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.

 

National on international affairs

The National Party yesterday released a discussion document on international affairs, complete with an online survey inviting your views on various questions around aspects of possible National policy.  If you want a fairly neutral, perhaps even sympathetic, treatment you could read Sam Sachdeva’s article on Newsroom.

I suppose one should welcome a major Opposition party putting out discussion documents on significant areas of policy –  when they speak, voters can learn something both from what politicians say and what they choose not to say.  Who knows, but perhaps one day they will have one on the shocking decline in our relative productivity performance, something presided over –  or actively delivered –  by successive National and Labour led governments.

Reading National’s document you get a pretty strong impression of a party that wants to create an impression that values, human rights etc actually matter to them.  It is there on the very first pages, in the introduction from Simon Bridges.

The story of the last century, apparently

From fighting aggression, advancing democracy and human rights, strengthening development, and promoting a more secure and prosperous multilateral rulesbased
system, we have overcome the tyranny of distance to act as a model global citizen.

Not quite clear to me what the “tyranny of distance” has to do such issues.  In wars it was mostly a great help –  too far away to invade or bomb.  But set that to one side, note that reference to “advancing democracy and human rights”.

Bridges goes on

National supports an independent foreign policy that works in the best interests of New Zealand. That means promoting shared values,

Sounds promising.   And there is more

We must be bold in our defence of the interests of our country and vigilant in the protection of the values we hold dear.

and

Our voice internationally means little if it does not authentically articulate our values.

and

This document outlines a vision from National on how to chart our course in the world, consistent with our core values

Introductions are easy.  Anyone with a fluent pen can write one.  In fact, National has another one – an introduction from their Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson Todd McClay.

He wants us to believe that he cares about values too.

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values 2

I’m not going to quibble with much of that.  Mostly it sounds quite good.

In fact, there is still more in a similar vein.

“We must always remember that we act on behalf of New Zealanders. Everything we do on the world stage must reflect their interests and values.”
Todd McClay
Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs

and

We must use the tools of diplomacy to advance democracy, protect human rights, and promote inclusiveness around the world. First and foremost, foreign policy needs to be used to advance the interests of New Zealand.

We are committed to enhancing New Zealand’s hard won reputation as an honest broker and considered voice and as a proponent of peace and human rights across the world.

All of which was sounding quite good until we got to the next paragraph, under the heading “Defending our values”.    Even it begins reasonably enough

Over recent years, there have been many examples of aggressive and violent actions
by state and non-state actors around the world. New Zealand must uphold our values in confronting such aggression.

What did they have in mind?  As it happens, they do move from the general to the specific.

The conduct of Russia towards Ukraine and their use of nerve agents in the United Kingdom; recent terror attacks in India and Sri Lanka; and the abhorrent disregard for democracy and human rights in Venezuela are examples that reach the threshold demanding New Zealand’s swift and strong condemnation. To not do so risks creating confusion and uncertainty with our friends and allies.

Spot any important omissions there?   A hint?   Biggest country in the world, first or second biggest economy, increasingly repressive (across a huge range of dimensions) at home, expansionist abroad, known for intimidating diasporas, for state-sponsored intellectual property theft, and so on.

Why yes, that would be the People’s Republic of China.  In fact, in a couple of weeks won’t it be 30 years since the PRC authorities murdered thousands in and around Tiananmen Square, and don’t those same authorities today suppress any hint of a mention of what they did?

“Demanding swift and strong condemnation”?  Distancing ourself from such a regime, in honour of the values we (claim to) champion.  I’d have thought so, but clearly National doesn’t.

A couple of pages on, National’s document gets into a discussion of specific countries    They don’t actually have the gall to suggest that there are shared values with the PRC –  curiously, at least in the document, only the United States and the EU are explicitly described as having shared values with New Zealand –  but they begin

Our relationships with China and South East Asian countries must be respected and
maintained. In an environment of competing priorities, greater weight must be afforded to those relationships.

Nothing at all about values now, or distinguishing between countries that live something like those values, and those (the PRC most notably) that simply disclaim any such interest.   Deal with the PRC if you must –  and keep those donations rolling in – but don’t ask voters and citizens –  who actually hold those values you talk about –  to “respect” your shameful relationship with them.

There is a specific section on China.  It is the full kowtow.   The strange boasts about

We share many firsts with China – New Zealand was the first country to agree to China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation; the first country to recognise them as a market economy;

Not something I’d be boasting about unless I wanted to keep Madame Wu and the donors onside, the PRC manifestly not being a market economy, and having failed to open its economy in the way in which those who championed WTO-entry argued would happen.

And what about those “values” which appeared so prominently at the front of the document.  I’m guessing this was supposed to be the merest hint.

As this relationship has matured we have raised issues responsibly and respectfully with our friends in Beijing.

Only 17 words, and so much to object to.  “Issues” –  what issues bother you Messrs Bridges and McClay?   Wasn’t there lots of talk in the document about a more open and transparent approach to foreign policy, convincing citizens you act for them.  “Respectfully” –  about people who imprison vast populations (in Xinjiang), brook no domestic criticisms, destroy any vestiges of religious freedom, allow no political freedom, threat a neighbouring free and democratic country, unilaterally seize and militarise the South China Sea, encourage a migrant to New Zealand to lie about his past with PRC military intelligence, threaten and intimidate diasporas, abduct citizens of states with whom we do share values, and so on.     And “our friends” –  to which all I can say is “speak for yourself”, and “people come to be known by the company they keep”.

In the same section they go on to champion the Belt and Road Initiative, which (we are told)

“presents a real opportunity to build closer ties and demonstrate trust”

I presume they can only mean “demonstrate to Beijing that we are trustworthy vassals”.

They end the section by asking for readers’ views on “how should we deepen our relationship with [several countries including] China”.   The idea of not doing so, of pulling back from getting so close and deferential to a regime responsible for so much evil simply never seems to occur to them.   It just adds to the sick joke that is the current parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference, chaired by one of National’s senior MPs  Nothing to worry about Madame Wu, I’m sure they assure her.

It is an extraordinary document in many respects, and not just for the utter disconnect between all the talk about values and human rights and that about the PRC –  perhaps the largest abuser of human rights today, the prominent regime whose values are so alien to those National claims to see as our own.  What was also striking was that there was no hint that these people had given any real thought to the geopolitical or strategic environment, even though it is less than two years since they were in governments, and the most recent National Minister of Foreign Affairs is still on their team.   There is nothing about what the continued rise of an extremely illiberal PRC means, in Asia, in the Pacific, and in the wider world.  Nothing, for example, about the risks of allowing key elements of your telecommunications systems to be provided by a company owned (in effect) and controlled by the PRC regime.  It is just unserious stuff in which –  for all the fine, but empty, words at the start of the document, only (trade) deals and (party) donations seem to matter.  Values, it seems, are relevant when there is no cost.  Anywhere else, well it seems thay they must have another set of “values” –  “whatever it takes” perhaps being the best summary.

But why would any of this be a surprise (except perhaps the PR fluff designed to suggest they really do have a soul, and haven’t simply sold it all)?

After all, it is only a few months since Todd McClay was defending the PRC internment of probably more than a million Uighurs, running regime propaganda that these were “vocational training centres” and really it was no one’s business but the PRC authorities.

And a few months since Simon Bridges was attacking the government when there was a hint of a suggestion that they might not have been quite deferential enough to the PRC.

National’s party president pops in  Beijing from time to time to praise the regime and its leader, and seems to have business dealings in the PRC with National MP Jian Yang.

It is barely two years since Simon Bridges, as a senior minister in the previous government, held the pen in signing an MOU with the PRC on the Belt and Road Initiative, in which he and the PRC expressed an aspiration to a “fusion of civilisations”.

Or a year since Bridges and his then senior MP Jami-Lee Ross were dining with, and arranging donations from/through, a New Zealand citizens with strong and close ties to various regime entities in New Zealand and in the PRC.

And, of course, there is Jian Yang himself, who still sits in National’s caucus.   There is no dispute that he was a Communist Party member (experts believe he probably still is, since – they suggest – no one can leave voluntarily), no dispute that he served voluntarily as part of the PRC military intelligence system, no dispute (now, since he acknowledged as much) that he hid his past in applying for New Zealand residency/citizenship, (so he says) on instructions from Beijing, no dispute (apparently) that he is a large fundraiser, no dispute that he has never said anything critical of the regime in all his years in Parliament, no dispute that he associates closely with the PRC embassy and various United Front bodies in New Zealand, and (finally) no dispute that he avoids ever fronting up to the English language media in New Zealand.  And Simon Bridges and Todd McClay are apparently just fine with that. If it were otherwise –  if National was remotely serious about the values talk –  Jian Yang would be out of caucus, if not out of Parliament.

No wonder that in opening the select committee hearing on foreign interference a couple of weeks ago, the chair (National MP Maggie Barry) apparently opened by indicating that she would prefer not to hear names during the submission process.  Of course she would.

(Lest it be thought I could find no positives in the document, I agree with National on this

The National Government introduced the Autonomous Sanctions Bill to Parliament. This Bill would empower New Zealand to impose sanctions on countries where we believe they are warranted and outside of the ‘held hostage’ United Nations sanctions regime. This authority should be used sparingly, but is an important tool in New Zealand’s fight against aggression and in support of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It is just that, even if it were on the statute books I’d have reason to expect National –  or Labour for that matter –  would do a thing about the PRC.     A National Party leadership that was remotely serious about the values talk would, for example, be criticising the government for its utter silence on the PRC abductions of the two Canadians, and it would be speaking out  two weeks hence strongly on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square –  less perhaps about the past evil, but about the refusal decades on of their “friends in Beijing” to allow discussion, debate, scrutiny of the record etc.  But we all know what they will in fact say. Precisely nothing.    Because deals and donations seems to be the “values” the matter.)

Finally, late last year Scott Morrison gave an impressive speech about values and foreign policy. I haven’t quoted from it again recently because –  like most others –  I assumed he would soon be passing into history. But perhaps it is the week to repeat his quote (emphasis added)

Our foreign policy defines what we believe about the world and our place in it.It must speak of our character, our values.  What we stand for. What we believe in and, if need be, what we’ll defend. This is what guides our national interest.

I fear foreign policy these days is too often being assessed through a narrow transactional lens.   Taking an overly transactional approach to foreign policy and how we define our national interests sells us short.

If we allow such an approach to compromise our beliefs, we let ourselves down, and we stop speaking with an Australian voice.

We are more than the sum of our deals. We are better than that.

Wouldn’t it be great if our politicians really acted as if they believed that, especially in their dealings with the PRC?   Sadly, there is no hope of it from National, or Labour.

 

What are Police up to?

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.

 

A certificate of shame

A week or so ago I wrote a post about our Police and their apparent indifference to the requirements of the law –  in this case the Official Information Act.  I’d asked about the appointment of their Assistant Commissioner Hamish McCardle to a visiting professorship at the PRC’s People’s Public Security University (the university of the Ministry of Public Security).  It was already well past the 20 working days limit specified in the Act and nothing had been heard from Police.

This morning I finally had a reply from Police’s (acting) International Services Manager,   There was not much to it, and (so they say) nothing was withheld.  First, I received a photo of a certificate of Mr McCardle’s appointment.

McCardle certificate

The appointment was made almost a year ago.

It probably should be a warning sign when the university of the Ministry of Public Security in a regime like that of the PRC recognises your “outstanding achievements”, but apparently it wasn’t to either Mr McCardle or his bosses.   In fact, in the photo included with the article on the Police website, Mr McCardle looks downright pleased.  Never mind the loss of liberty –  pretty much across the board –  that the Ministry for Public Security helps give effect to, the mass incarceration of Uighurs, and the persecution of all manner of other groups, it was apparently a great honour to be welcomed as (visiting) faculty at their training school.

The only other information related to my request that Police claimed to have was an email from the former International Services manager to three of his superiors, including the Deputy Commissioner and the Commissioner of Police.

From: “KANE, Brett” < >
To: “PANNETT, Michael (Mike)” < >, “CLEMENT, Michael” < >, “BUSH, Michael (Mik·e)” < >
Subject: Hamish Mccardle -Appointed Visiting Professor at the Chinese Ministry of Public Security University

Assistant Commissioner Hamish Mccardle has recently been appointed as a Visiting Professor at the Chinese Ministry of Public Security University.
This is a very rare honour, in fact Hamish is the first ever foreigner to have this honour bestowed. A bit like Massey University presenting President Xi’s wife an Honours Doctorate during the State visit a few years back.
This honour presents the chance to return each year to teach an advanced class of Masters students, about a one to two week teaching block. This role will have some great advantages in the overall relationship development with MPS and
New Zealand over the long term.

Brett Kane
National Manager I International Services Group (ISG)
Detective Superintendent I New Zealand Police

And that was it.  A “very rare honour”, “first ever foreigner”.  All with the utter moral blindness that sees no apparent difference between Massey University and the advanced training establishment of one wing of the domestic repression apparatus of a state like the PRC.  In fact, this ‘honour” is regarded as highly beneficial (“great advantages”) in improving relations between the New Zealand Police –   police force of a free and democratic, bound by the rule of law –  and the PRC Ministry of Public Security, in a country whose own Chief Justice eschews any notion of the rule of law or an independent judiciary.

Assuming that Police are telling the truth and this is really all there is, I find it pretty surprising.  There is no sign of Mr McCardle consultating with his superiors on whether to accept such an “honour” (indeed, my letter from Police says the appointment was done “independently of New Zealand Police”), even though this appointment was to involve a significant ongoing commitment of time.  There is also no suggestion of consulting with MFAT on whether it is a good idea for a senior New Zealand police officer to be accepting such an “honour” from a state like the PRC (and MFAT’s response to my OIA to them confirmed that they had no other material on this appointment), and there is also no record of Police notifying the Minister of Police or his office (“no surprises” and all that), or of the Minister of Foreign Affairs being informed.  Perhaps worst of all there is no sign that the Commissioner expressed any concern about being informed only after the event, or asked for any advice over whether such an “honour” was really appropriate, or whose interests it was serving.

As it happens, the Police covering letter also says that, a year on, “details of any engagement are yet to be agreed” (do note that “any”) suggesting that the symbolism here is more important than the substance –  a key ministry in the PRC, active agent in the suppression of liberties of Chinese citizens, managed to get a senior western police officer to accept an honour from them.   Probably the Gestapo had training establishments that in the late 1930s would happily have dished out visiting professorships or the like to gullible foreigners happy to associate themselves with an institution responsible for such evils.

When it comes to making sense of Police it is always hard to be sure whether malevolence or sheer stupidity/tin-earedness explains any oddities.    This is, after all, the Police Commissioner who had to apologise for giving the eulogy at the funeral of a former police officer found by a Royal Commission to have planted evidence.

Who knows quite what the story is with this episode.  But it probably shouldn’t really surprise us, given the way official Wellington falls over itself to accommodate – and more –  the PRC.    Almost as much as sections of the business community.  Between them, they seem to simply put all concepts of right and wrong, of concern for the oppressed, of recognition of the evil character of the regime they defer to, to one side.

Of course, it is all led from the top.   I listened to a recording of the Prime Minister’s addresss this morning to the China Business Summit (also addressed by the Chinese Ambassador and the local CEO of Huawei) on the Herald website. It seemed strangely apposite that her address –  on this recording –  was bracketed by adverts for the latest in Hauwei technology.   It was, in different ways, a speech both extraordinary and banal.  Banal because it was probably as empty, and as cravenly deferential, as you’d have heard from any New Zealand Prime Minister for the last decade (in fact, it seemed very like her address to the same forum last year).

And yet extraordinary too for the utter emptiness of it all, in the face of a regime that poses such substantial challenges to the world, including its intrusion in our own political system.   Listen to the Prime Minister address the China business vested interests and you’d not know that issues around Huawei remain alive and serious (just the other day Vietnam banned Hauwei), you’d not know there were serious issues with state-sponsored intellectual property theft, with threats to Taiwan, the increasing loss of liberty in Hong Kong, expansionist activity in the South and East China Seas.  Nor, of course, issues like Xinjiang, the sustained persecution of Christians who won’t bend the knee to state-sponsored “churches”, or the forthcoming anniversary of the massacre of Tiananmen Square (no doubt airbrushed completely from PRC media, but I wonder if any of our political leaders will be moved to comment at all).  And as reminder that it seemed to be all about dollars, the Prime Minister reminded the assembled business figures that the government had nine agencies represented in being “there to serve your interests” –  it was that “your” that sparked me interest, no sense of “our”.

Of course, there was the obligatory brief and embarrassed note that we don’t always agree with the PRC, but that “differences of perspective don’t define our relationship”.  But they really should shouldn’t they, with a regime of such evil, with values so alien to those of most New Zealanders?  Of course, we have differences with every other country at some time or another, but with some we share fundamental values, and with others we just don’t.  The PRC is one of the latter, and yet the PM was again on her mission to treat the PRC as just another country, its leaders just another group of decent blokes (in their case, they are all male).  You can’t escape the impression that she is happier photographed with Xi Jinping than with, say, Donald Trump (and I don’t blame her at all for not wanting to be photographed with Trump, but the government he leads is not the PRC).  And yet, for all its faults, the US Adminstration is actually willing to speak up and speak out about the mass incarceration in Xinjiang

Perhaps it is no wonder Police not only accept this “honour” but celebrate it in their magazine.   When it comes to the PRC, they seem to take a lead from the Beehive, where successive waves of ministers seem devoid of any moral grounding.

When they ponder those deals and donations, and all the squalid compromises involved, perhaps our politicians, officials and business figures might ponder that old Scriptural line

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

 

 

The not-very-serious foreign interference inquiry

At midnight on Friday the deadline passed for public submissions to the Justice Committee’s inquiry into (various issues around) foreign interference in our political system.

The Justice Committee conducts a review after each election of issues around the conduct of the election.   After the opportunity for public submissions to this review had already passed the government asked the committee to add the “foreign interference” issue to its inquiry.

The Justice Committee is chaired by senior Labour backbencher, Raymond Huo.  Professor Anne-Marie Brady, and various other people, have highlighted the fairly close connections Raymond Huo appears to have had to the PRC Embassy in New Zealand, to various regime-affiliated United Front bodies, is on record having talked up the opportunity Parliament gave him to champion PRC perspectives (eg on Tibet), and has never once in his years in Parliament been heard to utter a word critical of the PRC regime –  even though, as an adult migrant, he will be more personally familiar than most with its ways.   It has always been pretty extraordinary that such a person chairs such a significant parliamentary committee, let alone was chairing an inquiry into potential foreign interference risks in the New Zealand political system.   Revealing as to the enfeebled state of the New Zealand political system, the parliamentary Opposition had never expressed any public concerns.

Huo has now, very belatedly, recused himself from the committee for the foreign interference aspects of the election inquiry.  But that recusal came only after the blowback from his (initially successful, initially backed by the Prime Minister’s office) efforts to corral the votes of his Labour colleagues to block Professor Anne-Marie Brady from making a submission on the foreign interference issues.    Huo assured us that officials could tell the committee all that was necessary.  To their credit, National MPs on the committee went public and the government backed down, and presumably forced Huo to stand aside from some aspects of the inquiry.

Eventually, there was a call for public submissions.  It ran as follows

The Justice Committee has resolved to invite further submissions on its Inquiry into the 2017 General Election and 2016 Local Elections. The committee is inviting submissions on the specific issue of how New Zealand can protect its democracy from inappropriate foreign interference, notably on the issues of:

  • the ability of foreign powers to hack the private emails of candidates or parties
  • the risk that political campaigns based through social media can be made to appear as though they are domestic but are in fact created or driven by external entities
  • the risk that donations to political parties are made by foreign governments or entities.

As I noted a few weeks ago, those specifics seemed deliberately designed to avoid the elephant in the room around the People’s Republic of China.  Combine that the competitive obsequiousness towards, and deference to, the PRC from all our political parties (but notably National and Labour who had all the seats on the Justice Committee), and the lack of an independent stance from any individual MP on such issues, I was not at all optimistic that the inquiry was a serious exercise.  When someone suggested I might make a submission I was initially reluctant –  participating in what was probably a charade only lent dignity to a dishonourable project.

But in the end I decided to make a fairly short submission, as a concerned citizen, but also one with some expertise on issues around the (alleged) economic dependence of New Zealand on the PRC.  I did not set out to be diplomatic.  The biggest issue facing New Zealand in this area isn’t inadequate laws, but the consciously-chosen actions, words, attitudes and values of our MPs and political parties.   The inquiry is framed to make MPs look like the solution, when in fact they (and their party machines) are the problem.

I suggested a number of specific legislative amendments.  From my summary

There are some specific legislative initiatives that would be desirable to help (at the margin) safeguard the integrity of our political system:

• All donations of cash or materials to parties or campaigns, whether central or local, should be disclosed in near real-time (within a couple of days of the donation),

• Only natural persons should be able to donate to election campaigns or parties,

• The only people able to donate should be those eligible to be on the relevant electoral roll,

• Consideration should be given to tightening up eligibility to vote in general elections, restricting the franchise solely to New Zealand citizens.

I would also favour tight restrictions on the ability of former politicians to take positions (paid or otherwise) in entities sponsored or controlled, in form or in substance, by foreign governments.

But

…useful as such changes might be, they would be of second or third order importance in dealing with the biggest “foreign interference” issue New Zealand currently faces – the subservience and deference to the interests and preferences of the People’s Republic of China, a regime whose values, interests, and practices and inimical to most New Zealanders. Legislation can’t fix that problem, which is one of attitudes, cast of minds, and priorities among members of Parliament and political parties. Unless you – members of Parliament and your party officials – choose to change, legislative reform is likely to be little more than a distraction, designed to suggest to the public that the issue is being taken seriously, while the elephant in the room is simply ignored. It is your choice.

In the body of the submission I developed the point

…in respect of the People’s Republic of China – a regime whose values, actions, and interests are inimical to those of almost all New Zealanders – these are not just risks, but realised facts. Whether because of false narratives about New Zealand’s “economic dependence” on China, lobbying from specific vested interests (public and private sector, or political party fundraisers), or whatever other consideration, political parties and elected politicians have allowed themselves to arrive in a position where all seemed scared to utter a word critical of the regime in Beijing, and appear to go out of their way to laud the regime and/or to solicit donations from people with close ongoing ties to Beijing. That brings our democratic system into disrepute, undermining the confidence of citizens that the political process is operating in their collective interests, and that those running it have interests and/or values that align well with the values and longer-term interests (including of a robust open political system) that aligns with those of the citizenry.

This isn’t primarily about inappropriate foreign interference itself but about the repeated choices of, it appears, every single member of Parliament, across successive Parliaments, and each of the parties represented in Parliament. Big and evil foreign regimes will attempt to exert pressure where they can, or to identify points of vulnerability. We can’t change that, and we can’t change the character of the Chinese Communist Party controlled People’s Republic of China. But we have choices as to how to react to the regime. The choices made by successive governments, apparently without material dissent from anyone in Parliament, have worked against the longer-term interests of New Zealanders.

and

No doubt most of those involved believe that, at some level, they are serving some version of “New Zealand interests”, but in the process there is no doubt that Beijing’s interests are advanced. What are those interests? Well, they include (without limitation) keeping western nations hitherto known for their regard for political freedom, the rule of law, and human rights, quiescent. When (otherwise) decent countries treat the PRC – a country with few real friends and allies – as normal and decent that (in some small way) helps the regime.

New Zealand governments were once known for a fairly forthright stance in responding to large and evil regimes: the first Labour government was well-known for its opposition to appeasement policies in the 1930s, and successive governments (of both parties) recognised the Soviet Union for what it was. But no longer.

The People’s Republic of China is at least as evil a regime – expansionist abroad, increasingly repressive at home, attempting to coerce diasporas (including in New Zealand) abroad, often with not-very-veiled threats to people at home. And yet our governments and members of Parliament treat the leaders and representatives of this regime as part of some sort of normal state, unashamed to share platforms with them and (apparently) afraid ever to utter any word of criticism. Citizens of a close ally have been abducted by Beijing in recent months, and the New Zealand government utters not a word of support. A free and democratic country in east Asia is constantly threatened and harassed by Beijing, and New Zealand governments say nothing. What message does this send to New Zealanders about whose interests governments are serving, and values they represent? By contrast, party presidents of both main political parties have been in Beijing in the 18 months praising the PRC regime and its leader – and they don’t even have the excuse perhaps open to ministers of maintaining normal diplomatic relations.

No one supposes that our elected MPs or political parties [collectively, or generally as individuals] share the values, or even support the methods, of the People’s Republic of China. And the People’s Republic of China poses no direct physical threat to New Zealand. Thus, the only reasonable deduction is that the deference and subservience, to a regime responsible for so much evil, is about deals and donations: direct two-way trade opportunities, and the flow of political party donations from people (often New Zealand citizens) with affinities to Beijing.

What about those economic risks?

The People’s Republic of China is known to attempt to use “economic coercion” to bend other countries and their politicians to its way (sometimes – as with Norway – just keeping quiet about evil). From an economywide perspective, these are mostly not serious or real threats – more like bogeymen that people in other countries choose to scare themselves with, sometimes egged on by political leaders. A key insight of the economic growth and development literature is that the countries make their own prosperity (not by closing themselves off to the world, but through good institutions, smart people, decent tax and regulatory provisions, which allow them to develop industries than can take on the world). But the threats – usually unspoken, but real nonetheless – are real for individual firms  (including public sector ones like universities) that have made themselves very dependent on the PRC market.

Wise businesses don’t make themselves excessively dependent on markets controlled by capricious brutes, and when they find themselves over-exposed they look to diversify and/or build greater resilience into their own processes. But too many New Zealand exporters – well aware of the character of the regime – have only redoubled their exposures, and then seek to influence the New Zealand state to protect their dealings in those markets. Perhaps among the more shameful are the universities, historically guardians of open debate etc, and yet several now actively partner with arms of the PRC and all have chosen to make themselves dependent on PRC students – in the process handing the thug a baseball bat. Not one university vice-chancellor has been heard from in recent years lamenting the increasingly closed and repressive nature of the regime in Beijing.

There are parallels with people who pay protection money to the Mafia. Such people might garner some sympathy but little respect. But whereas an individual may have few protections against organised crime syndicates, a sovereign state positioned as New Zealand is, has plenty of choices. A generation of politicians has made bad choices around the PRC. Those choices may have boosted two-way trade to some extent (even as our overall economic performance – more influenced by our overall foreign trade, which has been shrinking as a share of GDP – has remained poor), but have also compromised our longer-term interests, values, and the sense of decency and self-respect that most New Zealanders pride themselves on. New Zealanders can have little confidence that the political system is operating for them.

Following some discussion of my specific recommendations (above), I came back to the point

But it would simply be wilful pretence to suggest that they are the main game around foreign interference. As members will be well aware, the United States (for example) has very tight laws on foreign donations (much more so than New Zealand’s) which has not avoided allegations of interference/collusion or whatever roiling the political system for the last few years.

In a New Zealand context, it is generally recognised that many of the problematic donation flows are made by New Zealand citizens. The controversy last year around Auckland businessman Yikun Zhang was once such possible example, but the point generalises and is well-recognised by those close to the major political parties. In the PRC case, in particular, parties have actively sought to tap donations from ethnic Chinese citizens, often people with close associations with, or sympathies for, the regime in Beijing. No law is going to stop most such people donating, but decent political parties would choose not to tap (knowingly) such morally questionable sources of funding. All parties will be well aware of the activities of the regime, and its agents, in attempting to coerce, or incentivise, ethnic Chinese living here who have ongoing business or family connections in China.

But again, the issue isn’t just about PRC-born New Zealand citizen donors. There are not a few domestic entities with a strong interest in the New Zealand government deferring to Beijing whenever possible, and avoiding if at all possible ever upsetting the regime in Beijing. Many of them are people who readily get the ear of ministers or senior officials. Indeed, the government is in league with many of these same people/institutions in promoting and funding the New Zealand China Council, a body that uses taxpayers’ money to attempt to propagandise the relationship the government itself and specific businesses have with the party-State in Beijing.
For the country as a whole this is not some sort of “win-win” situation (in a way that free trade between consenting firms generally is). Rather, to some extent at least (and perhaps less so in substance than in belief), the access of New Zealand firms (a minority of New Zealanders’ financial interests) is held to depend on New Zealand governments and MPs doing as little as humanly possible to upset one of the most heinous regimes on the planet. Those firms then become, in effect, champions locally of the interests and values of Beijing and – to the extent that politicians respond to such pressures (as they seem to, enthusiastically or otherwise) – they themselves become complicit. Since MPs represent the public, we are all tarred to some extent or other by that association. That, in turn, discredits our political system, which comes to seem no longer interested in championing or representing the values that shaped and formed our nation and our political system.

Quite possibly almost all those involved in the New Zealand political system believe they are primarily serving the interests of New Zealand. But until the major parties (in particular) and the governments they form begin to make observable choices in ways that prioritise New Zealand interests and values over those of Beijing, there is a certain observational equivalence between claiming to focus on New Zealand interests and actually serving Beijing’s. That inability to tell the two apart corrodes any confidence in our political system, and any respect for our politicians and parties. The political spat earlier this year, around which party was most willing to defer to Beijing, will only have reinforced public doubts.

Ending on this note.

That cannot be a desirable state of affairs. Modest legislative reforms around foreign donations do not go to the heart of the problem and, welcome as they might be, will not represent any material part in a fix. A real fix requires MPs and parties to start consistently choosing and acting differently; choosing to prioritise the longer-term values and interests of New Zealanders.

It will be interesting to see how many others, and who, have chosen to submit.

I continue to have very low expectations on this inquiry.  The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition demonstrate no interest in the issue (except perhaps to pretend there isn’t an issue), and other party leaders and MPs are no better (it appears).   The acting committee chair (for this part of the inquiry) is not one of those MPs one would look to for leadership, and the media have –  thus far –  shown little sustained interest in the inquiry (except when gifted stories –  eg around Huo blocking Brady, and the recent appearance of the GCSB/SIS), with no even any apparent follow-up to the reported claims of Jami-Lee Ross (how did he get on the committee?) at the last public hearing.

But no doubt, after the previous Labour attempts to block her, when Professor Brady is invited to appear before the committee there will be considerable interest, including in how MPs on both sides of the committee attempt to parry, or downplay, the concerns she has been raising (let alone the apparent attempts to intimidate her and her family, that –  again –  excited so little interest or outrage from the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition.)

UPDATE (Tuesday): This Newsroom article has some useful material, including about how Jami-Lee Ross came to be on the committee for a day, and suggestions that Huo still has not properly recused himself.