement; an “oh not”, a “they really shouldn’t have said that”.    But what does that amount to. even if so?  Precisely nothing.   There has been not a word from the Prime Minister (and leader of the Labour Party), not a word from the Foreign Minister (and leader of New Zealand First), not a word from the Greens (for whom I once had a sneaking regard on some of these sorts of issues), not a word from a single government minister or backbencher.  None. Not a word.

One of my readers –  from the tone, someone who knows of what he speaks – left a comment here

Promoting violence and disorder in the receiving State is a transgression that would normally result in any diplomat’s expulsion as persona non grata. But the New Zealand government obviously has no self-respect so these people can get away with whatever they choose to do.

There haven’t been expulsions, but there haven’t even been public statements.  Not a word. I guess it is always possible that someone from MFAT had a word with the consulate, but when the PRC Embassy is openly cheering on lawlessness in New Zealand, there needs to be an open, public, response and rebuke.  At least if our government, our establishment, stand for anything other than deals and dollars.  And if they want us to believe they take these things at all seriously.

In a very similar situation last week in Australia, Marise Payne Australia’s Foreign Minister put out a pretty forceful statement making it clear that such behaviour from foreign diplomats in Australia was not acceptable.  It was still milder than it should have been –  no naming specific names, no calling in of the Ambassador –  but it was a great deal better than the shameful supine silence of our Prime Minister, Foreign Minister (and Leader of the Opposition).   It looks a lot as though, when it comes to the PRC, all our purported leaders care about is party donations and the sales prospects of a few export businesses (public –  universities –  and private).  And our backbench MPs –  just keeping their seats I supposed (both main party presidents have been cheerleaders for the PRC regime) – not a single one, on either side, broke ranks.  Values, decency, morality just didn’t seem to come into it. Neither it appears does any sense of prudence –  if we don’t draw the line somewhere, the PRC is likely to simply keep on pushing.  I don’t suppose they see themselves as pursuing Beijing’s interests, but in substance that is exactly what they are doing.

(These three –  Ardern, Peters, Bridges –  were also all notable for their silence, apparent utter indifference, to the attempts to intimidate Anne-Marie Brady, and have given no leadership to the meandering foreign interference select committee inquiry.)

It is sickening.   No doubt each individual compromise and choice to stay silent doesn’t amount to very much, but they add up to something shameful: “leaders” who have simply abandoned any sense of the things New Zealand once represented and stood for, seemingly just to keep the next dollar flowing and keep a quiet life.

Are there rare, and puzzling, exceptions?  There are, and the New Zealand government’s recent choice to join 21 other countries in signing a letter of protest at what the PRC is up to in Xinjiang, is one of those.   It was, of course, better that they signed than not but it is almost as if the New Zealand government was embarrassed to have done so, perhaps “coerced” into doing so from other free and democratic countries.   Little or nothing has been heard from the government on the letter, nothing (in support) from the Opposition.  There is no sign they represent any decent values at all.

In an exchange earlier this week, someone suggested that the tide was turning.  “Look how much progress has been made since 2017” I was told.  I wasn’t persuaded.  2017 was when the background of Jian Yang, the National Party MP who had been a Communist Party member and part of the PRC military intelligence system, and who was never ever heard to say a critical word about the PRC (not even about Tiananmen Square), was revealed to the public. It was when Anne-Marie Brady’s Magic Weapons paper was published.   There was a bit of debate, some controversy –  including when Jian Yang acknowledged that he has actively misrepresented his past, on Beijing’s instruction, when applying for citizenship/residency.

But where are we now, almost two years on?    Jian Yang still sits in Parliament, in the National Party caucus –  in fact, he got a promotion this week and now (almost incredibly, but this is New Zealand) chairs a parliamentary select committee.  No one else in politics makes a fuss, there are no media calls for him to be de-selected.   In the intervening period, he and Phil Goff got together to get a royal honour awarded to another person with close CCP ties, whom National had been soliciting for donations.  No electoral laws have changed.    Phil Goff is still free to fund his campaign with anonymous bids for the works of Xi Jinping.   The government is signing defence agreements with the (increasingly aggressive) PRC, and the Prime Minister rushed off to Beijing to placate the PRC.  And now, when the PRC consulate grossly oversteps and attempts to directly interfere in free expression (“so-called”) in New Zealand no one in authority says or does anything.

Optimists tell me there is a groundswell of discontent among the public.  Perhaps.  But people don’t much like high house prices, and nothing serious gets done about that either.    Selective elite interests, and a comtemptible fear of a distant foreign power, seem to drive our political “‘leaders”, who seem now to inhabit a values-free zone when it comes to attitudes to one of the worst regimes (that matter much) on the planet today.   Their predecessors – National and Labour, who resisted Nazism and Soviet Communism –  would be ashamed of them. We should too.  On this issue in particular they have become  contemptible.

Why does good government matter?

That was the title of a speech Jacinda Ardern gave in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago.   For the short trip to Melbourne, the Prime Minister had eschewed commercial flights and taken an RNZAF plane instead, only to have the plane break down.  It later emerged (page 11) that her office knew how badly this bit of New Zealand’s government was run

757.png

There must have been some wry chuckles in parts of the Australian government and public sector.

The “progressives” who turned out to hear Ardern (it was an ANZSOG event, so I presume lots were public servants and academics) appear to have loved her.  Stuff reported that

The event on Thursday night attracted more than 2000 people. Ardern appeared to rapturous applause, and was told that she had put fire in the belly and power in the hearts of Australians.

In The Guardian one particular left-wing Australian academic, a former adviser to Julia Gillard, lost all sense of reason and perspective, claiming Ardern as “one of the world’s great leaders”, and hankering for something different, for New Zealand type politics and reform.

In more recent times it seems that for every policy success achieved by New Zealand, Australia has suffered an equal and opposite failure.

Which is, no doubt, why so many hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have migrated to Australia and so few Australians to New Zealand (even though we make it easier for them to come, than it is for us to settle in Australia) and why when our two countries were once more or less economically level-pegging, Australia is now so much richer and more productive than New Zealand is.  Don’t take it from me: as Australian Labor MP Andrew Leigh put it in his recent article, productivity makes a real difference, and creates real opportunities and choices.

For a time there was a strange phenomenon whereby people on the right in Australia tried to talk up John Key and Bill English as great leaders and economic managers (mostly, it seemed, in reaction to people they didn’t like in Australia –  whether Rudd, Gillard, Abbott or Turnbull).  Curiously, this particular left-wing academic manages to embrace that strange line as well –  Jacinda Ardern is great and so was John Key (“exceptional leadership”).  Going by results, could we perhaps trade these stellar figures for someone Australians think is less impressive, but who might actually address some of the serious New Zealand problems and failures?

But the real point of this post was about the Jacinda Ardern’s text.   When I first heard the title (“Why does good government matter?”) my immediate reaction was along the lines of “how would she know?”, but I guess it is possible to recognise what good government might be even if, as a serving Prime Minister, you aren’t presiding over such a beast.   A good start might be recognising that as Prime Minister you might perhaps be thought of as chief executive of the government but not –  contrary to the PM’s suggestion in her text –  of “the country”.

I’d have thought the question of why good government matters was pretty straightforward.  Governments exercise enormous power –  actual and potential (the latter especially in a country like New Zealand with few formal checks and balances) –  take an enormously large share of our incomes (equal to more than 30 per cent of GDP), and any agency that powerful needs to be kept in check, and we need assurances that those in charge of the goverment are operating efficiently, effectively, compassionately, honestly, openly, knowing their own limitations, and so on.    Good goverments can do some good.  Bad governments can be incredibly dangerous and damaging.  Look, after all, at the productivity or housing records in New Zealand –  or at the 10 per cent of working age adults living on welfare.

But there is little sense of any of this in Jacinda Ardern’s speech.  I guess she is a socialist –  former president of the International Union for Socialist Youth –  speaking to an audience of people with pretty similar beliefs about the desirability of a big and active government, with little emphasis on how –  time after time –  governments mess things up.

Ardern’s imperial mindset is on display early in the speech

Good government matters, because government affects everything.

Breathtaking.  The love of husband for a wife (and vice versa).  Of a parent for a child?  Our core beliefs –  those under the label of religion and others –  that shape what we value?   Friendships?  Whether or not the All Blacks win the World Cup?

I suppose you could mount a defence of the Prime Minister along the lines of bad governments can interfere even in these things, but there is not even a hint of that in her address – no sense at all of the appropriate limits of government or of the failures of even the most capable and well-intentioned governments.    In fact in the very next sentence she – I guess she is a Socialist –  goes on to suggest that this “government affects everything” line is something “we” (she and the smart active government types) “perhaps take for granted”.  She tells us, quite seriously, that she was “gutted” that an old school friend had no interest in politics: but then Ardern has never known anything but politics, and that simply isn’t (fortunately) the case for most people.   But she really wants to a better class of citizen to be worthy of people like her.

She goes on with unsupported stuff

Around the world, democratic values and institutions are under threat in a way that many of us never expected to see in our lifetimes.

It would perhaps be good if she were a bit more specific.   Perhaps she had the PRC in mind, and the way she and her colleagues repeatedly defer to PRC interests and pressures, allow PRC regime/Party-affiliated individuals to serve in our Parliament?  But I’m guessing not.

Perhaps she isn’t too keen to Vladimir Putin (neither am I) or Viktor Orban (not ideal either) but most adults are old enough (“our lifetimes”) to remember when these places were far far worse.   She surely can’t mean Brexit –  which was, after all, the choice of the British voters in a hotly-contested energised referendum?   And yet I fear she might, because in the next sentence we read

Nationalist sentiment that closes off the possibility of countries working together is surging.

Except that it doesn’t, does it.  Free and independent nations often choose to work together on specific items of mutual interest (eg no sign of the UK pulling out of NATO).  Aren’t Australia and New Zealand proudly independent countries –  doesn’t the PM tell us at every opportunity about her “independent” foreign policy? –  and yet we work closely together and are still able to disagree, and not subsume ourselves in one combined “New Australasia”.

Strangely, in her paean to good government, the Prime Minister talks of how

Norms that we in New Zealand and Australia take for granted – the rule of law, the peaceful transfer of power, freedom of expression – are being challenged in new and more explicit ways.

Must have been the PRC she was talking about again surely? But I guess not.

I’m old enough to remember when military coups in various African and Latin American countries were the regular fare on Morning Report, and when from the Fulda Gap eastwards few had the benefit of the rule of law, freedom of expression, and Party rule was something akin to the end of history.    Things are better now in so much of the world.  And 23 Democrats are lined up across the political spectrum to try to defeat Donald Trump in an open and contested election.

But she also mentioned “freedom of expression” –  the same Prime Minister whose government is beavering away on plans to restrict that freedom in New Zealand, whose government made mere possession of the manifesto of Brenton Tarrant an offence punishable by many years of imprisonment.

To this point she seemed to be merely warming up with some generic tropes for his left-wing audience.  And then it was into the red meat with a strong denunciation of the reforms of the 1980s and early 1990s –  all this from a Prime Minister of the same party that did many of the reforms.

In many countries, while the very wealthiest have grown consistently wealthier, the rest have seen little or no real rise in their incomes or their living standards – over decades.

Inequalities that deepened with the great deregulating reforms of the 1980s and 90s have become a permanent feature of these economies – not a brief moment of pain.

That is certainly the case in New Zealand.

Except that very little of that stacks up against the evidence.  In New Zealand wages have been rising faster than the capacity of the economy to pay (growth in nominal GDP per hour worked), income inequality hasn’t widened for decades, and to extent there have been issues in New Zealand they have to do largely with housing –  where successive governments have presided over grossly over-regulated urban land markets.

And look at her try to distance herself from and disown all sorts of reforms  (notice that “said to”)

Starting in 1984, through to the 1990s, we removed regulations that were said to hamper business, slashed subsidies, transformed the tax system, dramatically cut public spending and massively reduced welfare benefits paid to the sick, those caring for children and the unemployed.

Now we can argue whether those regulatory reforms were necessary, but regardless the numbers speak for themselves.

And yet she shows no sign of even understanding the numbers, repeating the same line she took into the 2017 election, claiming that in aggregate the economy did well, but the “right” distribution didn’t happen, as if oblivious –  or uninterested –  in the continued widening gap between the level of productivity in New Zealand and that in leading advanced OECD economies (and than in Australia).

She does go on to devote a paragraph to housing markets, but shows no sign of actually understanding the issues, suggesting that low interest rates are the cause of the problem.  Similarly she laments technological advance putting “people out of work” (it is called productivity –  doing more with less), seemingly oblivious to the incredibly high labour force participation (and employment) rates we actually have in New Zealand (higher, for example, than in Australia).

And in a line of (stunning) naivete, we read this

Stunningly, our most connected generation in New Zealand, has also been found to be our loneliest.

And in the next line (emphasis added),

what does good government look like, not for us but for the very people who are turning away from us?

The Prime Minister of the ANZSOG (public servant and academic) audiences, “people like us”.

And so she goes on

Domestically, some have chosen to reject the independent and expert public service and the possibility of a mutually respectful and diverse nation.

Could we perhaps have one of those “independent and expert public services”, instead of the degraded (for example) Treasury we currently have in New Zealand?

Abroad, they reject the international institutions that they paint as responsible for both economic and cultural problems when they aren’t necessarily at fault.

One of my old bosses used to jump up and down when we (unspecifically) tarred unnamed individuals.  She might be a fan of the EU, but there is no reason why the British public should be, or why them choosing the pull back from the push for a federal Europe should be any sort of marker of societal failure or decline.    And if the IMF, the World Bank, the UN etc do little harm, they don’t do much good either.  And if she wants to criticise the US over the WTO, perhaps she should say so directly –  or perhaps even live the view that free trade benefits most those who take off restrictions on their people, and take a lead and remove New Zealand’s remaining tariffs and import restrictions.

And then

So this is one answer that is available to people – and that some are signing up for. After all, fear and blame is an easy political out.

Except that some people –  parties and individuals, Labour included –  are to blame for our housing disaster, our dreadful productivity performance.  That blame should be sheeted home.

We get several mentions in the speech of high rates of GDP growth but (I think) not a mention of immigration –  which the PM and the ANZSOGers love –  and not a hint of per capita income growth, let alone the (lack of) productivity growth.  Productivity creates possibilities and options, eases hard choices etc.  But Ardern seems to prefer not to know.

And we get stories about “social and economic inequality” driving deprivation, poverty and crime, but nothing at all about cultural failures (a point Winston Peters was making this week), family breakdown, or choices and individual responsibility.   Free societies can’t flourish without strong and functioning families and cultures.

As she was talking to public servants, there is several pages of talk about public services reforms –  but nothing about transparency, nothing about accountability, nothing about excellence, nothing about (say) fixing a system in which the head of the State Services Commission largely exonerates his buddy the outgoing Secretary to the Treasury after a monumental stuff-up, revealing an inability to operate under pressure at the very top of our public sector.  Once upon a time Labour talked of being the “most open and transparent government ever”.  Now even people on the left just scoff and make fun of the claim.   And if the public service is in such good shape (as she claims) doesn’t it make it very clear that responsibility for the severe ongoing policy failures really lies with her (and her colleagues, and people elected before her from her party and others).

The speech ends with the claim that “Good government need not be an oxymoron”.  At one level that is obviously true, and yet at another it invites the reaction “and yet surely in New Zealand in recent decades it has proved to be so”.   And if it weren’t for the ideological blinkers of her audience (for whom her main appeal seems to be that she is the “not Scott Morrison” or the “not Donald Trump”, you’d have to marvel at the presumption of the Prime Minister offering lectures on good government to a country that is so much richer and materially more sucessful than New Zealand is, to which so many New Zealanders have moved in recent decades, and when her government has done so little.

For those –  as many do –  who praise Jacinda Ardern as a great communicator it was also striking to read the speech and not find a single fresh or interesting idea, not even a fresh or startling way of making an old point. It was as if some public servant or PMO staffer had simply turned the handle and churned out a set of cliched notes, empty of almost any substance, with nothing to leave people thinking.   Is there anything to this alleged communication skill, beyond the level of individual empathy –  not an un-useful quality in a Prime Minister, but hardly the foundation for any sort of transformative government.

In his Herald column last week, Matthew Hooton brought me up short with this summary

The Ardern Government is the emptiest and most incompetent in living memory,

But it is hard to disagree (despite some competition for the title) and the problem starts at the top.  So much of what the Prime Minister says is vacuous –  almost devoid of content –  and it has been matched by an absence of any serious steps to deal with pressing failures (or utter failure in, for example, an actual initiative: KiwiBuild), in turn presumably built on  no compelling narrative about what has been done wrong in the past, and what might make a material difference in the future.  Endless blather about wellbeing doesn’t change that failure.

For those who doubt the “vacuous” charge, consider finally this

Someone I debate these things with, perhaps inclined to making a few more allowances than I am, observed “even I have to agree that is pretty vacuous”.

We really need good  –  disciplined, rigorous, courageous, open, self-aware, limited – government.  We don’t have it.

 

Prime Ministerial whimsy

Whimsy more than anything else this morning.

I’m no great Boris Johnson fan –  except perhaps as newspaper columnist and (presumably) after-dinner speaker –  but I am a fan of Brexit, and really hope (against hope) that he is able to make it happen, in a way that really sets the UK free of the European Union.  Between his own inconstancy and the opposition of much of “elite” Britain, what actually happens is anyone’s guess.  One possibility –  not inconsistent with any of the possible Brexit outcomes –  is that Johnson isn’t Prime Minister for very long at all. A vote of no-confidence could be lost.  An election could happen (and at present UK polls have the vote split four relatively even ways, in an FPP system).

I was once a close student of interwar British politics (as a geeky teenager I knew the make-up of every interwar Cabinet) and knew that Johnson’s only predecessor as a foreign-born Prime Minister, Bonar Law, hadn’t lasted long –  only 211 days in 1922-23.    But although Law had the shortest tenure for a very long time (only one other British Prime Minister since 1900 has served less than a year), he didn’t have the shortest tenure.   In 1827, George Canning last only 119 days (and then died) and his successor Viscount Goderich lasted not much longer, only 130 days.

And it was here that the contrast with New Zealand struck me.   We’ve had Premiers and Prime Ministers since 1856, 40 of them in total.   Here is the list of shortest-serving Prime Ministers.

Henry Sewell 13 days
Francis Bell 20 days
William Hall-Jones 57 days
Mike Moore 59 days
Thomas McKenzie 104 days
George Waterhouse 143 days
Daniel Pollen 224 days

Some were in the very earliest days (Sewell was the first Premier), but four of them were in the 20th century, one as recent as 1990.  (There were other people who served very short terms who also served longer terms –  Keith Holyoake in 1957 is the most recent example – so these statistics are for total time as Premier/Prime Minister.)

Why the difference?   I’m not sure.  For most of our history, our political systems look pretty similar –  up to 1950 we even had two chambers –  although they’ve diverged more recently (MMP here, the Fixed Parliaments Act in the UK).   At least since 1890, as the party system crystallised, we haven’t changed governments particularly frequently.  Perhaps a three year term makes a difference –  Mike Moore and Keith Holyoake (and John Marshall and Bill English who served a bit longer, but less than a year) each took office on the brink of an election.  But I suspect most of the difference must be more idiosyncratic.   For example, Hall-Jones and Bell took office (effectively as acting Prime Ministers, but legally as PM) when Seddon and Massey died in office. But when Savage and Kirk died in office, there was simply an acting Prime Minister until the Labour Party confirmed a new permanent leader.

It turns out that deaths in office is one of the things that distinguishes the UK record from New Zealand’s.  Seven UK Prime Ministers have died in office –  one assassinated –  but the most recent of those was in 1865 (Palmerston).  Others  –  including Law –  died just a few days after leaving office.   But in New Zealand the following Prime Ministers have died in office, all after 1865 – Ballance, Seddon, Massey, Savage, and Kirk (and none of them particularly old).   Ward died fairly shortly after leaving office.   So much for the young and robust new country….

In a similar vein –  and I did say this post was whimsical – look at how long British and New Zealand Prime Ministers have lived for.   James Callaghan and Alec Douglas-Home lived to 92, Churchill to 90, Edward Heath to 89, and Margaret Thatcher to 87.    All of them lived longer than anyone who has ever served as Prime Minister of New Zealand.   George Grey remains our longest-lived Prime Minister, and he died (at 86) in the 19th century (1898).  He is closely followed by Walter Nash, also 86, who died more than 50 years ago.  The next three – Robert Stout and the short-serving Bell and Hall-Jones – were 85 and 84, but they were (at minimum) almost a century ago, and we (rightly) make a lot of improving life expectancies.   If Jim Bolger lives for another two years, he will overtake Grey, but even then the UK will still have had five second half of the 20th century Prime Ministers who will have lived longer than anyone who has held office as Prime Minister in New Zealand.

And finally, reflecting on increasing life expectancies, improved health care, and renewed expectations of people working later in life, I was struck by this mini-table (like almost everything in this post, thanks to Wikipedia)

PMs

Nash was the most recent of those and he left office almost 60 years ago now.  The Brits also beat us for the oldest person to leave office as PM (Gladstone).

Not much about US politics appeals to me, but it is interesting to note the contrast with the US where age doesn’t appear to be such a barrier to (much more demanding) office, be it Pelosi (79), Trump (73), Biden (76), Sanders (77), Reagan (69 when he became President), Warren (70) or whoever.

The US does look a bit idiosyncratic –  but should it, given life expectancy etc? Perhaps there is still time for Don Brash (78)?

Police: cosying up to tyrants, ignoring NZ law

I’ve already written about the slow and painful efforts to get Police to reveal details of the visiting professorship they had allowed one of their senior officers to take up at the PRC People’s Public Security University (the university of the Ministry of Public Security).

The day after the belated Police response finally arrived, a reader sent me a link to another example of the New Zealand Police cosying up to the regime in Beijing.  Here was the whole of my initial post:

A reader sent me the link, and this is what Google Translate generates:

Guangzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau and New Zealand Oakland Police Department signed a friendly cooperation arrangement
Source: Guangzhou Municipal People’s Government Foreign Affairs Office published:2019-05-05 17:51

guang 1.png

guang 3.png

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the conclusion of the international friendship city relationship between Guangzhou and Auckland, and to strengthen the police cooperation between the two cities, Yang Jianghua, deputy mayor of Guangzhou and director of the Municipal Public Security Bureau, and the assistant police chief of the Auckland City Police Department of New Zealand on April 29 Lena Hassan ( Naila Hassan ) signed a “friendship and cooperation with the Guangzhou Public Security Bureau Auckland, New Zealand Police to arrange the book” in the Guangzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau. It is reported that this is the first time that the Guangzhou police and foreign police have signed a cooperation intention, which indicates that the law enforcement agencies of the two places will formally cooperate in police exchanges and police training.

“Police exchanges” with the Guangzhou branch of the Ministry of Public Security………..  Surely this cannot mean that MPS officers will be let loose with law enforcement powers in New Zealand?  Surely…..

I looked on the Auckland police website, I looked at the Minister of Police’s website, and I looked at the main Police news releases page, and there was nothing about this deal.

I wonder if Police, or their Minister, were ever planning on telling New Zealand citizens and voters about their deal with the PRC domestic repression apparatus?

Yesterday, I mentioned the Gestapo, but one doesn’t need to invoke (quite valid) Nazi comparisons with the People’s Republic of China.   Would Police – or elected governments – have thought such friendship and exchange deals were appropriate with the domestic security forces of the Soviet Union, or Pinochet’s Chile, with Galtieri’s Argentina, with apartheid South Africa, or……or…..or……

It just should not be.  And it clearly isn’t the case that this is just normal stuff (“everyone does it”) –  it is the PRC side that stresses that this is the first such arrangement for Guangzhou.

I’m not fond of the phrase “social licence”, but if it must be used this is an example of how government agencies –  allegedly working for our interests –  risk forfeiting theirs.

I will be lodging an OIA requesting details of this agreement.

And so I did, on 8 May.   I asked Police for

1. Text (in English and – if it exists – Chinese) of the recent agreement signed between the Guangzhou bureau of public security and the Auckland police district.  

Copies of

2. Any advice re the agreement to the Minister (and/or his office)

3. Any consultation with other government agencies on it.

4. Any internal position papers evaluating the possibility of this agreement, including any risks, and pros and cons.

And I had an acknowledgement of my request the next day.  So far, so proper.

I heard nothing more for a couple of weeks and then I had this from Police in Auckland.

Good Morning  

We have received your request for information

Before we can process this request we require some form of photo ID.  The best is a photo of your driver’s licence and a photo of you holding your licence.

Now, I’ve been using the Official Information Act for years and had never had such a request.  In fact, Police has responsed to my earlier OIA just a few days previously (very slowly but) without asking for photo ID.  Apparently, agencies are allowed to check that someone is entitled to make a request, but Police by then had my address, my phone number, and I’m in the telephone book (and readily Google-able).

Anyway, I went back to them and asked them for the statutory basis for their request, noting that Police had responded to earlier requests without photo ID.  I heard nothing more.

A few days later (27 May), I had a letter from a Senior Sergeant in Auckland, extending my request by a couple of weeks (beyond the statutory 20 working days), to 18 June.  He claimed they needed the additional time because of the “consultation we need to do on your request”.  That extension was probably lawful (albeit only because it looks as though it had taken almost 20 (calendar) days for anyone Police to really look at the substance of the request).

And then on 20 June, I had another letter for Senior Sergeant Housley (who is the Auckland District Police OIA co-ordinator), this time extending the request to 18 July, citing the need for “further consultation”.      That argument was already wearing thin, but what really bothered me was that it is against the law to extend OIA requests if the extension is made after the statutory 20 working days has passed.  The Ombudsman has been quite explicitly clear on that.

Nothing in the OIA prevents multiple extensions being made, providing any extensions are made within the original 20 working day time period after receiving the request. For example, if an agency notifies the requester of a one week extension, and then later realises that a two week extension is actually necessary, a second extension may be notified as long as the original 20 working day time period has not yet passed.

In this case, not only had the 20 working days passed when the second extension was made but so had the deadline on the first extension.  I went back to Senior Sergeant Housley and pointed out that his extension was unlawful, but (unsurprisingly) I got no response.

This morning, I finally had a letter from Senior Sergeant Housley substantively responding to my request, politely thanking me for my “patience”.   And what little they released –  and, in fact, what little they held, gives the lie to the claim that “consultations” and “further consultations” were necessary.   All they released was the text of the agreement (see below), the substance of which the PRC side had been boasting of two months ago, and all they withheld was advice from MFAT on the wording of the agreement (which can’t have been very long, and which I never expected them to release –  standard OIA exceptions: my interest had been mostly in seeing who, if anyone, had been consulted.   I have now lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman about (a) the unlawful second extension, and (b) the dubious claims about “consultation” and (especially) “further consultation”.  But this is the Police…….in a well-functioning system, you’d hope a Police force would fall over itself to act lawfully, spirit and letter.  Then again, I guess this is modern New Zealand, where complying with the law seems like an optional extra for too many public agencies.

What of the substance?  Here is the agreement itself (Chinese and English), and Mr Housley’s letter.

Letter of Friendship Between Auckland Police and Guangzhou

Letter Mr Reddell July 2019

There are a few things of note in the (short) agreement itself (and any Chinese-speaking readers might like to check that the Chinese version says the same as the English version, both of which are signed).

First, it is pretty clear that the initiative for this must have come from the PRC side.   The first version of the agreement is in Chinese, and the English version is clearly a not-particularly-colloquial version/translation (“Based on joint benefits and laws in both countries, the two participants accept to exchange…” is clearly not something written by a native English speaker).

It is pretty easy to see what is in it for the PRC.  They have whole webs of organisations and agreeements designed to tie people, institutions, and countries more closely to their odious regime, lending a (hitherto) good name to one that should be held in very low esteem.  And New Zealand has clearly been a soft touch, and so (recall the initial release) the Auckland Police will have made a good place to start for a first such agreeement.

But what on earth is in it for New Zealanders?   Police officers hot-footed it to Guangzhou –  presumably at taxpayers’ expense –  to do the kowtow and sign up to an agreement that dignifies the repressive law enforcements mechanisms of the PRC as somehow akin to a Police force in a (hitherto) free, open and democratic society.  To what end, other than the typically craven approach of the New Zealand “establishment” –  more deals, more party donations, improved electoral prospects for Phil Goff?

Second, the substance, such as it is

guangzhou

It is a simple question really that Police make no attempt to answer: what benefits will the New Zealand Police –  supposedly responsible, via ministers, to the New Zealand public gain from their cooperation and exchanges with Guangzhou, a force that acts to enforce the will of the CCP (and where presumably no officer can serve if they are suspected at all of sympathies with –  say –  Christianity, Islam, Falun Gong, let alone the rule of law and democracy).  This force operates just over the border from Hong Kong, where civil liberties have already been jeopardised, aided and abetted by the Police.  Won’t all the senior officials the Auckland Police delegation were pandering to likely be CCP members?

And what of the letter I got from Police?

Among the things I found interesting is that there was no advice at all of this agreement to the offices of the Minister of Police or the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  I suppose most likely Police simply anticipated the preferences of our politicians –  after all, last week Ron Mark was signing up to a defence agreement with the PRC (quite extraordinary: we sign a defence agreement with a country that openly talks of seizing a free and democratic country by force).

Perhaps more worrying –  but perhaps not surprising, given the widespread Wellington view of Police competence and capability –  is that I was told there was no position paper or similar reviewing pros and cons, risks and opportunities etc that an agreement with the odious PRC forces might entail.   So what happened?  Did Guangzhou Police simply take someone in Auckland to lunch and sweet talk them into flying over to sign up?  It can’t quite have been that bad surely, but this simply isn’t proper or prudent policymaking.

But then they made up a rationale on the fly.  Recall that none of this was documented before the agreement was signed, it was simply in a letter to me dated today.

There is no formal ‘position paper’ in existence evaluating the possibility or the ‘pros and cons’ of the Letter. However the Police position is that 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Guangzhou and Auckland – Auckland’s longest standing and most successful sub-national partnership in China.

This relationship has been significantly strengthened as a result of the Tripartite Economic Alliance that was signed in 2014 between Auckland, Guangzhou and Los Angeles. The relationship between the cities goes back to the time of the gold rush in New Zealand, when many Chinese came across to New Zealand with a significant number finally settling in Auckland. Latest statistics indicating that up to one in three greater Aucklanders are likely to identify as Asian by 2038. Close transport connections (twice daily direct flights between the cities), the immense trade and significant crime connections make the relationship between Guangzhou and Auckland crucial to both cities. Other areas Police would benefit from this relationship include, training, narcotics and economic crime investigations.

In summary this is an extension to the sister city relationship. With the proposed growth in the Asian population in Tamaki Makaurau over the next two decades this letter of friendship will enhance the relationship and benefit both Guangzhou Public Security Bureau and Tamaki Makaurau Police as it will present opportunities for each of us to learn from our colleagues.

Much of which is simply weird.   We have a national Police force, not (unlike, say, the UK system) a city-based one.  What is the national Police force doing signing up agreeements with odious foreign forces to support the sister-city partnership signed up by some elected local body politicians?   Recall, that the current Auckland mayor substantially funded his last campaign with large anonymous “donations” including from an auction of works of Xi Jinping.  Goff was one of those who nominated the CCP-aligned Yikun Zhang for a royal honour, for what amounted in effect to services to Beijing.   This agreement has the feel of something that the Mayor’s office will have liked.  Perhaps it will help with this year’s fundraising?

And what about all that puffery about the Gold Rush?  We had German immigrants back to the 19th century and it didn’t make the first Labour government any keener on dealing with the Gestapo.   Perhaps the Senior Sergeant and his bosses didn’t notice that whatever the “Asian” share of the population 20 years hence, “Asia” is not the same as the PRC, not even all immigrant ethnic Chinese come from the PRC, and many who did come want to be free of the clutches and mindset of the PRC.  The PRC –  not China, but the PRC/CCP –  is a threat more than an opportunity, at least to anyone with a modicum of integrity and morality.

And, once again, what does the Auckland wing of the New Zealand Police think they are going to learn about policing from their friends in Guangzhou?  Whatever it is, seems unlikely to be in the best interests of New Zealanders.

There is a level at which it is tempting to just ignore these things.  Individually, I don’t suppose the agreement means very much.   Bad as Police are in many respects, they aren’t quite yet the Guangzhou bureau of public security, and this agreement is isolation won’t change that much.  But it all speaks of a mindset in which our establishment agencies and individuals seem to have lost any real sense of right and wrong, of fundamental decency, and recognising odious regimes when they see them.   Yes, there need to be basic, formally correct, relations with the PRC, as with a bunch of other dreadful regimes, but we simply shouldn’t be signing friendship agreements, declaring ourselves “strategic partners”, of offering to help make their dreadful regime even more effective in what it seeks to do.  Do our leaders –  politicians and Police – really live by any values other than deals, donations, and the bonhomie (and self-delusion) that goes with cosying up to such a regime?  Not on the evidence of agreements like this.

Oh, and the Official Information Act really does apply to Police to.  Our Police –  unlike China’s – are supposed to be subject to the law, not subject to the Party.

 

The creeping corruption of official New Zealand

I’m not sure how many readers get and read the Sunday Star-Times (SST) newspaper.  Some weeks I flick through and wonder why we still do.  But yesterday as I turned the pages I was glad I had, because it was as if one page after another shone a light on some aspect or other of the degraded state of New Zealand public life.   And it got me thinking not just about those specific stories, but about others that had been in the news over the previous week.

Starting with the relatively small stuff, there was an SST story about NZTA.   The first bit of the story was about how

The New Zealand Transport Agency allowed a senior staffer to bid for a multi-million dollar contract in a ridesharing service that came with a $475,000 subsidy from the Government agency.

Surely that should have been totally unacceptable?  But not, it appears, to NZTA.  Despite, as the article notes, guidance from the State Services Commission that

“in general, having a private business in the same area as a public servant’s official responsibilities would be highly problematic and is most likely to be unacceptable”.

NZTA’s blithe response was to state that “it managed the obvious conflict of interest”.

Now, as I understand it, it wasn’t NZTA itself awarding the contract and (as it happens) the senior NZTA employee didn’t win the contract.  But why was such conduct allowed in the first place?  If you work for a government agency, you simply don’t do stuff in your private life where there could be any reasonable suggestion of a conflict of interest.

This particular story was, we were told, one of seven cases of employee conflict of interest NZTA had to disclose.  The other specific case cited in the article –  around an NZTA regional director who is also chair of a Maori tribal authority “involved in a project currently under construction” by NZTA –  seems, if anything, worse.  The fact that the regional director had agreed not to be involved in any matters relating to the project, doesn’t change the fact that all her staff and colleagues know her, and presumably know of her outside interests.  It is (well, should be) staggering that these arrangements are smiled on by NZTA.  (And it should be a little surprising that the journalist writing up the story seems to have made no effort to get comment from the Minister of Transport, or from the Opposition spokesperson.)

Elsewhere in the media last week – I think mainly in the Herald – was the story of the Supreme Court judge who had been off on holiday with a senior lawyer in a case that was currently before the Supreme Court.   In various articles I saw, uneasy lawyers were falling over themselves not to impugn the “personal integrity” of the judge –  I guess the (now retired) judge has colleagues and these lawyers might have to appear before them –  but frankly this just should not be acceptable conduct.  Apparently the rules allow the other side to object to such cosy holiday arrangements (or other possible conflicts) –  which didn’t happen in this case –  but as the articles noted that is hardly a cost or risk-free option for the other side’s counsel, risking getting offside with the judge (for having disrupted his or her –  in this case – holiday plans, and perhaps being seen to impugn their integrity).   But the onus shouldn’t be on opposing counsel: the rules should be strict, and the conduct of the judges should be (if anything) stricter.  Personal integrity here should include a conscious recognition of the need for justice to be seen, by fair-minded observers, as utterly impartial.

There is talk in the articles about how hard it is for judges, of the “small and tight-knit” legal community, of lifelong friends, and so on and so forth.    Nothing in that should make it acceptable behaviour for judges to be holidaying with lawyers who appear before them (and especially not in current cases, and for higher court judges).  When you take on the office of judge –  perhaps especially in our final court of appeal –  you should accept –  and the system should demand –  a high degree of restraint, and of distance, that people in most other roles won’t face.

But, being New Zealand, it isn’t clear that anything is happening about situations like this  (there is a specific –  somewhat belated –  application for a recall of the judgment in question, but this is a wider issue).  I saw no questions of the Chief Justice demanding answers as to how this can be acceptable behaviour, and no questions of the Minister of Justice and/or Attorney-General.   And not a peep from the Opposition, of course.

A bit further on in yesterday’s SST was a column about the Gordon Jon Thompson situation.  This was the lobbyist, and friend of the Prime Minister’s, brought in by the Prime Minister to serve as her chief of staff for several months, with exposure to all Cabinet papers, and heavy involvement in the appointment of Labour ministerial staff, all the time fully intending to return to his lobbying business.  If I’ve read correctly the various stories, throughout his time in the PM’s office, he remained a director of his lobbying firm, and never disclosed who his clients were, rendering it hard to take seriously the Prime Minister’s claims that matters relating to his clients were never discussed between them.    And then this morning we read that there is more

“The Prime Minister’s office has said she ‘seeks out Mr Thompson as a sounding board from time to time.’ However, none of the Prime Minister’s interactions with Mr Thompson appear in her ministerial diary released on the Beehive website.

“Last year, the Government undertook to publicly release details of Ministers’ diaries consistent with its promise to be the most open and transparent administration in New Zealand’s history. The Prime Minister has released details of phone calls and meetings with a wide range of people. So, why is she keeping her communications with Mr Thompson a secret?

Again, lots of people seem to fall over themselves to not impugn the “personal integrity” of those involved.  But their personal integrity is in question, because senior people need to recognise, and live in a way that respects, that the absolute avoidance of any appearance of conflicts is almost as important as the absolute avoidance of the substance.  Confidence in our system depends on people have good grounds to believe that the system works fairly, impartially, and with rules and degrees of self-restraint that bend over backwards to avoid actual or perceived conflicts.      The question isn’t whether laws have been broken or not –  although it looks as though the laws should be tightened –  but a matter of what is an acceptably high standard of behaviour from those holding public office.     Even if everyone in this affair had the best of intentions (which we can’t simply grant) conduct in this case cannot possibly have reached that level, if we are at all serious about decent and demanding standards in public life.

Then, of course, there is the ongoing Makhlouf affair.  Really serious misjudgements by one of our most senior public servants were on full display during the “Budget leak” affair a couple of weeks ago.  Notionally, Makhlouf’s employer is conducting an inquiry into that behaviour, but (a) this is the same State Services Commission that was putting out coordinated statements with Makhlouf as part of the original problematic series of events, and (b) even as the inquiry is ongoing, the State Services Commissioner was giving a gushy farewell speech at the Beehive farewell party for Makhlouf, including stressing how collegial the group of public sector CEOs is.   Perhaps we’ll even see this week the State Services Commissioner’s report, but how can anyone have any confidence in the integrity of the process, let alone in the willingness of top officials to take any responsibility, or express contrition, when they get things wrong –  as Makhlouf demonstrably did?   The cosy arrogance of the whole affair was further compounded last week when Parliament’s Finance and Expenditure Committee held its hearings for Vote Finance.  The Minister of Finance turned up, but the Secretary to the Treasury simply absented himself.  He wasn’t sick, he wasn’t suspended while the SSC inquiry was ongoing, and he seems to have simply decided that serious scrutiny –  not from his chums at SSC but from Opposition MPs – whether about the systemic weaknesses that led to the problems in the first place, or about his own conduct, could be uncomfortable, and so stayed away, sending his underlings along to make excuses for him.   And, as we know, he leaves office later this week, flitting off to another job in another country.   Parliamentary scrutiny of public officials is supposed to be one of the features of our systems, but when it gets uncomfortable it clearly doesn’t matter to Makhlouf – nor, presumably, to Grant Robertson who might reasonably have insisted that Makhlouf turn up.

In a post last week on the ANZ/Hisco affair, I noted that –  whatever the prurient interest in a large private business’s issues with its now-departed CEO –  there should be greater focus on senior public officials who use the public purse (their time, paid for by the taxpayer) to advance personal causes, political or otherwise, for which they have no official mandate.   After all, while we can change banks, we are stuck with our central bank (our transport agency, our courts and so on).    As I noted

And when the Governor of the (monopoly) Reserve Bank never gives substantive speeches about things he is actually responsible for, plays fast and loose with the Official Information Act, claims he has no resources to properly oversee the bank capital system (internal models and all) that the Bank itself put in place, all while spending a million dollars on a Maori strategy (for a body with little or no public-facing role), devoting his time and professional energies to personal passions, be it climate change, infrastructure, or whatever, there is also nothing we can do about it.  The amounts involved –  money diverted from core functions (under budgetary pressure) to finance the Goveror’s personal causes and whims –  is probably already at least as much as the Hisco case over 10 years.  But we can’t change central banks, can’t dump our shares in the Reserve Bank.  Perhaps these issues (for some reason) excite fewer people, but when the abuses and slippages are by high government officials, they need to be taken much more seriously, precisely because exit isn’t (for us, citizens) an options.  The small(ish) stuff needs to be sweated.

Some readers may have thought I was slightly over-egging the point, but shortly after releasing that post, I had an email from a reader with yet another example of Orr abusing his office.  Next month, Orr is giving a speech to the financial industry group FINSIA (members can get continuing professional development credits for turning up to hear him) and my reader sent along the promotional email.  Orr’s speech is billed as “The Future of the Reserve Bank: The View from Tane Mahuta” (which itself was a bit puzzling because in responding to critics of his tree god nonsense Orr claimed that “we don’t see ourselves as a tree god”, and yet that seems to be exactly how his speech is billed.)    It is possible there could be some substantively interesting material –  after all, the next stage of the review of the Reserve Bank is supposed to see a discussion document out in the next couple of weeks.  And there is some mention of that review in the email FINSIA sent out hawking the Governor’s address.    But just as much space is given to this

The Bank is focusing on strategies that contribute to climate change sustainability and a commitment to a more culturally inclusive central bank with a higher degree of awareness of Te Ao Māori.

You can be sure that Bank’s communications people will have approved how the Governor’s speaking engagement is described in the FINSIA advert.

As I have noted many times before, the Bank has no mandate at all for the Governor’s climate change focus.  As he very well knows, it is largely irrelevant to monetary policy, and of very little relevance around financial stability in New Zealand.  It is a personal crusade –  using a public platform to advance his personal causes.  Much the same can be said for his Maori strategy: it bears no relation to the things Parliament asked him to do, and neither monetary policy nor financial regulatory policy bear down in systematically different ways on Maori than on non-Maori (any more than on red heads as distinct from others,  Christians as distinct from atheists, Labour voters as distinct from National voters, and so on).  It is simply a misuse of office, and of the scarce resources the taxpayer has put at the Governor’s disposal (recall, that this is the Governor who claims he is under-resourced to do basic elements of his financial regulatory role).    Perhaps it all plays well with members of the Labour and Greens caucuses, but that simply isn’t his job –  and it remains possible he could find himself working with a National-led government before his term is out.   How could they, or we, have any confidence in the impartiality of the Governor, or that he is using his office –  and resources –  strictly for the things Parliament mandated the Bank to do.

(And while people on the right often want to suggest that all the bad stuff emanates from the Minister of Finance –  same tendency evident in reverse when National-led governments are in offce – I took the opportunity to look up the Minister of Finance’s latest letter of expectation to the Governor.  These letters can’t add to or subtract from statutory obligations, but can be interesting/important nonetheless.    But, as it happens, none of the Governor’s personal obsessions  – climate change, the tree god, the “Maori strategy” –  were mentioned at all,  It was nice to have that level of confirmation that the abuse of office is all the Governor’s own doing.)

I could go on as regards the Bank. I’m involved at present in the consequences of highly problematic (at best) choices made by the Bank, dating back to when Orr was Deputy Governor, and for which neither he nor his current deputy –  responsible for the Bank’s work on “culture and conduct” in the financial system –  show any real sign of taking responsibility for, or fixing.  Come to think of it, the Financial Markets Authority –  financial regulator –  displays little energy either.  But that is enough for now.

These are just a handful of the sorts of episodes, great and small, that go on in New Zealand –  a country that likes to claim high standards of governance and accountability in public life.  They take different forms.  Already, the Shane Jones/Semenoff affair recedes into memory.  Police simply flout the law.  Or what of a statistics agency run so poorly that even the Census was botched, and yet no one loses their job?  And so we could go on. If we don’t start sweating the “small stuff” again, or simply get used to a ‘near enough is good enough”, or “never mind, decent individuals” standard, we’ll lose any traction in clinging onto the sort of standards a decent and open society should be insisting on from those who hold public office.  Good –  honest, open, rigorous, accountable – government is a rare and valuable thing.  Degraded government –  and we risk slipping down exactly that path  –  is a serious threat to the sort of standards New Zealanders once held dear.

Then again, what to expect in a country where the major Opposition party has a former PRC military intelligence official, close to the PRC embassy, (formerly?) a CCP member, sitting in its caucus, while its president sings the praises of Xi Jinping?  And the governing parties seem quite unbothered by any of that, having sold any soul they once had when it comes to anything to do with the regime in Beijing (in fact, this very week, the deputy leader of the Labour Party is in China aiming “to deepen…our relationship with China”.)  Xinjiang?  Hong Kong extradition laws?  Forced organ extractions?   South China Sea?  Systematic persecution of religious believers of all stripes?  Systematic repression of any dissenters?  Abduction of Canadian citizens?  Never mind, nothing to do with us, seems to be the combined National and Labour line.

Just another example of a corrupted and corroding system, where the only “value” left seems to be some mix of what can be got away with, and what generates a few more dollars or donations.  And barely anything left at all about what is right and decent.  Or about the notion that the only real test of someone’s values is what they will pay a price for.

(And, after all that, I never even got to the SST stories on the immigration system. Perhaps tomorrow.)

 

 

On Makhlouf and standards in public office

If I hadn’t been away, and then come down with a very nasty cold (which will soon have me back on the sofa again), no doubt I’d have commented earlier on the Makhlouf affair.  Whatever your view of how Gabs came to be appointed and reappointed, or of his overall stewardship of the office of Secretary to the Treasury, it is a sad business in many ways.

Human beings make mistakes.  I don’t suppose anyone would be calling for Makhlouf’s head if it were only a matter of having been chief executive of a (not overly large) agency where the document/computer security was so weak that what happened early last week could happen.  Not even when taken in the context of an organisation that didn’t seem to be quite as attuned to keeping secret what they were supposed to keep secret as we might have hoped (recall their policy on computers and lock-ups even after the RB OCR leak, or the episode last Thursday in which Treasury staffers were giving out copies of Budget documents to journalists outside the lockup, under the impression that the recipients were fellow Treasury staffers).  It isn’t a good look –  even recognising that Budget material is typically politically sensitive rather than market sensitive –  and perhaps might have taken a bit of the gloss off the farewell functions in the next few weeks.  But that would have been all.   The chief executive would have been responsible, and in some sense accountable, but those actions –  or failures –  wouldn’t have been his personal ones.

But the focus now is on choices that Makhlouf himself personally made, words he himself chose to use (or not use) and so on.    They are a rare case when the public gets a direct look at how a top public servant handles himself under pressure.  Not well.

The whole business started on Tuesday, mid-morning when National released Budget material.  By 12:20 pm that day there was an official statement from Makhlouf.   It was fine.  The heart of it was this

“Right now we’re conducting our own review of these reports and the information that has been published,” said Makhlouf.

As you’d expect.   Presumably the office of the Minister of Finance and (perhaps) the Prime Minister’s office had already made it clear they wanted to be keep updated.

But it must have been a busy next few hours at The Treasury, and presumably Makhlouf was extensively involved, at least in reviewing whatever information and advice his staff were generating.

His next public statement was issued at 8:02 on Tuesday evening.   And this was the one that started him down the perilous path

Following this morning’s media reports of a potential leak of Budget information, the Treasury has gathered sufficient evidence to indicate that its systems have been deliberately and systematically hacked. 
 
The Treasury has referred the matter to the Police on the advice of the National Cyber Security Centre.

It sounded impressive and sobering at the time.  No doubt it was supposed to.   All reinforced by Makhlouf’s rash interview on Radio New Zealand the next morning, with his overblown bolt analogy and attempts to play up the “attack” and “penetration” language (using it and never once objecting when the interviewer used those words).  I heard some of it at the time, but listening to it again this morning with the benefit of perspective it is all the more extraordinary given what Makhlouf clearly already knew.  He ruled out any “sloppiness” or “incompetence” in his own staff or systems.

But, of course, what we now know –  what Makhouf knew at the time –  is that the National Cyber Security Centre had already made it clear to Treasury that, based presumably on what Treasury staff had told them, there was no sign that anything fitting the bill of a “hack” had happened.  If they suggested –  as Makhlouf claims – that it was a matter for the Police, it was probably only in a “nothing to do with us, but you could try Police” sense.    The NCSC reference should never have appeared in Makhlouf’s statement at all –  they were dragged in, it appears, to provide Makhouf with cover.

Even allowing for the fact that it was a busy day, you can be sure that every word in the Makhlouf statement would have been considered carefully.   Presumably Treasury comms staff were involved, and at least a couple of his key deputy secretaries (including, one hopes, the one responsible IT and security).  We don’t know if they ran a draft past the office of the Minister of Finance (on Makhlouf’s telling, the matter was referred to Police at about 6pm and the Minister informed at about 7pm).   But in many respects it doesn’t matter: it was Makhlouf’s statement (personally) and even if someone else suggested things the words actually used are wholly his responsibility.  Public service chief executives are supposed to operate at arms-length, and are personally accountable as such.  At this point, the Minister had no leverage (after all, Makhlouf was leaving in four weeks time).

(The Minister’s own statement is another matter.  It upped the ante further, in a way Makhouf never directly did, attempting to tie the National Party to criminal activity (“the material is a result of a systematic hack and is now subject to a Police investigation”).  The fact that the Minister’s statement was released only 15 minutes after Makhlouf’s suggests that likelihood of close liaison between Treasury staff and staff in Robertson’s office. The statement looks unwise and opportunistic, but surely that is politics.  Absent further evidence, I’m prepared to believe the Minister and his office –  none of whom will have had a high degree of technical capability –  were misled by Makhlouf and The Treasury.)

After Makhlouf’s RNZ interview on Wednesday morning we hear nothing more of substance for most of the day.  A non-partisan observer might reasonably have concluded that the Simon Bridges release/attack was backfiring (it was my take).   But that was those of us not in the know.  Makhlouf and his senior IT staff (and their bosses) must have known very well by this point what had actually happened  (and if Makhlouf personally did not sufficiently understand the point, that too reflects poorly on him, for not having asked hard enough questions, or ensured he was on totally solid ground).   They must have known that at any time National could reveal how they had actually obtained the information (the search bar on Treasury’s website).  But they said nothing more all day, despite knowing that they had poured fuel directly into an intensely political controversy.

And then two awkward things must have happened.  First, Police actually reacted fast (and around something where it might have been politically convenient for them to have acted slowly) and advised Treasury that was nothing unlawful for them to investigate, and then Simon Bridges indicated that he would hold a press conference the following morning to explain how National had actually obtained the information.

Thereupon, there must have been intense activity at Treasury, as they attempted to get ahead of the story again.  This was the 5:05am statement.     But it wasn’t just another Makhlouf statement, as he managed to get the State Services Commissioner to issue a parallel statement.  One can only wonder how much consultation with ministers (Finance, State Services) or their offices went on through this period –  but it is hard to believe that Peter Hughes would have put out such a statement, getting in the middle of a political controversy, with little or no notice, little or no consultation.

And what did Thursday morning’s (5:05am) statement say?   There was a bit of unavoidable clearing the decks

Following Tuesday’s referral, the Police have advised the Treasury that, on the available information, an unknown person or persons appear to have exploited a feature in the website search tool but that this does not appear to be unlawful. They are therefore not planning further action.

But it was hardly a mea culpa by Makhlouf.    Once again, he seeks to perpetuate the “hack” theme, invoking the idea that the NCSC were working with Treasury to identify what had gone on.

In the meantime, the Treasury and GCSB’s National Cyber Security Centre have been working on establishing the facts of this incident. While this work continues, the facts that have been established so far are:

(there follow 11 bullet points, the now-familiar material about clone websites, indexing documents, and the simple ability to use Treasury’s search bar.)

And pushes the notion that someone else had done something wrong

The evidence shows deliberate, systematic and persistent searching of a website that was clearly not intended to be public. Evidence was found of searches that were clearly intended to produce results that would disclose embargoed Budget information.

Rather than that his job had been to run an organisation keeping politically-sensitive government material secure until the government chose to release it.  Something he had failed to do.

As he gets to the end of his statement Makhlouf does reluctantly concede the systems failure.

In light of this information, Secretary to the Treasury Gabriel Makhlouf said, “I want to thank the Police for their prompt consideration of this issue. In my view, there were deliberate, exhaustive and sustained attempts to gain unauthorised access to embargoed data. Our systems were clearly susceptible to such unacceptable behaviour, in breach of the long-standing convention around Budget confidentiality, and we will undertake a review to make them more robust.”

But even then is keen to muddy the waters.    Embargoes are irrelevant here –  they only apply to people who accept information under embargo, on terms and conditions set by the person releasing it.  There was no embargo here, simply insecure Treasury systems.  And then there was the final sentence, again playing distraction.  There is no “longstanding convention around Budget confidentiality”.    There are obligations on public servants to keep “Budget secret” information secret, an obligation that applies especially to the Treasury Secretary, responsible for Treasury systems, and there are rules in the Budget lockup.  But none of that applies to anyone else.  A journalist who receives a leak about Budget material isn’t breaking the rules or any conventions in breaking the story –  in fact, they’d be failing in their job if they chose not to run a newsworthy story.

And that was it.   No apology for misleading the Minister, no apology to the public for misleading them (all that talk of “hacks”, attacks on iron bolts etc), just an attempt to get in ahead of the Bridges press conference –  as if he himself were a political operator –  and to keep on muddying the waters and minimising responsibility.  Makhlouf has given not a single media interview since –  despite that very lengthy one on Radio New Zealand when he was playing the “under systematic attack” card, and probably garnering quite a degree of public sympathy, for all it was worth.

It was an extraordinary couple of days, and an extraordinary display of poor judgement by one of our most senior public servants.     He’d made a series of very bad calls, all his own personal responsibility, and in the full glare of the public spotlight.

A decent and honourable person might have taken a day and then announced his resignation.  After all, human beings make mistakes, and when they are serious enough, and public enough, sustained enough, and committed by someone very senior (in whom the system reposes considerable trust), bad choices need to have consequences.   Given that he is leaving shortly anyway, surely the decent thing to have done would have been to have issued a statement indicating that he’d made mistakes, regretted and apologised for that, but that it was best now to clear the air, and that accordingly he would be resigning with immediate effect.   Had he done so, my regard for him would have risen considerably (I’d even toyed with words for a post I might have written had he done so).

The alternative approach might have been to have announced that he had offered his resignation to the State Services Commissioner, and left to the Commissioner to decide whether or not to accept.  But reports to date suggest there has no even been that offer.

Instead, after several days, we learn that SSC is to hold an inquiry.  Unfortunately, their statement is not on their website, but according to media reports

The State Services Commissioner will conduct a new inquiry into statements and actions made by Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf​ concerning the Treasury “hack” last week.

I have little confidence in this inquiry.  For one, the inquiry is supposed to look into Makhlouf’s handling of last week’s events, but recall that the SSC made themselves an active player in those events when they agreed to a coordinated statement with Treasury on Thursday morning.  They are, at least in part, inquiring into themselves.  And then there is line from yesterday’s statement

State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes said the questions that had been raised were of considerable public interest and should be addressed.
“It’s my job to get to the bottom of this and that’s what I’m going to do,” Hughes said.
“Mr Makhlouf believes that at all times he acted in good faith.”
“Nonetheless, he and I agree that it is in everyone’s interests that the facts are established before he leaves his role on 27 June if possible. Mr Makhlouf is happy to cooperate fully to achieve that. I ask people to step back and let this process be completed.”

What have Makhlouf’s preferences got to do with it?  It all has a rather too-cosy feel to it, and the likelihood of this being wrapped up any time materially earlier than 27 June seems very low (any draft report will surely be given to Makhlouf and other affected parties to review, and perhaps have their lawyers comment on, before release).

Add to the cosy sense, the fact that Makhlouf hasn’t been suspended, but continues to work as normal –  with the full support in that of the Prime Minister.   This isn’t an inquiry into some obscure aspect of past administration, or even to details of how he was appointed, it is about his personal choices, words and judgements within the last week.    If it is serious enough to have a serious inquiry, it is serious enough for Makhlouf to be stood aside until the report comes in.  If it is a serious inquiry that is.

What of the authority under which Makhlouf is hired and fired?  That is the State Sector Act.  Government department chief executives are not standard employees, but hold a statutory office, appointed by the Cabinet on the recommendation of the State Services Commissioner.  The Commissioner them becomes the employer.  What of dismissal?  Section 39 covers that.

SSA

On the face of it, it is as simple as that.  So long as Cabinet agrees, a departmental chief executive can be removed.  It isn’t the famed “at-will employment” of the US, but it isn’t standard employment law either.  To a lay reader –  and there probably isn’t any case law in this specific context –  “just cause or excuse” really does look at though it should cover failings like misleading the Minister, repeatedly misleading the public, making flamboyant statements that the facts (known to him at the time) don’t support,  (arguably perhaps) wasting Police time, and refusing to offer any contrition when those facts emerged.

In that earlier quote, Peter Hughes reports that

“Mr Makhlouf believes that at all times he acted in good faith.”

I’m happy to believe that, but what of it?   That is no sort of standard –  a 16 year old placed in charge of The Treasury probably would have acted in good faith too, but simply wouldn’t have been up to the demands of the job, and would have been exposed sooner or later.   Makhlouf isn’t 16, but his conduct over the last week suggests that if he was acting in good faith, he simply didn’t display the judgement,temperament, and character that should be required to hold such office in New Zealand (let alone Ireland, but that is their problem).

Perhaps one can debate whether section 39 should be invoked to dismiss Makhlouf (although it is now clear that it won’t be).  One reason to hesitate might be that provision should not be used lightly, and has not been used previously.     I’m not in a position to know whether there have been more serious breaches of acceptable standards from departmental chief executives over the 30 years since the law was enacted –  most of what departmental CEs do happens behind closed doors, away from the public eye.   But of things that have come to public view, it is hard to think of any (departmental chief executive) episodes that plumb the low standards on display by Makhlouf in the last week (not just a single choice, word, or act but the accumulation of words, actions, choices over several days, each compounding the other, with no sign or act of any contrition).  He should go, and if he won’t resign, he should have been dismissed (yesterday’s Cabinet would have been the opportunity).

Matthew Hooton has a sustained Twitter thread this morning that is worth reading.  He is more focused on the political aspects, and the potential culpability of Grant Robertson (I’m ambivalent on that point, pending more evidence).  But his bottom line is one I strongly agree with:

hooton

And the State Services Commissioner is fully part of that same self-protecting establishment –  appointed by them, from among them, and now supposedly reporting independently on actions (of another member) that he himself was part of as recently as last Thursday morning.

This must not be the standard we settle for.

The PRC, trade, foreign investment etc

Parliament’s Justice Committee today has the second (and final?) public hearing of submissions on their foreign interference inquiry.  The first such session was described to me by someone who watched it all as “just hopeless”, and accounts I’ve read don’t suggest any reason to doubt that take.  If there were signs of seriousness about the process, they seemed to be about trying to play down, or pretend there was nothing to, concerns around the PRC.   The acting chair had introduced the hearing by suggesting she would prefer not to hear names.     Her party, earlier this week, launched a foreign affairs discussion document in which they talked of their “friends in Beijing”.  What hope for a serious investigation.

Reports this morning suggest the Committee is just about to have another acting chair, with previous acting chair Maggie Barry deciding to leave the committee, and substantive chair Raymond Huo (who initially opposed any public submissions, claiming government departments could say all there was to be said) having belatedly recused himself, as someone about whom concerns had been raised, notably in Anne-Marie Brady’s paper.  In another sign of the unseriousness of the exercise, a senior National MP on the Justice Committee told the committee two weeks ago, when Brady appeared, that he hadn’t even read the paper.  I might not have expected all MPs to have done so –  although all should –  but a senior MP, actually sitting on the committee, part of National’s international affairs team…..

It is reported that National MP Chris Bishop is to be the new acting chair.   As I happened I was engaged with Bishop briefly on this issue on Twitter yesterday, when he politely took exception to my suggestion that the inquiry, especially around the PRC, was really a faux inquiry.   His claim was that

bish.png

and went on to ask the basis for my concern.   240 characters really isn’t the length for such discussions, so I simply pointed him to my submission to the inquiry, and in addition to some of the points above noted the Jian Yang situation.  Perhaps he was in earnest.  Perhaps his acting chairmanship will really mark some sort of turning point in the inquiry.  It would be great if it did, but it is hard to have any optimism given how deeply entrenched, especially in the two main parties, the wish to pretend there are no problems, and to just get on treating the PRC as a normal country (“our friends”) has become, from Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges down.

There was another example of the establishment approach in this area in the Herald yesterday, in a column by lobbyist and former trade negotiator Charles Finny, offering to “make sense of the US-China dispute”.  Par for the course for the Herald, general readers would not have any idea that Finny serves on the Advisory Board of the (largely taxpayer-funded) New Zealand China Council, set up to champion closer ties with the PRC (and never known to have said anything critical of the regime), and he is also chair of Education NZ, the government body charged with promoting export education, much of it to the PRC.   On a good day, Finny appears to be alive to some of the risks around the PRC –  he did after all go on national TV and suggest that he was always careful what he said around Jian Yang and Raymond Huo given their apparent close ties to the PRC embassy – and I suspect he is mostly a true-believer in the mantra of the “rules-based order” and of the ever-increasing web of preferential trade agreements New Zealand is party to.

But his “making sense of the US-China dispute” column didn’t make sense of it at all, because it totally failed to place the rising tensions in a wider strategic or political context.  It was, on his telling, all the fault of the Americans (“the Trump Administration’s ‘America First’ mentality), and not at all about choices made by the PRC.  Later in the article, Finny does actually note first that some of the approaches that bother him began under Obama (judges for the WTO), and that there isn’t necessarily much difference between the approach being adopted by Trump and that by Democratic Party contenders, which you would think might matter.  But instead all we get is a worry that New Zealand could see

enormous pressure on New Zealand to stop buying Chinese technology or to co-operate with Chinese universities or research entities,

(Shouldn’t any decent media outlet have thought at that point that Finny should have to disclose his Education NZ and China Council involvements?)

Finny’s approach seems to be that no matter the character of the regime, we should simply keeping on doing more trade, buying more technology, allowing more investment.  There seems to be no sense at all of anything around security risks –  be it Huawei, Hikvision or whoever –  no sense that, however the New Zealand government labelled it in a treaty, the PRC is no market-economy, but one with an ever-increasing role for a state with totalitarian aspirations and abilities.   Simply no recognition of the way the PRC has sought to inject its pernicious influence –  and don’t pretend it is just another state – into the affairs of all sorts of other countries, including our own, including our own ethnic Chinese New Zealand citizens.   Now, you might think Trump is going about tackling these challenges in a poor way – or perhaps won’t even follow through –  but that is a quite different matter from whether there is a real issue that needs addressing.   Finny –  and the New Zealand political establishment –  would, it appears, prefer to pretend otherwise.  And don’t pretend –  as some try to –  that this is just about another big country getting richer and stronger.   There would be nothing like the level of concern there now is across the US political spectrum if China were opening up, reducing the power of the state, reducing the power of the Party, stopping the threats to Taiwan, stopping corroding freedom in Hong Kong, demolishing artificial islands in the South China Sea, not engaging in state-sponsored intellectual property theft, not imprisoning a million Uighurs, not attempting to exert control over diasporas and foreign Chinese-language media, and so on.    Those are the sorts of things that should be concerning our MPs and ministers, but not one will utter a word.      (And by contrast I listened to an interview yesterday with Pete Buttigieg, one of the fairly left-wing Democratic contenders.  I can’t imagine he agrees with Donald Trump on almost anything, and yet on China and the risk and threats he was fluent and serious.  I was impressed.)

As it happened, a reader this morning posted a link to a column from the New York Times by the (often rather breathlessly enthusiastic) champion of globalisation Tom Friedman on the US/China issue.  I don’t suppose he is generally much of a Trump fan either, and yet

A U.S. businessman friend of mine who works in China remarked to me recently that Donald Trump is not the American president America deserves, but he sure is the American president China deserves.

and, for example,

But when Huawei is competing on the next generation of 5G telecom with Qualcomm, AT&T and Verizon — and 5G will become the new backbone of digital commerce, communication, health care, transportation and education — values matter, differences in values matters, a modicum of trust matters and the rule of law matters. This is especially true when 5G technologies and standards, once embedded in a country, become very hard to displace.

And then add one more thing: The gap in values and trust between us and China is widening, not narrowing. For decades, America and Europe tolerated a certain amount of cheating from China on trade, because they assumed that as China became more prosperous — thanks to trade and capitalist reforms — it would also become more open politically. That was happening until about a decade ago.

But, as he goes on to note, it simply isn’t now.  And New Zealand politicians seem to refuse to confront the implications of that, accentuating local issues that were already building (as one small but prominent example, Jian Yang was already in country –  told by Beijing to lie about his past –  and in Parliament before Xi Jinping took the top job).

In somewhat the same vein the government has a consultation open at present (submissions close tomorrow) on possible changes to the overseas investment regime.  I took the opportunity to make a short submission for two reasons:

  • first, I generally favour greater openness to foreign investment, but
  • second, the discussion document dealt (rather superficially) with national security issues and how the rules might best handle those.

These days, New Zealand does not get much foreign direct investment –  and especially not much in the way of greenfields new developments.  I don’t think the screening etc regime is the main reason –  mostly, I suspect, we don’t have that much foreign investment because (a) there are few opportunities here, and (b) for the same sorts of reasons business investment generally has been weak for decades (high cost of capital, high real exchange rate, high taxes on business profits –  in that case, especially for foreign investors).  But I’d generally favour a more liberal environment, for almost all industries and for investors of almost all countries.

It is also worth recognising that most of any benefit (to productivity in New Zealand for example) from foreign investment will come from investment by firms based in rich and advanced countries.  Of course, there might be rare exceptions –  a firm based in Zambia, Laos or El Salvador –  but they will be exceptionally rare (the best ideas, technologies, management systems etc) will be in the rich countries –  part of why they got, and stay, rich.  So I’d favour a pretty-much open slather approach to foreign investment –  existing assets or new –  for investors based in rich countries (the OECD membership might be a decent starting point, and one could add in places like Singapore and Taiwan.

For most of the poorer or smaller countries, I really don’t care much what the rules are.  Probabilistically, there is almost nothing at stake (at least in economic terms) in maintaining restrictions on Zambia, Laos, El Salvador (or 100 others) if that is what the political process demands.  But, equally, there isn’t much risk or downside to opening up to them either, especially if one is focused on the benefit of New Zealanders being (generally) able to sell to the highest bidder.

There are various odious regimes in the world.  Most them don’t matter much to New Zealand at all (thinking places like Equatorial Guinea).  But the PRC does and in my view we should –  while the regime remains as it is – be treating investment from there quite differently, for various reasons.    One is a straightforward economic one.  Almost any large PRC firm is either an SOE or has a significant element of state/Party control to it.  We spent years here trying to reduce the hand of the state in direct business operations in New Zealand.  State entities typically don’t run businesses well, don’t allocate investment efficiently, and so on.  There is no more likelihood (to put it mildly) that PRC state-controlled companies will do so than the New Zealand government ones will –  and at least the New Zealand government ones are ultimately answerable to New Zealanders.  Such investment is likely to be a net negative for New Zealand even if the price paid to the initial New Zealand vendor is higher than that vendor could have got from another –  private –  purchaser, whether from New Zealand or another country.

But the deeper reason is that the PRC is a big and powerful totalitarian state, that has repeatedly displayed aggressive intent, which has values antithetical to those of most New Zealanders.   Individual PRC buyers may well be perfectly decent well-intentioned people –  as plenty of 1930s Germans were too –  but a totalitarian state has, and repeatedly demonstrated, its leverage over its own people, by fair means and (too often) foul.  We would simply be ill-advised to allow PRC-associated interests to have significant investments in many sectors in New Zealand.  One could think of media or telecom companies, or tech firms.    The PRC banks operating here should be a matter of concern, especially if they get materially larger than they are now.   But the concern should range wider.  For example, the greater the control PRC interests have of elements of the dairy industry, the more difficult New Zealand might find it to be handle the sort of economic coercion the PRC has attempted to engage in re various countries in recent years.

And, of course, to circle back to my earlier point, it is not as if the PRC is one of the world’s advanced economies.  Productivity levels languish far behind even New Zealand’s modest levels, and everyone recognises the dependence the regime has had on industrial espionage.  Deep pockets aside –  with a mix of market and non-market motives –  how much genuine benefit to New Zealanders is there likely to be from PRC foreign investment over time?

It is possible that this sort of restrictive regime could come at some economic cost, in terms of lost productivity opportunities for New Zealand. My sense is that it would probably be quite a small cost, but we can’t be sure.  Perhaps more importantly, many precautions have a cost –  whether it be a national defence force, Police, anti-virus software, or a lock on your front door.  The PRC is a threat to New Zealand and countries like us, and we need to be willing to spend some resources (perhaps sacrifice some short-term opportunities) to establish some resilience to those threats.

But, of course, our elected “leaders” and business establishment figures have no interest in any of this.  For them, it seems, the character of the regime matters not a jot, it demonstrated track record at home, abroad, and in New Zealand matter not a jot.  There are deals to be done, donations to be collected, and  –  if there are any risks –  well that will be someone else’s problem another day.  And in the process they’ve allowed our political system to become corrupted, indifferent to the character of the regime, indifferent to the values of New Zealanders.  But their “friends in Beijing” are no doubt happy.