The PRC and our politicians

I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago noting how silent the competing politicians, and the media, had been on issues around the People’s Republic of China during our election campaign. The campaign has now almost come to an end, and nothing much has changed. That is, no doubt, just the way our politicians like it. No awkward questions, no challenges, no serious scrutiny of their own institutional complicity, no nothing.

I’m not going to repeat that post, but there are a few new points, and one I inadvertently overlooked and which has (or should have) acquired fresh life in the last week or so.

Perhaps you noticed that yesterday the PRC was elected to term on the UN Human Rights Council, along with a bunch of other egregious states. These elections are done by secret ballot, which must be terribly convenient for the politicians as the votes they instruct to be cast for their country normally remain secret. But there is nothing to stop journalists asking about New Zealand’s vote, or asking the Leader of the Opposition (or leaders of the minor parties) what stance they think New Zealand should have taken. It isn’t impossible that New Zealand abstained or even voted against – China’s election was far from unanimous – but surely voters have a right to know what stance our government took as regards such an egregious a human rights abuser as the PRC? It would be great if they did vote against – and they did join a recent multi-country letter on some of the PRC’s abuses – but it is pretty feeble stand if they won’t tell their own citizens they took such a stance. And if the government won’t say, what stance would National, ACT, or the Greens have taken?

Incidentally, reading the belatedly-released Labour manifesto – which, remarkably, had no reference to China, even in the foreign policy section – I noticed this

labour ethics

So government agencies – including the NZSF and ACC – will no longer be taking equity exposures to companies owned or controlled by the PRC/CCP? I don’t suppose so, but it rings fairly hollow if the PM and her colleagues think New Zealanders could “stand proudly behind” such investments.

Through the election campaign it seems that the National Party has carried on with its deference to the PRC/CCP. An Australian-based China analyst drew our attention to this

Now perhaps it would be one thing for the National Party’s foreign affairs spokesman to be meeting with the PRC Ambassador (as with the ambassadors of other countries) but this is a party-to-party meeting, in the middle of a New Zealand election campaign. The same Goodfellow who previously championed Jian Yang, and who refuses to come clean on the National Party’s involvement/association with the CCP-affiliated people now facing electoral finance charges. What values, one wonders, do the ordinary members of the National Party share with the CCP? Few, if any, I imagine, but if so what is the party hierarchy doing holding party-to-party exchanges with the CCP. Pretty confident that in days gone by it was only the Socialist Unity Party that had much to do with the USSR Communist Party.

But the real prompt for this post was something I forgot to mention in the earlier one.

A couple of months ago, Professor Anne-Marie Brady at the University of Canterbury (with a couple of research assistant co-authors) published a paper titled “Holding a Pen in One Hand, Gripping a Gun in the Other: China’s Exploitation of Civilian Channels for Military Purposes in New Zealand”. It had been submitted as supplementary paper to the Justice select committee of the New Zealand Parliament and is substantially devoted to documenting the connections between New Zealand entities, especially universities, and PRC PLA-affiliated institutions and organisations. As she noted in the first of her Key Points

The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) rapid militarisation program is accelerating via an international technology transfer strategy, which includes academic exchanges, investment in foreign companies, espionage and hacking. Scientists work globally, so by accessing universities or tech companies in states with an advanced technology
sector like New Zealand, the PLA can get a foothold within the international network of scholars working on a given subject area.

It didn’t seem terribly controversial – previous papers by other authors have documented the PLA connections with many universities here and abroad – and I didn’t read it at the time.

But a few days later I noted the news that Canterbury University itself was ordering a review into the publication of this paper. Other academics apparently did not like it one little bit, and the Canterbury seemed ready to play along

Canterbury’s deputy vice-chancellor, Professor Ian Wright, said the complaining academics believed the publication contained “manifest errors of fact and misleading inferences”.

Brady herself appears to have been, at least temporarily, silenced and her voice has been totally absent from the public square in this year’s election campaign. You’ll recall that it was during the 2017 campaign that she released her Magic Weapons paper on PRC influence/interference activities in New Zealand, to the discomfort of much of the political class.

It seemed a very odd approach from the University of Canterbury. Academics often like to remind us that they have some sort of “critic and conscience” role in society, and that the freedom to speak openly and publish their material – in turn exposed to scrutiny from the public and peers – is a big part of how academe is supposed to run. And so if there were problems with Professor Brady’s paper, wouldn’t the normal approach have been for those who thought they had identified problems – whether of fact or interpretation or emphasis – to have published something themselves, and let the issues be fought out openly.

I’m, of course, not an academic myself, but many/most of the signatories to an open letter that was released last week are. Addressed to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canterbury, the (now in excess of 150) signatories wrote

Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s work has had a far reaching impact on public and policy discussions globally, which is why we were dismayed to read Martin Van Beynen’s report in Stuff entitled “Canterbury Uni orders review into publication by China expert Anne-Marie Brady”. All of us are familiar with Professor Brady’s superb report “Holding a Pen in One Hand, Gripping a Gun in the Other” that was submitted to the New Zealand Parliament’s Justice Select Committee this past July. We are shocked to read that your Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Wright, gave a statement to the press confirming that the University was entertaining the complaints, and giving them currency by explaining that they  allege that the paper contains “manifest errors of fact and misleading inferences.”

We, who know this area, can see no manifest errors or misleading inferences based on the evidenced material provided in the report. The paper does not make “inferences.” People who study it may draw some, but that does not mean the paper made them, misleading or otherwise. Since Professor Wright publicly voiced the allegations a group of us peers again went through Professor Brady’s Parliamentary submission. We find in it no basis for the allegations. Some of the links in its comprehensive sourcing have gone stale since she submitted it but those URLs all still work if put into Wayback or archive.today.

We are disappointed to see no prompt follow-up, explanation or clarification of the University’s position concerning the allegations. The impression left by that published report should have been corrected to show that the University did not intend any endorsement of the complaints, nor an approval or acceptance of complaints to the University as the appropriate way to criticise academic work. The silence has been interpreted as collaboration in slander against a very distinguished scholar whose work has been consistently based on sound social scientific methodology.

We would have expected you to stand up for your university, the right of any of its members to publish their research freely, however contentious, and for Professor Brady as a brave colleague. She has been the target of a harassment campaign and threatening menace because of the serious implications of her important research.

We ask that you issue a prompt and full apology to Professor Brady on behalf of the University of Canterbury for not rejecting the complaints against Professor Brady and instead referring the complainants to the normal way of disagreeing with a paper – publishing their criticism. Professor Wright should publicly apologise for allowing his statement to give credence to the complaints, whether or not he intended that.

We know of no valid basis for any “review” of Professor Brady’s work other than by her peers and other researchers and commentators, as is normal for academic research and publication. That will and should include informed criticism as and if grounds emerge. Her publications are subject to peer review. They have brought great international credit to your University. You risk destroying that credit, to leave it with her alone.

And yet this fairly stinging attack on the university, and robust defence of Anne-Marie Brady’s paper has had almost no coverage in New Zealand. And this even though the signatories include, from abroad, some leading academic authors on issues around modern China, as well as several local academics and – to my surprise – two Labour MPs.

(Regular readers may recall that this is not the first open letter in defence of Professor Brady in the years since she first went public on these issues – the earlier one was about the apparent indifference of our political leadership to the break-ins to Professor Brady’s home and office that were widely regarded as most likely to have had PRC origins.)

One might suppose that in the middle of an election campaign, when academics – including many from abroad – and MPs have signed an open letter about attempts to silence or intimidate a leading academic writing on important public policy issues it would spark some serious coverage. Questions, for example, to the Prime Minister, questions to the Leader of the Opposition, questions to the Minister of Education (what sort of system is he presiding over than sees such chilling “reviews” of controversial material), of the two Labour MPs who signed the letter, and perhaps even of the Natiomal MP – Simon O’Connor – who has sometimes put his name to efforts to push back on the PRC but who is strangely silent this time. But not a word. It is all-too-easy to see why the politicians would prefer the issue, and probably Professor Brady, to just go away. But why almost all the media make themselves complicit with this shameful silence is a bit more of a mystery, but not to their credit.

The publication of the open letter finally prompted me to read Professor Brady’s paper. To be honest, I was prompted by this line from the open letter

We, who know this area, can see no manifest errors or misleading inferences based on the evidenced material provided in the report. The paper does not make “inferences.” People who study it may draw some, but that does not mean the paper made them, misleading or otherwise.

In the past, sometimes when I have read Professor Brady’s pieces I have thought she drew stronger inferences and implications than the facts, as she presented them, seemed to warrant. But reading through the latest paper I was struck by the almost-complete absence of inference. She offers, and appears, to document a long series of fact, and offers some thoughts on possible policy responses. I can quite see that some of those involved would prefer (a) that the facts weren’t know, and/or (b) that people looked more benignly on the PRC/PLA connections that benefit their universities, but the significance of those connections is a matter for debate, not for chilling attempts at academic censorship. But neither our politicians nor our media seem to care. Coming on top of how Professor Brady has been treated over the last three years it is a sad commentary on (a) what New Zealand has come to, and (b) how in the thrall of the PRC our universities and business/political sectors seem to have become. And all this without even mentioning things like the Confucius Institutes that our universities host and partly pay for, providing access to our schools for PRC entities and messaging.

At this election, the two previous United Front connected MPs – Jian Yang, he of the CCP/PLA, and Raymond Huo (the one who tried to stop Brady even testifying to the foreign interference inquiry) will pass from the scene and back into private life. But it is not as if any of the parties seems to have had a change of heart, as they’ve rushed to select new Beijing-comfortable ethnic Chinese candidates – one of whom, former head of the Chinese Students Association (consulate-controlled entities), is now certain to enter Parliament.

And then there is ACT. Not long ago it might have seemed almost irrelevant, but now seems likely to emerge from the election with quite a few MPs. ACT leader, David Seymour, has from time to time been heard uttering some quite encouraging words on the PRC, including some forthright comments at the time of the Hong Kong unrest last year. However at least one person, who knows his stuff in this area, has become quite disillusioned with ACT, suggesting that principle has been traded in for opportunism to some considerable extent.

At the request of people with associations with him I’ve previously published links to translations of a couple of pieces by Auckland-based dissident Chen Weijian, who edits the Chinese-language online publication Beijing Spring. Here is a link to an authorised translation of a new piece, Has the ACT party betrayed its principles on China?

The views are solely those of the author. He begins noting his previous enthusiasm for ACT

It’s voting time in New Zealand. Until fairly recently, I had the comfort of knowing that there was a party and politician that stood for the values I cared about: David Seymour’s ACT.

When Seymour supported the Hong Kong protests here in Aotearoa he captured my interest. He was the only New Zealand politician to express solidarity by appearing in person at gatherings of students in this country supporting the rights of Hong Kong.

Seymour delivered well-considered, passionate speeches backing the demonstrators.   That was when I decided to vote for the ACT Party. 

However, David’s recent actions are inconsistent with the words he spoke when I took him for that rarest of species: a politician of principle.

But then proceeds to discuss the extensive advertising ACT has apparently been doing in the CCP-aligned Chinese Herald, including apparently in the 1 October special edition devoted to the PRC national day and the celebration of the Party.

He goes on to highlight’s ACT’s selection as a candidate – albeit well down the list – who has an extensive background in missile technology (and from whom, apparently, never a discouraging word has been heard about the PRC). The article ends

Most Chinese immigrants, even if highly educated in China, do not rise to such high status positions so soon after settling overseas. However, Ms. Xiao’s ascent has been preternaturally rapid.

Right now, fellow liberal democracies such as the USA and Australia are working hard to squeeze out CCP influence through party-state organs such as the United Front and other limbs of Beijing. Many people with special relationships and obligations to the CCP are in a panic.

It is my strongly held conviction that New Zealand must do the same, and ACT, as a leading voice for liberty, should do the same. Until that happens, they will never get my vote.

I’m much less convinced than the author that ACT has, for a long time, been much of a party of principle – rather they tend to hunt where the votes are, whatever it takes, and this time Chen suggests that that is among the Beijing-sympathetic bits of the ethnic Chinese community. So in many respects I’m less bothered about ACT, which will always be at most a peripheral player in New Zealand, but his penultimate paragraph is one that rings truer to me.

Unfortunately there is little or no evidence that our major parties – notably this time the Labour Party, which will certainly lead the next government – really care at all, or even take seriously these issues. There is a complete absence of any moral leadership on these issues, whether from National or Labour, and too many establishment institutions – notably the universities – seem to quietly cheer on, even egg on, that failure, that choice.

If the silence and complicity of both National and Labour is telling, there is no sign of the minor parties is any better (I’ve been through almost all their websites in a fruitless quest for a party I might consider voting for).

Debating the economy

At lunchtime yesterday I went along to the debate sponsored by Victoria University’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies among the finance spokespeople for our various political parties. I presume the invitation had been spread reasonably widely, but in the end only Labour, National and the Greens turned up (New Zealand First’s Fletcher Tabuteau was ill and sent an apology, and I presume, quite rationally, David Seymour was spending his time where he thought potential ACT voters might be).

Having only three speakers, and all of them serious figures, had some advantages – there was only an hour, and no one wants lots of time going to people/parties that aren’t in, or likely to be in, Parliament.

The Green Party’s Julie-Anne Genter spoke first. She was very fluent. We heard about the four principles the Greens suggest they build all policy around. These were “ecological sustainability”, “social responsibility”, “non-violence and peace”, and “subsidiarity’ (whatever one makes of the rest of them I wasn’t sure how their nationwide plastic bag ban fitted with the notion of subsidiarity). And then there were the six major policies. Remarkably, I even found myself agreeing with one of them – I might normally be categorised as being on the right, but I’ve long hankered for a system that treats victims of accidents and of long-term illness/disability more similarly (the Greens want ACC to cover both).

But for the Greens, the economy seemed to be just something for governments to use to redistribute and pursue their own visions. There was no sense at all that sustained growth in real wealth mostly arises from private sector entrepreneurial activity. So we heard briefly about the poverty action plan (higher taxes and a lot more welfare spending), ACC (see above), on housing all she emphasised was the government building a lot more housing (with no recognition that, all else equal, that if the government builds more the private sector is likely to build fewer).

And finally there was transport. This was the one place where she mentioned stimulating the economy (recall that the debate was about economic policy). The Greens, of course, want lots more trains – rapid regional passenger rail, not just between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga (almost certainly uneconomic as they would be) but from Wellington to Napier and to Wanganui, the overnight train from Auckland to Wellington (why, when one can fly in an hour?), and then in time down the whole east coast of the South Island. In her words “just as it used to be”. It was breathtaking – bringing back memories of time Gabs Makhlouf told as, as a new arrival at The Treasury, that the thing New Zealand got wrong decades ago was insufficient investment in rail. There would be, on the Greens’ telling “massive productivity benefits” from this rail programme. Quite possibly she meant that these “massive productivity benefits” might also stem – and a little more plausibly so – from more public transport in our cities, but beyond the cities themselves it just seem to take leave of any sense of reality or economics (and that without even the points Richard Prebble made on rail in his column in the Herald earlier this week).

I think it was safe to say that the Greens’ vision would be one that would make us poorer – perhaps not in absolute terms, but certainly further widening the alarming productivity gaps that already exist to the rest of the advanced world. Then again, as I noted in my post the other day, no one votes for the Greens because they care about economywide economic performance, or the choices it makes possible.

National’s Paul Goldsmith was next. Sadly – for the spokesperson of the largest Opposition party – there wasn’t much there. We got the upbeat stuff about how he was sure the country would get back on its feet – smart entrepreneurial people, products the world wants, and all that. I guess that is all fine in a short-term Covid context, but it rather ignored 70 years of relative economic decline, that has continued more recently under governments led by both major parties. We heard about National’s temporary income tax cuts – you might approve or disapprove (I think they are less bad than spraying money around favoured projects, less good than a temporary GST cut, and less good – and much more expensive – than looking to monetary policy) – but it was all very short-term in nature. We then heard about how many jobs were being created each month in the last term of previous National government – even as per capita income growth was very subdued – allegedly based on “business investment and confidence” seeming to ignore just how weak business investment actually was for the whole of the last decade (National or Labour).

He was on more appealing ground – although probably not to the predominantly left-wing audience – when he emphasised the importance of a vibrant private sector – including in job creation – and spoke of the increasing regulatory imposts, including Labour’s further increases in the minimum wage and in sick leave requirements.

Oh, and then there were the “bold plans” for infrastructure. Fair enough. They are proposing to spend a lot of money – but then so are the Greens – but there was no sense of a narrative of how this might make a real difference to reversing decades of productivity underperformance. No sign, in fact, that he really cared. It was sad, if a little predictable (we’ve heard nothing different from his leader).

Then Labour’s Grant Robertson spoke. He was on-message, and so we heard about his aim of building a ‘base for truly sustainable economic development”, about infrastructure spending, about the $4 billion the current government has apparently already put into rail, and (a little more positively) about the National Policy Statement on housing. Less relevantly perhaps we heard about the new Public Service Act, and changes to the Public Finance Act, and to the Reserve Bank Act (it was a fairly geeky audience), about spending on improving the “three waters”. And then he did throw in the p-word: Labour apparently wants to lift productivity, and believes it will do this by “heavy investment in skills”, a “significant boost” to R&D subsidies, and by supporting small business and pursuing their trade agenda. Oh, and he ended noting that next year the government would have climate budgets, and that it was important that the government keep up its push for 100% renewables.

It was pretty underwhelming stuff, and again there was no real sense that – even with all the resources of The Treasury and the Productivity Commission at his disposal – the incumbent had any serious ideas about making more than marginal differences to productivity (recall that, for example, we already have some of the highest adult skill levels in the OECD), or was even particularly bothered about doing so. Robertson seems to be a safe-enough pair of hands, if continued managed decline is your vision.

There was a short question time – too often with long questions. In it, Paul Goldsmith allowed himself to get bogged down on the question of whether his family would spend or save the temporary tax cut if they received it (who cares, although he probably should have had a better pre-prepared line). Asked about why Labour wouldn’t adopt a tax policy more like that of the Greens, Genter opined that it was because the level of political debate was so trivial and the main Opposition party was distorting people’s perceptions etc. Also from the Greens a reminder that they want to go even beyond the Welfare Working Group recommendations in lifting benefits. Goldsmith did make the point that only a better-performing economy supports higher sustainable incomes.

The final answer I noted down was from Goldsmith. He stressed the importance of job creation (hard to disagree) but in commenting on the housing market seemed only interested in pushing back against the new regulatory imposts on landlords. Agree with him on that or not, it simply isn’t the main game. Get house prices down to 3 or 4 times income in our larger cities and rents won’t just stop rising, but one would expect them to fall. But – consistent with his leader, and with Labour’s shameful stance on this too – there was not even a hint that National would welcome, or pursue, lower house prices.

It was all deeply underwhelming. As one respected commentator I talked to afterwards observed “that takes us an hour closer to the grave, and we are none the wiser”. We have two big parties with no interest in, or ideas for, reversing decades of economic decline, and almost running scared from any suggestion that house prices might appropriately fall, all complemented by a third party only really interested in cutting the cake differently and perhaps shrinking the size in the process.

The Minister of Finance was born in 1971. He’s been on record admiring the economic performance and institutions of places like Denmark and Sweden. In 1971, real GDP per hour worked in New Zealand was 79 per cent of that of Sweden and 85 per cent of that of Denmark (our relative decline was already well underway). By 1990 – when the 4th Labour government he is keen to dissociate modern Labour from left office – that was 72 and 64 per cent respectively. Last year, it was 60 and 57 per cent. There is a whole range of countries – mostly in Europe, but including the US (and probably Singapore and Taiwan) with average labour productivity 60 to 70 per cent higher than that in New Zealand. Productivity really matters for the living standards this country can offer its people, but none of these parties seems to have anything much to offer. All evidence suggests they really don’t care either.

And so another term passes and nothing changes for the better

A couple of years ago I had my arm twisted and agreed to write a chapter for a new book on New Zealand public policy being edited by a couple of Victoria University academics. My chapter was to be on the economy, and although the general tone of the book was to be rather upbeat, about the public policy and governance frontiers New Zealand had marked out, there wasn’t very much to be upbeat about in the longer-term New Zealand economic story. And so I wasn’t.

The published book finally turned up in the mail last week and I’ve started reading it (there might be a post later about some of the other chapters). In my chapter (a slightly longer version of which is here) I’d highlighted the continuing relative decline in New Zealand’s economic performance. I’d forgotten that I’d ended the chapter this way (emphasis added)

Looking ahead, if New Zealanders are once again to enjoy incomes and material living standards matching the best in the OECD, policy and academic analysts will have to focus afresh on the implications, and limitations, of New Zealand’s extreme remoteness and how best policy should be shaped in light the unchangeable nature of that constraint (at least on current technologies). Past experience – 1890s, 1930s, and 1980s – shows that policies can change quickly and markedly in New Zealand. But with no reason to expect any sort of dramatic crisis – macro-economic conditions are stable, unlike the situation in the early 1980s – it is difficult to see what might now break policy out of the 21st century torpor or, indeed, whether the economics institutions would have the capacity to respond effectively if there was to be renewed political appetite for change.

That must have been written 18 months ago and finalised later last year. We were a couple of years into yet another government that, while perhaps perfectly competent at overseeing some macroeconomic stability, was quite uninterested in – and had no serious ideas about – reversing the continuing decades of relative economic decline. And that was even though the better of them surely knew that productivity was the best, and only reliable, long-run path to widely-shared prosperity. Another government and, of course, another Opposition. To which one could add, a Treasury – self-described premier economic advisers to the government – that had little to offer and seemingly little interest in the issue, and a Productivity Commission that now seemed less-equipped to offer much of value either.

Since then, of course, we have had a rather dramatic crisis – not economic in origin, but with major and ongoing economic ramifications. Best forecasts – in this case, Treasury’s PREFU numbers such as they are, and no one really knows – suggest it will be years before even the cyclical losses are behind us, and that the economy (ours and others) may just settle on a lower path of real income and productivity. We’ll be poorer than we previously thought, and even if others are too, we would still be lagging a very long way behind the advanced world’s leaders. That means real lost opportunities – whether consumer fripperies, or the health and education preferences that get so much attention.

Faced with a backdrop like that perhaps one might have hoped for an election campaign in which a major theme involved confronting the decades of economic underperformance. Note that I’m not suggesting that it should be the only issue of importance – of course not, there is the government-made housing disaster, and the handling of Covid itself (where to from here) as just two other examples.

But what is striking, sobering, and sad is that – even amid a serious economic downturn, with no end in sight – the decades of economic policy failure seems to command no attention at all. I think it was Matthew Hooton who in a column a few weeks ago suggested that focus groups and polling suggested that the public wanted to hear that parties had “a plan”, but there is little sign any of the parties is offering us one. They use the word often enough, but there seems to be little or no substance behind any of it – even the immediate Covid stuff, let alone the economic failure.

One listens in vain to the debates among political party leaders, and there is no hint of any serious interest in addressing the structural issues at all, no suggestion (of course) that they’d done the hard work and settled on a compelling narrative of what had gone wrong, and what they’d offer that might make a real difference.

In the Herald’s election supplement this morning there was a double-page “Policies at a glance” feature, with a line for economic policy.

Labour seemed to have no clue, and no interest. There were policies for the short-term. They might create jobs in the short-term or even limit immediate jobs losses. I don’t have any particular argument with that – although monetary policy is better and cheaper. But then there were the longer-term policies which – whatever their merits on other grounds might be – are all likely to make us a bit poorer not richer (higher top tax rate, higher minimum wage, higher sick leave). But that is par for the course: even at the last election where Ardern occasionally mentioned productivity, there was never any energy or compelling ideas behind it.

National also has its shorter-term policies (the temporary income tax cut, grants, and depreciation provisions), but the longer-term ones seem to come down to not much more than new roads. Of their claim that they would save $1 billion per annum in Auckland congestion costs I wrote

I guess $1 billion per annum is supposed to sound like a big number.  In fact, it is about 1 per cent of Auckland’s GDP.   Fixing the problems is probably worth doing, but 1 per cent of GDP is tiny in the context of either Auckland’s gaping economic underperformance, let alone that of New Zealand as a whole (recall that the productivity leaders are more than 60 per cent ahead of us).

Perhaps welcome. Certainly not transformative.

And yes, we heard a bit about the technology sector, but the numbers were so modest that no one supposes it was going to be transformative either. But Opposition parties have to have a little bait to throw towards the fish.

Of the other parties, and with productivity in mind, I guess ACT seemed to lean in the right direction in places, while the Greens mostly offer measures that would make us poorer and less productive (then again, no one votes Green for productivity etc concerns). To my surprise, NZ First seemed to a have a few sensible lines – offset by wanting to “ramp up” the PGF – but who cares any more?

But, at best they are all just playing, suggesting doing stuff at the margin and offering no real leadership.

It isn’t just the politicians. Somewhat surprisingly, twice in the last few days I’ve seen media invite several economists to offer their thoughts on what should be done about economic policy. Saturday’s Herald’s contribution was under the headline “What’s the next big idea” in which “Liam Dann asks independent experts what tough policy changes are needed for a fairer, more productive economy”. The six economists they consulted seemed to cover the spectrum from Ganesh Nana (BERL) on the left to Prof Robert MacCulloch (who co-authors papers with Roger Douglas).

Their ideas?

Ganesh Nana: a) tax reform (“taxing income and goods and services, but not property/wealth – is not working and is not fair”), and b) a rent freeze and the government as last resort buyer of houses.

Robert MacCulloch: Saving. (“NZ should introduce mandatory savings accounts for all workers which cover health, retirement, housing and risk (like unemployment)”

Cameron Bagrie: “an unflinching commitment to microeconomic reform…..the little things”. More funding for the Commerce Commission and RMA and Overseas Investment Act reform.

Oliver Hartwich largely agrees with Bagrie, adding in a desire to see “a return to a more rigorous approach to cost-benefit analysis”, and a renewed focus on education (the NZ Initiative has a new report on education failings out shortly).

Christina Leung (NZIER) emphasises equality of opportunity with a particular emphasis on education.

Brad Olsen (Infometrics) wants tax reform “to ensure that investment is directed into productive areas”, and also wants a National Skills Plan and a Digital Business Investment Fund “to accelerate the movement of New Zealand businesses into the digital age.

I happen to agree with some of those points – generally the Bagrie/Hartwich line – but even if some of those proposals would be steps in the right direction almost inevitably they would mostly be pretty small beer (others would mostly likely represent small steps backwards). Some of these economists – notably MacCulloch – really do seem exercised, in other writing, about the shockingly bad economic performance. But none seems to have a model in mind for how the ideas they are proposing would make the scale of difference that the productivity failure – material living standards failure – calls for. One can’t hold people too much to account over a few quotes in a newspaper article, but I’m not aware that in other writings most of these economists have even tried to tell such a story.

That was one lot of economists. Then the latest issue of the new Listener turned up this morning offering the views of nine “leading economists on the way forward”. Leung and Bagrie were in both groups, and the Listener added the bank chief economists, Shamubeel Eaqub and David Skilling.

Mostly the bank economists are focused on short-term data flow and perhaps inevitably their focus was on relatively short-term stuff, about traversing the difficulties the virus poses for the next few years, so I’m not going to focus on them, but Westpac chief economic Dominick Stephens had a comment that caught my eye.

Covid-19 will eventually pass and we will still be a country with solid economic institutions, a highly-educated workforce and First World infrastructure. It won’t be east, but our economy is flexible enough to adapt to the challenges and opportunities. 

Sadly, to the extent that those descriptions are accurate they have been so for 25+ years, and yet we’ve still been drifting slowly further behind, even as other poorer OECD countries have begun to converge quite rapidly.

Of the remaining two economists, Eaqub rightly observes that New Zealanders seem to care about “housing affordability, inequality, climate change, health, education and justice”, noting that many of them are areas in which New Zealand is getting worse, but does not hint at what big things he thinks might be done differently to lift our economic performance. David Skilling has thought a lot about economic performance issues – and I’ve written about some of them including here – and on this occasion emphasises his view that the government should focus on spending on R&D, training and enterprise policy (I think this last relates to his idea of promoting – and picking – a few big companies). There is material worth debating in what Skilling writes, but it is still difficult to see a credible model, or narrative, for catching up again.

Now perhaps – it is just barely possible – that The Treasury has been beavering away from months and is about to deliver to the incoming government some really persuasive analysis and advice on the importance of the productivity failure, and what should be done about it. But it isn’t at all likely. Not only has their capability been degraded, but most of their energy will have been going into short-term Covid stuff. And, realistically, they know that neither party – but notably including their current minister, almost certain to be reappointed – has any appetite whatsoever. On economics they are conservative to the core – in a few good ways, but mostly in dreadful ways, simply preferring not to rock the boat, whatever the long-term cost.

I find it all pretty deeply depressing – even if, and yes I can be a detached observer too – not overly surprising, given the torpor into which policymaking and thinking in and around government has fallen (not just in New Zealand of course, but our long-term economic failure is much more serious, and idiosyncratic, than the situation in most other advanced countries). Of course, the cynics approach would be to observe that the public seem to care much, and that a definition of leadership is finding out what the followers want and getting in front of them. But real leadership – courageous, even costly, leadership is something quite different. It is about the perceptions to recognise real problems, and the drive and energy to find and promote solutions, championing answers, making the case and seeking to take the public with you. That sort of thing seems deeply out of fashion in today’s New Zealand- where holding office seems more important than what you want to do with that power. And such is our economic plight – once affordable housing, once the highest material living standards anywhere, but no longer – that is inexcusable and really rather shameful.

As for me, when I write posts like this I always get asked what my answers are. I don’t like to champion them too often, as writing frequently here I probably can come across as a bit of a stuck record. My “big idea” is, of course, a permanent and substantial cut in the rate of non-citizen immigration, so that public policy is not worsening the disadvantages of being in the most remote corner of the earth. But I’ve articulated other strands of story of response in, for example, this speech, this Covid-contextual paper from early in the year, and in this post from a couple of years ago with a fairly long list of things I’d do (some to boost productivity or fix housing directly, some to free up fiscal resources for better-focused and aligned policies, and some to help support some cohesion and legitimacy for our political process through what would, inevitably, be a difficult and contentious transition.

It is easy for things to drift. One year is (mostly) much like another, but before you know it am electoral term, decade, a generation, or even a lifetime has passed, and nothing has been done to fix, and reverse, the decades of relative decline. Our so-called leaders – whether political or official – really are without excuse now. And yet….nothing.

Complacent and complicit

There hasn’t been much about the PRC/New Zealand issues here recently. That isn’t because I’ve lost interest, or because the issues have become less pressing, but just because my health has been mediocre enough that I’ve only had the energy for the bare minimum of writing. There is an interesting piece on New Zealand firms’ trade with entities in the PRC that has been sitting on my desk for almost two months, although I hope to write about that in more detail before long.

But the election is now almost upon us, and what is really striking about the campaign – and the media coverage of the campaign – is the complete absence of discussion of any aspects of the CCP/PRC issues, domestic or international. There are lots to choose from. all of which should matter, and on which the parties should be challenged and scrutinised.

There is, for example, the overt pressure the PRC is putting on fellow democracies, India and Taiwan, right now (one could add Japan, in the East China Sea). New Zealand media don’t seem to give much coverage to the China-led tensions on the Line of Actual Control in North India that has already led to fatalities, let alone to the (apparently) much greater threat associated with the repeated incursions of PRC military aircraft into or near Taiwanese air space, and the apparent – really more than “apparent”, quite openly stated – PRC determination to take Taiwan one way or the other. And no New Zealand media appear to have made any effort to gauge the competency (around foreign affairs), or moral core, of those vying for political leadership, by asking them for their perspective on these disputes or how they would think about framing possible New Zealand responses to more overt aggression. Both main parties have been more interested in talking up their “friends” in Beijing – a line they might also reasonably be asked about – than about articulating a clear stance opposed to resolution of political disputes by force.

Then there are developments in Hong Kong, where one might – perhaps – give the main parties a grudging near-pass mark, with the government having suspended (and National supported them doing so) the extradition agreement with Hong Kong. But it has hardly been a full-throated condemnation of the rapid erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong or (say) offers of asylum to dissidents fleeing the territory.

But far worse than what is happening in Hong Kong – and clearly convergence to the PRC model was inevitable at some point, though we all might have hoped for a less-bad PRC by then – is the growing evidence of systematic and intensifying repression across multiple fronts in the PRC in the last few years, including in the period since our last election. Xinjiang has had the most attention – the concentration camps, the extreme surveillance and control, the apparent forced sterilisations, and so on. But it isn’t just about one region, or one minority religion/belief. On a regional basis, Tibet is back in the news, as is the intensifying pressure in Southern Mongolia. The evidence of use of political or religious prisoners for forced organ transplants is even better documented now than it was. The repression of Christians, Muslims, and other sects is intensifying, and any scope for freedom of expression – always limited – seems to be now much more limited. And yet what do we hear from Ardern or Collins (or the other small parties) on any of this? From National, a while ago we had senior Todd McClay touting PRC propaganda around Xinjiang and suggesting it was really none of anyone else’s business. Perhaps he knows better now – though surely he always did – but there has been no retraction, and no willingness to criticise his parties “friends” and donors. And Labour really isn’t any better. Defenders of the PM will suggest that “human rights issues” are raised in private but (a) why should we believe this? and (b) it is unlikely that what is said in private, in apologetic diplomatic language, bothers anyone (in the PRC).

You get the sense that both parties are more interested in keeping in with the dreadful regime in Beijing – that really combines much of the worst of Nazi Germany and the USSR – than in articulating the values of New Zealanders. You certainly get the sense that both parties are more interested in serving the economic interests of a few big corporates (including university ones) than in representing the values and interests of New Zealanders. There is no open criticism, there is no talk of trade sanctions (eg on products using concentration camp labour from Xinjiang), there is no talk of putting in place a system of Magnitsky-type sanctions. And no media seem to ask any of the party leaders of their foreign affairs spokespeople about any of this. What, for example, does “kindness” mean as regards the abuses of the PRC.

One little encouraging development in recent months has been the formation of IPAC, the interparliamentary alliance on China, with significant representation from members of Parliament in a range of countries, including many quite senior figures. Somewhat belatedly, two New Zealand MPs joined: National’s Simon O’Connor and Labour’s Louisa Wall. That’s good – and one can’t imagine the National whips etc can have been entirely happy about O’Connor who has been chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs committee. But I’ve not seen a single media piece on this development – no attempt to interview O’Connor or Wall on their views, including of what our main parties or governments should be doing about the PRC, or to talk to the party leaders about their stance on IPAC and its calls for the West to take a stronger stand.

And nearer to home, there is no continuing media coverage of the fact that we go into an election with both main parties still embroiled in controversy – and legal investigations – around donations from CCP/PRC-linked figures. This is most stark as regards the charges facing Jami-Lee Ross (who was a senior National MP at the time of the relevant developments), and several ethnic Chinese New Zealand citizens – including Yikun Zhang, who the parties got together to honour for, in effect, services to Beijing – around donations to the National Party. National has not been straight with the public about anything to do with this affair, and no other party seems bothered. Meanwhile Labour has its own issues – former leader Phil Goff, as regards donations to his mayoral campaign, former Cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel over donation to her campaign, and the obscure SFO investigation into some aspect of donations to Labour in 2017. And yet we hear almost nothing of this – not, I’m sure, out of respect for fair trial rights, but because it suits all the big parties to keep quiet. But why does the media let them get away with it? Are they too unbothered about the corruption of our political system, and the suborning of the process by parties linked to the PRC?

Last year we had the political theatre in which the government – with National’s support – rushed through under urgency (keep debate and scrutiny to a minimum) a largely-cosmetic change slightly further reducing the (already severely limited scope) of foreign citizens to donate to directly to New Zealand political parties. It wasn’t a bad change per se, but it consciously and deliberately avoided confronting the much bigger issues: the ability of closely-held New Zealand registered companies owned by foreign citizens to donate (where there have been real and actual issues around PRC-related donations), and around a political culture that has seemed to regard as quite acceptable to take donations – large donations – from New Zealand citizens or residents who are themselves closely connected to the CCP/PRC. Nothing serious has been done about the law, and no party has apparently been willing to take a self-denying vow re PRC-linked donations. And no interviewer or journalist puts pressure on them to do so.

As it happened, I asked about this issue at our local candidates meeting last week. With a bit of a preamble, including noting what last year’s reform had/hadn’t done, I asked National, Labour, Greens and New Zealand First (the parties in Parliament) if they thought their parties should/would take donations from people or companies, NZ citizens or not, with close connections to the Chinese Communist Party (which the PRC operates at the behest, and in the interest, of).

I got no clear and straightforward answer, of the sort one might have expected if, for example, candidates/parties had been asked about people with strong neo-Nazi associations or (one imagines) in days gone by about the USSR or Nazi Germany or the like. It isn’t some obscure party/country I was asking about, but the dominant force in the largest country on earth, a country with a track record of ties – good and ill – to New Zealand.

The young New Zealand First candidate – a researcher in their parliamentary offices – was almost funny. He was desperate not to say the wrong thing and ended up noting that it was a foreign policy question – about NZ political parties taking donations from NZ citizens? – and the question would have to be put to “Winston”.

The Greens and National candidate both get some positive marks. The (very able) Greens candidate noted that her party did not have a specific policy re the CCP and she wasn’t about to make one up on the spot, but noted that she did think New Zealand should be louder in calling out human rights abuses (re the PRC, the Greens this term have been about as silent as the rest). The National candidate suggested – not entirely accurately – that the party is very transparent about all donations, and while he avoided the direct question did suggest we might benefit from some system of registering and disclosing those working for/lobbying for foreign governments (he mentioned the US system, which attracted guffaws from the Green-supporting Newtown crowd). But it was a step up on his National predecessor’s approach at the 2017 candidates meeting.

Labour’s candidate was the only sitting MP, Paul Eagle. His response was that Labour adheres to the law – well, probably mostly – but as he well knew that was not the question. He then went on to suggest that he didn’t know Labour approach to the sort of donations I was asking about and that he would have to check and come back to me. I emailed him the next morning (last Friday) to repeat the question, but – perhaps much as expected – have heard nothing back.

I don’t want to be too hard on individual candidates – all rather junior in their own parties – and it was more telling about the refusal of all the main parties to take this issue seriously, and be quite clear that – no matter how much was on offer – they would not take donations from people with close CCP ties. That said, most of them had little or nothing to lose….and not one was willing to say “but, speaking personally, I think it would be quite inappropriate to take such donations – or those from anyone with close ties with a foreign political party or government”. Not one. It was establishment New Zealand’s indifference, perhaps desperation for dollars, on display. And, of course, no interviewer or debate moderator asks the people with clout – the party leaders – about this, even though it is no hypothetical, and there is a clear track record of such donations in the past. Those donations were, it appears, legal. They were not right (and as Anne-Marie Brady has noted, many forms of PRC influence in other countries, including New Zealand, are legal and yet quite concerning).

The final item on my list of things of which we hear almost nothing in this campaign is the efforts by both main parties (in particular) to ensure that they keep ties in to the PRC’s United Front efforts in New Zealand by recruiting candidates, often to safe list positions, that Beijing will smile on. The grossest example of course was Jian Yang – whose past was finally exposed just before the last election, and who eventually acknowledged misrepresenting his past, at the behest of his then PLA/CCP masters, to get into New Zealand in the first place. National seemed unbothered – Jian Yang claimed they had always known his past, even if the voters weren’t so lucky – and, worse, neither were any of the other parties. On the Labour side, there was Raymond Huo, perhaps not with a past as egregiously awful with Jian Yang’s, but with a present stance arguably worse (the man, who chairing the foreign interference inquiry – extraordinary in itself for Labour – actively tried to prevent Professor Brady for testifying). Rather belatedly this year, both men have decided to move on and spend more time with their families – Yang after having been talked up by National during the year and promised a high list place. But both sides have replaced them. I presume the National replacement for Jian Yang is likely to miss out, but Labour Naisi Chen seems sure to enter Parliament, coming off the back of a past as president of the (PRC-consulate controlled) Chinese students association in Auckland, and who at a recent candidates meeting was reported as also engaging in minimising the Xinjiang abuses. And yet no other party seems bothered, and the media gives the matter almost no coverage.

One could, perhaps, explain away any one of the items on this list. Not all are perhaps quite as important as the others, the economy is not in great shape, the virus lurks etc. But it really isn’t adequate as an excuse – whether from the political parties, who would clearly just prefer the issue didn’t come up – or the media which seems to do nothing to raise it. Those companies trading with firms in China must be delighted. They certainly don’t want any risk that they might fall foul of PRC displeasure – as some industries in Australia have, where the government has taken a somewhat more forthright stand – and simply expect that the rest of us should pay the price while they sup with the devil without even the precaution of carrying a long spoon.

And perhaps it is fair to note that foreign affairs often aren’t central in New Zealand elections but (a) many of these issues aren’t about foreign affairs, but about how we govern ourselves, and (b) that isn’t always so (think of our past whether around nuclear ships, Springbok tours), and (c) on most reckonings the PRC is now a big and threatening presence on the world stage, and in many individual countries. Troubled as the US political system is, it is notable how different the tone of the comment – fact of the comment – is there, whether from Democrats or Republicans.

Our so-called leaders really are a shameful bunch, apparently more interested in keeping their heads in the sand (or those of the public) and keeping the deals and donations flowing, rather than evincing any interest in leading conversations about either emerging geopolitical risks, the nature and character of the PRC, and/or the PRC’s activities here. It should be sobering to recall the break-ins to Professor Brady’s home and office that happened during this parliamentary term. Both National and Labour set out to minimise the potential issue – other parties as bad – and now it seems to suit them for such events to be brushed over and forgotten.

If the politicians are bad – and they are the ones who really matter, who vie to lead and who would like us to believe they have our long-term best interests at heart – the media is (with rare occasional exceptions) little better. It is pretty shameful all round. Beliefs and values that are worth their salt are worth paying a price for, but it isn’t clear that National or Labour (or, as far as I can tell, the rest) have any values worth the name when it comes to the most consequential evil regime now on the planet and its activities here and abroad. That is sad commentary on what New Zealand – once quite clear about its opposition to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, under parties of either stripe – has become.

For those with access, there was a good article in the Financial Times last week about coercive economic “diplomacy” by the PRC. The article was by New Zealander Jamil Anderlini, the FT’s Asia editor. He made the case for countries to stand, and work, together to resist the PRC’s attempts to use trade pressure countries – calling for a new and better United Front of democracies with common long-term interests in this area. Our politicians seem to think it is just to cower and defer to the regime, and do as little as possible to ever upset them (which only ever encourages thugs), rather than standing with other countries that share something rather closer to our values than National’s and Labour’s CCP friends do.

More facts

I’m not sure that the people at the New Zealand Initiative really have much time for New Zealanders. I was inclined to suggest that perhaps that is why they are always keen to trade us in for more immigrants, but I don’t think their stance is in anyway unique to them or to New Zealanders. Instead, there is a class of geeks, often academics, particularly found in the US, who continually lament, and even deplore, what they regard as the “ignorance” of the general public. The public, you see, don’t know the facts the geeky teenagers (and a whole class of us older versions) know.

And yet somehow they get through life. Somehow, for all its faults, New Zealand is mostly peaceful, and moderately prosperous too. And at least by some benchmarks – those of the liberals at the NZI I imagine – these might even be thought of as the best of times in all human history.

This post is, of course, mostly going to be about the new report the Initiative released overnight, complete with some headline-grabbing opinion poll results about what people knew (or thought) about some questions on New Zealand politics and the political system.

But it was only a few months ago that the Initiative used a similar approach – headline-grabbing poll, illustrating the “ignorance” of the public – to back their report calling for more of a knowledge focus in our education system. It was a cause I was fairly sympathetic to – and probably only get more so as my children progress through NCEA – but I wrote a fairly sceptical (perhaps even scathing) post about what weight we might reasonably put on their survey results.

facts

Or

And is it particularly useful to know the antibiotics are about bacteria not viruses?  I did know that, but it isn’t particularly useful to me.  Instead, when I go to the doctor I typically take his advice, and when he prescribes something I try to follow the prescribed instructions.  It probably matters rather more –  in term of keeping antibiotics useful – that (a) doctors don’t over-prescribe and (b) patients follow instructions.  Or so I’ve been told, and I’ll operate of those rules of thumbs (especially the latter) for now.

But this time the Initiative has turned to our political etc system, with a slightly odd mix of 13 questions, in a public opinion survey conducted in January. To establish my geek bona fides, I would have answered – with the odd caveat (and even the Initiative had one in its footnotes) – all the questions the approved way. I tried it on two of my teenage kids: the younger one got about three-quarters right and the older one – not yet eligible to vote – got them all right but posed caveats I hadn’t initially thought of, but each of which was quite fair (and he’d done no civics classes at school).

I’m going to step through the questions quickly.

facts 2

I thought the results for the first question were pretty good. Recall that these surveys are presumably done over the phone, out of the blue, not giving people half an hour with pen and paper. It is easy to miss one item in a instant-recall quiz. Note that geeks will have noted the presence in Parliament of Jami-Lee Ross who does now lead/represent the Advance NZ party, although (a) in Parliament he was formally an independent, and (b) the survey was done in January and Advance NZ appears only to have been launched in April. Also, I presume I would have been marked incorrect had I listed the CCP among my answers, even though in some respects it was certainly true.

As for the second question, you’ll see that even the Initiative has a footnote to some other technically correct answers. But even though the Initiative whips the public for not understanding MMP, isn’t it plausible that at least some people had in mind “well, it asks about parties gaining seats, but actually constituency MPs are elected as individuals?” Quite possibly some respondents – perhaps new migrants, unlikely to vote – just weren’t familiar with “MMP” as a label. The answers might have been a little different if the question was “in the New Zealand electoral system…”?

facts 3

To be honest, I was really surprised by the David Parker result. Then again, I’ve been a political junkie for 45+ years, was a public servant for 30+ years, am married to a senior public servant, and devote a fair chunk of my time to writing about New Zealand public policy issues. We ran a little poll last night on a wider family group, and not one of them knew who the Minister for the Environment was – a PSA delegate, an academic, the owner of a provincial law firm, a couple of housewives, and a semi-retired national administrator and director. And as I reflected on that I thought “why would they need to, or want to, know?” In what way, if any, does it affect their individual lives, or probably even their vote (Parker being a list MP and votes primarily being for parties). Nerds remember the difference between Environment and Conservation, but to many “Environment” will sound like something Eugenie Sage might have been minister of.

As for Hipkins, yes lots of people have kids in school, but why would most people pay any particular attention to who happens to be Minister at the time. If you have concerns about schooling for most people the presenting face is likely to be the child’s teacher, the Principal, and perhaps – at a pinch – the chair of the board of trustees (I could not name chairs of trustees of either school my kids attend, but I could find out easily enough).

I guess the survey was run in January, but looking at this question yesterday I paused for a moment before answering.

facts 4

But for most people I imagine a more honest answer would have been “who cares?” (there were zealots on either side, and many of the zealots on the left actually suggest the bill doesn’t amount to much of substance – but geeks like process systems and bills).

Then we get some odd questions, to which (surely) there are not right or wrong answers – even if one’s own views happen to align with the Initiative (and the majority).

facts 5

After all, on the second of those questions, as the report notes Pharmac does make independent decisions. The NZI is keen on Pharmac (as am I) and also notes – carefully avoiding expressing any opinion on it – the Reserve Bank. But it is quite a complex question, and since we all know that even if independent decisionmakers are given criteria against which to decide, individual preferences enter into their decisionmaking, I can imagine those who generally favour a bit more of a role for “experts” (reasonably) giving a non-approved answer to this question.

As for the final sentence in that block, there is a small minority of CCP-linked very-politically-aware people in New Zealand who probably think Xi Jinping is just the thing, and really a pretty good model. I don’t agree, but it is a value not a fact.

Then back to something closer to factual.

facts 6

To the first, of course I can trot out the “correct” answer to the first question, but it is a US-framed question (and there is even some dispute among geeky people in the US as to whether it is the best framing). But what of New Zealand? Is the New Zealand Parliament really a “branch of government”? Personally, I think “the government” is accountable to Parliament. And what if someone had said “the Queen (or Governor-General), the Cabinet, and the public service”? NZI would have scored them incorrectly, but as “government” is used here it is arguably more accurate. And are courts part of “government”? Well, our courts have a different role than, say, the US Supreme Court – which really is the final arbiter of law in the US – and the courts guard very jealously their independence from the government. More generally, the very question is a geeky political science type question that – framed that way – hardly anyone needs to know.

(Oh, overlooked the courts question. Most people got the “right” answer, and yet some people will be aware that courts will often look to the intentions of Parliament in passing a law, and others will be aware that courts – on matters of judicial review etc – tend to be highly deferential to the preferences and judgements of the executive.)

And finally, foreign relations

facts 7

I was pretty impressed – well, surprised – that 38 per cent of people answered the Five Eyes question correctly. Pretty much no one had even heard of the Five Eyes (a colloquial term, even though here it is capitalised, and isn’t “agreement” or arrangement” more accurate than “alliance” anyway – and they describe it more accurately in their own text?) for decades, and if it has had a bit more coverage in recent years it impinges directly not at all on the life of almost anyone in New Zealand.

But the Initiative had fun – lets laugh at the plebs – with the question about the UK, jeering that perhaps the UK government may want to know about, as it were, the invincible ignorance of the colonial peasants, And yet, and yet….

When I posed this question to my son, who is planning to study international relations next year, he said “but don’t we have some sort of partnership agreement with NATO, and the UK is part of NATO?” Personally, I didn’t think that really counted – even if the NATO Secretary-General not long ago described New Zealand as one of NATO’s closest partners, and we have worked under NATO auspices in Afghanistan where the UK had a significant presence. But he dug a bit further, and pointed out to me something called AUSCANNZUKUS which led us on to ABCANZ, to AFIC, and to the CCEB (all described here – I think the army version of this we only joined formally in 2006).

Perhaps more tellingly, there was the Five Power Defence Arrangements between New Zealand, Australia, the UK, Singapore and Malaysia,

whereby the five powers are to consult each other “immediately” in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of these five countries for the purpose of deciding what measures should be taken jointly or separately in response.

People can stand on precise points about what “alliance” means – does it mean a binding commitment or not? – but frankly anyone who answered “yes” to that question – whatever they had in mind – can’t really be judged to have been incorrect.

The other weird aspect about the NZI treatment of this question is that it assumed that any such “alliance” was about UK aid to New Zealand, and that stupid New Zealanders think the UK will defend us. That seemed odd to me. Every New Zealand military involvement post- World War Two – whether under formal alliances, under UN auspices, or whatever – has been about us helping out others, typically much larger and more powerful countries, partly because it is “the right thing to do”, partly to buttress multi-dimensional relations with these countries. Those countries have often included the UK. I have fond memories of our assistance to the UK during the Falklands War – not under any formal military alliance, but because it was a good thing to do, to help out our friends in a time of need (and, at the margin, may have helped keep the UK onside in EU access dealings). So that even if you (correctly) think there is no more-formal mutual and reciprocal security guarantees between the UK and New Zealand – neither were there in 1939 – many people probably have in mind a relationship richer and deeper.

So that was all rather picky, warranted really only by the fairly dismissive tone the Initiative took to the public’s answers to their quite specific questions. In the end I’m not really going to disagree with them that the level of general public knowledge of details of our political etc system is pretty low. And one can be endlessly picky: in an exchange on Twitter this morning with Matthew Hooton he posed the question of who scored the first try in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Apparently the first individual (“who”) to score a try was Michael Jones, and yet the first try was actually a penalty try.

But, as regards our political system, I’m still in the “in what way does any of this really matter?” camp. The people who really care about the Zero Carbon Bill will know the answer and – political geeks aside – most other people won’t, at least with any great accuracy. I think of my family members who didn’t know that David Parker was Minister for the Environment. I have absolute confidence in all of them as citizens and voters, and people who contribute to making families and societies what they are.

And was the level of “ignorance” of these details not ever thus? In the end, we mostly elect governments, and then – in time – we toss them out again. If I look back over 100 years of New Zealand history, it is hard to see too many times when the public acting collectively got it wrong (even though many of those times personally I might have voted with the minority). It is impossible to know counterfactuals, but the collective (as if) decision that it was time for Muldoon or Clark to go wasn’t ever likely to be dependent on a detailed sense of statutory interpretation or which parties voted for what specific piece of legislation (how many acts of Parliament could most people even name).

In their report the NZI make much of the importance of knowing who is to blame for what. It is a point that has some force in the United States – federal system, enumerated powers, written constitutions etc – but much less so in New Zealand. Here, to all intents and purposes, all powers rests with the executive or Parliament and – given the financial veto – no legislation can be passed without the consent of the executive. Even local bodies exercise only powers delegated to them from the centre. Events are either bad luck – exogenous – in which case we react partly to how governments handle them, or they are the direct responsibility of some or other branch of the executive. So mostly we vote “keep them in” or “toss them out” on some mix of judgements of competence, judgements of character/conduct (NZI doesn’t seem to approve of them), values, ideological branding, and so on. Most people don’t need much very specific factual knowledge – of the political geek variety – to make those choices.

And, on the other hand, as someone who answered all the questions “correctly”, who knows a fair amount about policies (and attribution of responsibility), I’m sitting here still currently planning to not cast a party vote at all. A fair chunk of factual knowledge doesn’t, in the end, help much – at least among those for whom a core value seems to be “but you have to vote; it is the only right thing to do”.

Of the specific NZI proposals, I’m all in favour of the regulatory structure being changed in ways that allow the return of ipredict, killed off by the Ministry of Justice and Simon Bridges. It was great….for political geeks and junkies. I’m sceptical – as they mostly seem to be – of civics classes in schools (in addition to their reasons, one would expect them to become a platform – another one – for teachers to engage in mild politicial indoctrination of their students). And I’m not convinced at all by the argument for putting financial incentives in place for factual political knowledge – rewarding kids for passing tests is generally regarded as a bad idea and I’m not convinced political system tests would really be much different. Same goes for offering big prizes to the knowledgeable listener when a radio station calls out of the blue with a political knowledge question: it would be great for introverted teenage political geeks, but would make almost no difference among the populations where (I presume) NZI thinks it would matter.

For all this, I’m not some starry-eyed optimist about New Zealand, democracy or whatever – in fact, I’m much more negative on New Zealand outcomes than the Initiative’s authors seem to be. But I think the issues and challenges run much deeper, and reflect more poorly on the “elites” and “establishment” of society than on the wider public.

I’m often reminded of these words of (later) US President John Adams written in 1798

Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion.  Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.  Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Many readers won’t necessarily agree (including with the wider claim that successful stable democracies probably need an enduring shared worldview, morality, religion –  not just weak agreement on procedural matters – but as I ended my post on the previous NZI report

The (narrow) facts just don’t get you far.  I’d rather people “knew” that Communism has been, and is, a great evil than that, say, they knew the geography of Hong Kong or the biochemistry of plastic.

Or, right now, a sense that CCP interests are so much deferred to in New Zealand politics –  even if some will dispute this –  matters much more, including to the enduring strength of our system, than answers to most of the NZI’s latest specific questions.

Little changes

The good news of the morning was that Jian Yang will be leaving Parliament at the election.  Perhaps the only disappointing aspect is that he didn’t stick around to be voted out, but at least he will be gone, and our Parliament will no longer have a CCP member, former part of the PRC military foreign intelligence system, champion of the evil Party/state in its ranks.   Oh, and someone who acknowledged that he had actively misrepresented his past –  on instructions from his PRC bosses –  to get residency and citizenship here in the first place.  In any decent country he’d not have been in Parliament in for long in the first place –  a decent party wouldn’t have selected him, decent opposition parties would have made his political position untenable, and once alerted to his acknowledged lies about his past the relevant authorities would have acted to prosecute him, perhaps even deport him.  But this is New Zealand.

A party with a modicum of decency, prioritising some values higher than soliciting donations and doing trade deals with a barbaric repressive regime, might even have insisted that Jian Yang step aside when he past become very public.  But this was the New Zealand National Party.

And although Jian Yang is finally going, it appears to have been his own doing.  Perhaps the unease about his past has become such that (a) he could not really hope to go any higher in politics, and (b) his presence was only going to be lightning rod for discontent.   And no serious person was likely to say anything much sensitive in his presence, given his known close ties to the PRC Embassy.  It can’t be that the grind of endless interviews with the critical media wore him out: he’s not given any.   Perhaps he can be more use to National now, bringing in the donations, away from the spotlight of Parliament?

Whatever his reasons, there is not a thing to suggest that it was National that had finally done the decent thing.  After all, recall that a few months ago he was promised one of the list places specially designated by the party’s Board  (recall that he announced that only to the Chinese language media).  Recall too that when Todd Muller took over Jian Yang was pushed a few more places up the caucus rankings, and left in place as chair of a select committee.   And perhaps more telling still, it was only a few days ago that Todd Muller was defending Jian Yang, with arguments so thin they can only have been the words of someone determined to follow in the unworthy tradition of Bill English and Simon Bridges, championing the presence of Jian Yang in Parliament.  There was no sign the party was about to turn him out –  and, of course, Jian Yang has had close ties to the party president Peter Goodfellow, himself as shamefully obsequious to the PRC/CCP as they come.

Here were some of Muller’s remarks reported by Newshub earlier this week.  Asked about Jian Yang’s refusal to answer questions from the English-language media, Muller apparently responded this way

Muller says it’s not true that Dr Yang is avoiding the media because he has fronted on issues to do with statistics.

“He’s done close to 10 in the last 18 months in his role as spokesperson for statistics across all the various media outlets,” Muller told Magic Talk on Monday. “This view that he’s somehow not fronting for media isn’t correct.”

The last time Dr Yang released an English media statement was almost a year ago when Stats NZ’s Chief Statistician Liz MacPherson resigned over the handling of the 2018 Census.

“He’s made very clear statements to the media in the past… He’s statistics spokesperson so I would think that’s fair that when he talks to the media it’s in that context,” Muller said.

Talk about deliberately obtuse.  As Muller knows very well, the legitimate media interest in Jian Yang has nothing to do with Statistics New Zealand (not that he had done that well in that minor role –  has anyone heard anything from him in recent months on the inadequacies of our official statistics?).

Then there was this

Muller said Dr Yang has been transparent about his past.

“He’s been very clear in the past in terms of his history and the length of time he’s been in New Zealand. Obviously one of the key points is when he left the Communist Party, he left 26 years ago. These things tend to want to be trawled over again.”

As Muller knows very well, you don’t just leave the CCP –  especially having worked in the military intelligence system –  by failing to pay the annual membership fee.  And as for the preposterous claim that he had been transparent about his past…….it was only after six years in Parliament and sustained journalistic investigative work that that past was finally revealed to the public.  Since then, Jian Yang has avoided any serious questioning, but simply refusing to engage.  Some transparency.

The article reminds us of Jian Yang’s close ties to Beijing

In October 2019 Dr Yang was one of 50 New Zealanders who were invited to attend the CCP’s 70th anniversary celebrations in the Chinese capital.

He also accompanied former National leader Simon Bridges on a trip to China where a meeting was set up with Guo Shengkun, described as head of China’s ‘secret police’.

Playing down that latter point somewhat; Jian Yang was apparently instrumental in arranging the meeting, such are his ties to the evil regime.

And then Muller’s values-free approach is put fully on display

Muller pushed back against criticism of Dr Yang’s ties to the CCP.

“It’s a massive country for us in terms of trade and relationships and my experience in the context of all the corporate export roles I’ve had is that as you build relationships with people in China, they are members of the Communist Party – that’s sort of how it works, right?

“You end up having conversations and building deep relationships with people who have roles in the Communist Party and China because that’s their system.”

Well, perhaps….but this isn’t Beijing, this isn’t where the writ of the CCP is supposed to run, this is the New Zealand Parliament.

In a way though it is almost a little unfortunate that Jian Yang will soon be gone.  He was the visible and particularly stark tip of the iceberg, but almost beside the point as this late stage.  The real issue is the wider National Party deeply deferential approach to Beijing, and its refusal to make a stand on any issue of the excesses of that regime.   This is the way I put it last week.

The real issue now isn’t about Jian Yang’s own choices, but about the rest of our political system (and much of our media for that matter).   It clearly suits Jian Yang to avoid any English-language media –  he is, after all, elected by all National Party voters, not just a few CCP-aligned ethnic Chinese one – but if the leadership of the National Party had even an ounce of decency on these issues it really wouldn’t be Jian Yang’s choice at all.  It would be as simple as “front up, honestly and fully, pretty whenever you are asked, and if not well forget about any caucus seniority, in fact forget about a list place at all at the next election”.   No one  doubts that if  any of that succession of leaders had wanted Jian Yang to be accountable to the public and to voters he’d do so, or he’d be gone.  So his silence is the silence of Bill English, Simon Bridges and now Todd Muller.   The same “leaders” who’ve been, for example, utterly unbothered by Todd McClay’s defence of the Uighur concentration camps, and who utter not a word about the activities of the PRC/CCP at home, abroad, or here.   Totally sold-out.

Jian Yang might soon be gone, but Todd Muller, Simon Bridges, Gerry Brownlee, Todd McClay and Peter Goodfellow are still very much in place.  There is no sign that the mindset has shifted even slightly.   Quite probably with Jian Yang having gone, National will wheel up another ethnic Chinese candidate whose acceptability will be based on his ties to the PRC embassy and his ability to work the rooms of the various United Front bodies here for party funding, but whose CV will presumably look a bit less obviously egregious than Jian Yang’s came to be.   This is, after all, the party that went soliciting donations for CCP affiliate Yikun Zhang and his mates, and had one of his CCP associates as part of their candidates college, preparing the ground for a bid for a place on National’s list.

It is one of those times when the excesses of the CCP/PRC are becoming ever more obvious to anyone not determined to keep their eyes wide shut.  But there is no sign of any shift in stance from National, no sign of any moral leadership –  in fact, over the last couple of years they’d be the first to complain if the current government, itself not great over the PRC, showed any slight hints of backbone.    This is the disgraceful party that has a senior MP on record suggesting the Uighur concentration camps are no one’s affair but China’s.   These people, and their business/university allies, seem to have no moral core.  Even around Hong Kong we’ve heard only the feeblest, most reluctant, of comments from Muller.

Is there some hope in the fact that Tamaki MP Simon O’Connor is now part of the interparliamentary alliance on China (together with Labour Louisa’s Wall)?  I guess it is better than nothing, but there is nothing anywhere to suggest that the National leadership group is at all happy about such modest independence of thought.   Then again, I’m not aware that any of the media have asked Muller or Foreign Affairs spokesman Bridges what they make of the IPAC and of O’Connor’s membership and calls.  Given that O’Connor is Bridges’ brother-in-law I guess that might be a little awkward.   But it would seem to be a fair question just a few weeks out from an election, as the PRC becomes more aggressive, more threatening (including in their attempts to criminalise anyone anywhere in the world criticising the regime).

It is good that Jian Yang will soon have gone. But the deeper issues around the corruption of New Zealand politics –  National and Labour particularly on this score –  haven’t changed a jot.  Neither party has done anything to fix the electoral donations from CCP affiliates scandal, and both seem more intent on donations flowing than on the sort of values most New Zealanders hold, including the many ethnic Chinese New Zealanders who deplore almost everything to do with the CCP.  And if they are dragged occasionally to utter a mild word of criticism for the latest PRC abuse, you always get the sense it is reluctant, not born of any conviction whatever.

(After 5-6 weeks of ill-health my troublesome bug is finally abating.  However, we’ll be on holiday next week so no more posts until Monday week.)

 

Pursuing Jian Yang, and the travesty that is NZ politics

TVNZ’s Q&A programme yesterday had a short segment (and article here) on their continuing, unsuccessful, attempt to get National list MP Jian Yang to talk to them.  It isn’t as if Jian Yang seems to have a particular thing against TVNZ –  I don’t have too much problem if an MP refuses to deal with one particular media outlet –  because for years now he has refused to talk to any English-language media, talking only to safe CCP influenced or controlled Chinese language outlets, who can be counted on to give him an easy and unchallenging time and not ask any awkward questions.

It is almost three years now since Newsroom and the Financial Times began to reveal Jian Yang’s past as a member of the Chinese Communist Party and long-serving member of the PRC’s military foreign intelligence system, where he’d been training spies.  Over subsequent weeks it emerged that, whether he or not he had been straight with the National Party when they’d recruited him in 2011, he’d lied about his past in his applications for New Zealand residency and citizenship.   In fact, challenged on the point he was quite open about it: he’d actively misrepresented his past because his CCP bosses had insisted on it when he first left the PRC.  And people with his sort of background didn’t get to leave the PRC to do foreign study without the regime and Party being able to rely him.  Jian Yang has claimed he isn’t a CCP member any longer –  as if this was just a matter of letting an annual subscription lapse –  but academic experts, including Canterbury University’s Anne-Marie Brady, have made the case that no one ever leaves the CCP voluntarily: you can be expelled, but once you’ve cast your lot in with them (and only a small minority of PRC citizens are CCP members, smaller than the proportion of Germans who were Nazi Party members) you are part of that movement for keeps.  Jian Yang could, of course, remove the scepticism by openly criticising the evil regime –  former Soviet spies who defected did that –  but never once, in all his years in Parliament has there been as much as a hint of disloyalty to the CCP/PRC.

It was good to see Q&A make a story of Jian Yang’s (now) 2.5 years of refusal to talk to any English language media –  not just about his past, but also about his present (eg his role last year in organising a meeting for Simon Bridges with Guo Shengkun, CCP Politburo member with responsibility for “domestic security” (think of those Uighur concentration camps, as just a start on intensifying CCP repression)).   Or the way Jian Yang continues to associate closely with the PRC Embassy and all sorts of CCP-affiliated or United Front groups, the sort of conduct that had the sober former diplomat Charles Finny declare on Q&A a couple of years ago that given Jian Yang’s associations with the Embassy he was always very careful what he said in front of Jian Yang (or Labour’s Raymond Huo).    Or perhaps it would be good if Jian Yang would answer questions around why several PRC migrants Q&A talked to about him refused to be identified on screen, explaining that they feared the reach of the CCP/PRC whether here or as regards family members back in China.    Perhaps these people have nothing at all to worry about. But they certainly believe the regime is running protection for Jian Yang –  a New Zealand MP.

Q&A also had a brief interview with Jamil Anderlini, the New Zealand who lived for a long time in Beijing and is now the Asian editor of the Financial Times, who claimed not just that our traditional allies look quite askance at the Jian Yang situation –  the man was on Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee for a time –  but that his contacts in the CCP suggested that the CCP itself treated the National Party as something of a laughing stock over this issue, the suggestion being something like “useful gullible idiots”.

Back when the Jian Yang story first broke, perhaps one could wonder if National themselves had been deceived by Jian Yang; not looking very hard, they’d not found anything, except someone to pull in the dollars for them.  The Newsroom/FT story broke on the eve of the election and by then there wasn’t much National could do about him (and his list place) even if they’d wanted to.  But that was three years ago.

Even then there was the despicable effort by a then senior Cabinet minister (Attorney General  and minister responsible for the SIS and GCSB) at a candidates’ meeting to tar as somehow “racist” any questions about Jian Yang’s CCP/PLA past, going on to claim that Anne-Marie Brady was a xenophobe (“doesn’t like any foreigners at all”).

But it wasn’t just  a second-tier figure, perhaps caught on the hop in a meeting he didn’t really want to be at.   In the last three years, National has had three leaders:  Bill English (who was then Prime Minister), Simon Bridges, and now Todd Muller.    They’ve each had plenty of time to think carefully and hard about Jian Yang and where their interests and loyalties lie.  And each of them  –  there is nothing to tell them apart on this issue –  has provided complete cover for Jian Yang.   In fact, Jian Yang has been promoted.  He clearly isn’t a caucus highflier, but he keeps rising a bit further up the caucus rankings, he now chairs a parliamentary select committee (perhaps not a very important one, but we have someone with his background chairing a government administration committee?) and the National Party Board has picked him out for a favoured position on National’s list for this year’s election (recall that Jian Yang has business interests with National’s president, the ever-obsequious (to Beijing) Peter Goodfellow).  One of National’s most senior MPs shares an office in Auckland with Jian Yang.

The real issue now isn’t about Jian Yang’s own choices, but about the rest of our political system (and much of our media for that matter).   It clearly suits Jian Yang to avoid any English-language media –  he is, after all, elected by all National Party voters, not just a few CCP-aligned ethnic Chinese one – but if the leadership of the National Party had even an ounce of decency on these issues it really wouldn’t be Jian Yang’s choice at all.  It would be as simple as “front up, honestly and fully, pretty whenever you are asked, and if not well forget about any caucus seniority, in fact forget about a list place at all at the next election”.   No one  doubts that if  any of that succession of leaders had wanted Jian Yang to be accountable to the public and to voters he’d do so, or he’d be gone.  So his silence is the silence of Bill English, Simon Bridges and now Todd Muller.   The same “leaders” who’ve been, for example, utterly unbothered by Todd McClay’s defence of the Uighur concentration camps, and who utter not a word about the activities of the PRC/CCP at home, abroad, or here.   Totally sold-out.

It is a marker of just how deep the decline of New Zealand has become.  As I noted in a post shortly after the first Jian Yang revelations,  at no time from the 1950s to the 1980s would it even be conceivable that we’d have (any of the mainstream parties would have) allowed a former KGB/GRU officer, still maintaining close ties to the Soviet Embassy, to have served in our Parliament.  There was some moral clarity back then about what we believed and stood for, and what that evil empire stood for. (Of course, Labour in particular tolerated Bill Sutch in top positions).

But now whatever values some individuals may perhaps still have, they seem to count for less than appeasing the CCP/PRC, and prioritising party funding and the interests of a small group of New Zealand corporates (and universities) over the values of most New Zealanders.  I’m particularly hard on National, both because Jian Yang is National MP and because I’m the sort of person who might normally be expected to mostly vote National.  But also because all three of those recent National leaders have suggested that, in one form or another, they are Christians –  English at least was known to be a practising Catholic.  The PRC regime ruthlessly persecutes the Christian churches, and yet that draws forth not a word from either the senior figures in the National Party or from the lesser lights among the Christian members of the caucus (let alone prominent incoming ones like Luxon, who ran a business that chose to pander to the regime).   The persecution of the churches has not yet reached the stage of the Uighur concentration camps, but then National members won’t stand up or speak out on that either –  not even junior MPs who might be plausibly deniable for the leadership.

But it isn’t just National.    Every other party in Parliament (and those out of Parliament) seem about as bad.  The biggest of those parties is, of course, Labour.  A Labour member has been Prime Minister almost ever since the first Jian Yang revelations.  And not a word of condemnation or complaint has come from her either, not one.  No Labour MP has ever been heard to deplore the fact that we had a CCP member closely linked to the PRC Embassy sitting on the National benches of Parliament, chairing a select committee no less.  It is as if the Prime Minister is more interested in being kind to Jian Yang, kind (subservient) to Madame Wu, and utterly interested in the integrity of New Zealand politics or the values and political traditions of New Zealand.  And again, not even any junior caucus members have broken ranks, not even once.   The strong suspicion has to be that Labour cares no more about decency and integrity than National, and is probably just a bit envious that National has been better at pulling CCP-linked donations (although is that changing now that Labour is in office?) And why be surprised? After all, Labour has Raymond Huo in its ranks, with well-documented United Front involvements, and they just put another United Front person in a winnable position on their list.  And all those corrupted corporates and universities, only interested in the next dollar, will be in the ear of ministers urging them always to appease, never to take a stand.  And of course, National and Labour together have shown no interest in any serious reform of the electoral finance laws to meaningfully prevent foreign political donations, let alone the sort of self-denying ordinance that recognises that some donations –  even from New Zealand citizens –  simply should not be taken, no matter how many dollars are on offer.  And Labour was principally responsible for the travesty of the select committee inquiry on foreign interference risks (even though the biggest issue is less about foreign interference, and more craven domestic subservience).

The big issue isn’t really Jian Yang.  National could have found a way of quietly getting him to retire and found some less obviously egregious replacement.  The bigger issue is that National had no interest in doing so, and Labour no interest in criticising them for not doing so.  They pay no price for acting as, in effect, the agents of the CCP in New Zealand (even as they all no doubt tell themselves that somehow what is in their best interests is also in ours).   It was good that Q&A did the clip they did, but it is hardly mainstream TV (the programme mainly for the handful of political junkies).  Other journalists have from time to time asked Jian Yang for an interview, and been equally unsuccessful, but there is almost never any follow through. The PM and the Leader of the Opposition front up for media interviews every week, perhaps even most days, and there is no pursuit of this issue, there is no campaign in the pages of the Herald or the Stuff outlets.  Nothing.  The evils of the CCP/PRC just isn’t one of those things that exercises or concerns establishment New Zealand.  It is disgraceful.

A few weeks ago the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China was launched, comprising legislators from a range of western countries with concerns about the PRC, and from a range of places on the usual left-right political compass.   This was from their website

Developing a coherent response to the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as led by the Chinese Communist Party is a defining challenge for the world’s democratic states. This challenge will outlast individual governments and administrations; its scope transcends party politics and traditional divides between foreign and domestic policy.

The assumptions that once underpinned our engagement with Beijing no longer correspond to the reality. The Chinese Communist Party repeatedly and explicitly states its intention to expand its global influence. As a direct result, democratic values and practices have come under increasing pressure.

When countries have stood up to Beijing, they have done so alone. Rather than mounting a common defence of shared principles, countries have instead been mindful of their own national interests, which are increasingly dependent on the People’s Republic of China for crucial minerals, components, and products.

No country should have to bear the burden of standing up for fundamental liberties and the integrity of the international order by itself.

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has been created to promote a coordinated response among democratic states to challenges posed by the present conduct and future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China. We believe that the natural home for this partnership is in the freely elected national legislatures of our peoples. Coordination at this level allows us to meet a challenge that will persist through changes in individual governments and administrations. We firmly believe that there is strength in unity and continuity. By developing a common set of principles and frameworks that transcend domestic party divisions and international borders, our democracies will be able to keep the rules based and human rights systems true to their founding purposes

It was sadly notable that at the launch there were no New Zealand MPs, even though (so Anne-Marie Brady reported) numerous of them had been approached.    It was interesting, and perhaps a little encouraging, that last week Simon O’Connor (from National) and Louisa Wall (from Labour) joined this initiative.  O’Connor is currently chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and Wall is a member.

But count me more than a little sceptical.   It has the feel of some sort of deal worked out between National and Labour, for a bare minimum degree of association, announced belatedly.   There is no statement from O’Connor or Wall about the nature of their concerns with the PRC –  at home, abroad, or here –  and, of course, no journalist appears to have asked them for comment (or reported a refusal to comment).   Is O’Connor really comfortable with having a CCP affiliated member, close to the PRC Embassy, who refuses to engage with voters or the media, and who has never ever said anything remotely critical of the PRC as a member of his caucus, someone who could be a junior minister if National is elected?  MPs are usually only too ready to criticise people on the other side.  How comfortable is Wall about Jian Yang or National’s extreme deference?  Or has the Labour Party hierarchy told her to simply sign up and then keep very quiet?  I’d like to be wrong on this  –  I was briefly encouraged by the O’Connnor/Wall news –  but so far there is nothing to suggest I am.

 

Weighed in the balance

The feckless leadership of this country heading into the deepening coronavirus crisis has been pretty astonishing to behold.  Of course, there is the Governor of the Reserve Bank (and his statutory MPC offsiders), whose complacent utterances and utter inaction have been well-documented here this week.   And there is the Ministry of Health which has been actively discouraging people from stocking their pantries, constantly talking down any areas of concern, refusing to seriously engage with the public on the worsening overseas situation (including Australia, with whom we share a fairly open border) and is still telling us the risks of community outbreak are low.  This was still on their website a short time ago

MOH virus

(And when a reader asked the Ministry of Health for the justification for this stance, the only reply he got was along the lines of “we clear all our statements with clinicians” , as if these anonymous “clinicians” are different from people in any other field of expertise, where there will be a wide range of views, particularly amid extreme uncertainty. )

And then of course, there is the Prime Minister and the Minister of Health. The latter, despite being an elected politician, simply seems to channel his officials –  and perhaps only in the aftermath when all the OIAs are in will we know whether officials are tailoring their stance to suit ministers, ministers are so incurious as not to ask the hard questions, or both.

But in a crisis the focus should naturally fall on the Prime Minister.  It is for rare events of this sort of magnitude that we elect people who purport to be leaders.  But again we’ve just had constant minimisation, “pat on the head –  there, there” idle reassurances,  and a sense of always dithering and being behind the play.  There is no sense that our Prime Minister has any conception as to just how bad the global situation is getting, how serious the Australian situation is becoming, or any willingness or ability to articulate a coherent alternative view (if she has really thought hard enough to come to one).  There is no fronting the public about how no health system can adequately cope with large outbreaks, and only last week in Parliament she was still trying to play down the prospect of even a mild recession in New Zealand.  More recently, nothing serious has been heard confronting the very serious economic dislocation we face, whether or not the happy talk from her and her officials re low risk of community outbreak happens to come to pass.

Who knows why?  People speculate that it is all about the Christchurch commemoration –  whether for cynical reasons or because some short-term empathy with those victims has totally distracted her from a focus on the much larger threat that is now about to overwhelm us, and for which she –  as Prime Minister –  can actually affect outcomes.  But whatever the explanation it is pretty inexcusable to have a “leader” so totally in reactive minimisation, avoiding fronting with the public, mode.

But not to divert too long or too far from the main focus of this blog – economics and economic policy – I thought it might it would be good to give some coverage to some survey results out this morning, asking leading economists in both the US and Europe about the outlook.

The virus situation in Europe is currently worse than that in the US, so lets look at the European results first.

europe igm corona

Weighted by expertise, 82 per cent of respondents expect a “major recession” (none of the silly debate that still seemed to be in focus in New Zealand even last week as to whether we’d have two slightly negative quarters).

And although for most macro policy purposes, it doesn’t much matter whether the disruption is coming from the demand or supply side (contra the Reserve Bank public handwringing), 47 per cent think the main effects will be coming from the demand side.  Only 12 per cent disagreee.

(In New Zealand, so far, there is little doubt that almost all the effects we’ve seen have been demand-side ones –  reduced (mostly foreign) effective demand for our goods and services.)

And here are the US results

US igm panel corona

Not quite as bleak –  yet –  but almost.

The release doesn’t say when exactly the survey was taken, although I’m guessing very recently.

There is not a shred of reason to believe that the New Zealand situation will be any different, and that would be so whether or not we somehow manage to avoid community outbreak (I’m sceptical, but I guess we should always allow for the possibility the Ministry might be right).   Much of the world economy is now shutting down –  perhaps not for long, but no one can be sure of that – in a way for which there is almost certainly no modern (post Industrial Revolution) precedent.

And yet you still hear nothing of this from our Prime Minister, our Minister of Finance (let alone our central bank – and numerous senior central bankers have been choosing to talk in public this week).  It is simply irresponsible, if they realise, not to be fronting the issue and offering honest leadership. If they still don’t realise, it is simply inexcusable, and not one of them would then be fit for the offices they hold.  Crisis reveal whether those holding office are really leaders: at present you could really only say of ours, weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Perhaps they will all yet redeem themselves.  We must hope so, as a matter of urgency.

 

Jami-Lee Ross’s speech

A couple of weeks ago I wrote the National Party, Jami-Lee Ross, and the party’s funding from PRC-linked sources.  Of Jami-Lee Ross –  and the desire of some in the media (and, of course, the National Party) to pile on to him, or to gloat – I wrote

Whistleblowers have a wide variety of motives, and not all of them are noble –  and even those with elements of nobility are not infrequently tinged with more than a little of the less savoury side of things.   And yet we rely on whistleblowers to uncover lots of wrongdoing: in specific circumstances, we even have statutory protections for them  (but whistleblowing often comes with costs to the whistleblower, perhaps especially if they themselves have been directly involved in the alleged wrongdoing).

and

Perhaps he just generally was not a very nice or admirable person –  there are, for example, those reports of his flagrant, repeated, violations of his marriage vows etc.  But the fact remains that this wrongdoing (as alleged by the prosecutors for the SFO) would not be known had Ross simply stayed silent, whether that had involved continuing his efforts to climb National’s greasy pole, or just moving on quietly.     Either might have suited the National Party.   But it isn’t clear why such silence – about these specific donations, or about his involvement with others (Todd McClay and the PRC billionaire) that aren’t illegal but aren’t universally regarded as proper either – would have been in the wider public interest. 

and

And to Ross’s credit, since the story first broke (and all the drama of that time) Ross does seem to made some effort to contribute constructively to the public debate on some of the policy issues around donations to political parties.  He participated in the Justice committee’s (rather lame) inquiry into foreign interference, and spoke very forcefully in the House when the government was pushing through its travesty of a foreign donations law in December (the one that accomplished almost nothing useful,but perhaps looked/sounded to some like action).    Who knows quite what mix of motivations he has.  Perhaps some desire to bring down the existing National Party leadership (in Parliament and outside) with whom he previously worked so closely.   Perhaps some element of genuine remorse, or recognition of how far he himself had been part of the system degrading.    In a way, his motives don’t matter –  it is the facts and the merits (or otherwise) of his arguments. 

We heard from Ross again this week.  Or, strictly speaking, Parliament did.  Few of the general public will have heard of his speech or, more particularly, its contents.  From what I could see there was very little media coverage –  I should have been able to say “astonishing little” but, sadly, there wasn’t much astonishing about the relative silence of our media and the complete and utter silence of the rest of our politicians and political class.   All of them appear to prefer to look the other way, and wish the issue would simply go away, whether for fear of upsetting Madame Wu and the PRC, upsetting the CCP’s local associates, or of revealing to the public just how tawdry and sold-out to Beijing’s interests so much of our politics seems to have become.

I could just link to the speech, but not many people click through to links.   So here, as permitted by Parliament, is the whole thing.  It isn’t long. I encourage you to read and reflect on it

JAMI-LEE ROSS (Botany): Facebook memories reminded me this morning that today marks nine years since I was first elected to Parliament. I certainly never expected nine years ago that I would be the centre of a debate over foreign political donations, and I’m using that term deliberately. Foreign political donations and foreign interference is what I want to focus my time on here.

In the Prime Minister’s statement, that we are debating, the Prime Minister lists as one of her Government’s achievements the banning of foreign political donations. It’s true that the new $50 threshold for overseas donations is an improvement. But, as I’ve said previously in the House, I doubt it will do very little to deter those determined to find other ways around the ban, including—

SPEAKER: Order! Mr Jackson leave the House.

JAMI-LEE ROSS: —using the wide open gap we still have where foreign State actors can funnel funds through New Zealand registered companies.

The foreign donation ban is one of the few recommendations that has spun out of the Justice Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference activities in New Zealand elections. That has been picked up. Probably the most important submissions that we received through that inquiry were those from Professor Anne-Marie Brady of Canterbury University and what we heard from the Security Intelligence Service (SIS) director, Rebecca Kitteridge. It was all eye-watering and eye-opening stuff and sobering for us to hear and read their evidence. We have not, and I think we still do not, take seriously enough the risk of foreign interference activities that we’ve been subjected to as a country. Ms Kitteridge rightly pointed out in her evidence that the challenge of foreign interference to our democracy is not just about what occurs around the election itself. Motivated State actors will work assiduously over many years, including in New Zealand, to covertly garner influence, access, and leverage.

She also specifically pointed out the risks we face from foreign State actors through the exertion of pressure or control of diaspora communities and the building of covert influence and leverage, including through electoral financing. After Pansy Wong resigned from Parliament, I was selected as the National Party candidate for the 5 March by-election nine years ago. It was made very clear to me at the time that I had to put a big emphasis on getting to know the Chinese community. It was also pointed out to me very early on that I must make good connections with the Chinese consul-general. Madam Liao at the time was very influential with Chinese New Zealanders, and important to my own success as well. In hindsight, it was naive of me to not think carefully about the pull that a foreign diplomat had on a large section of the population in my electorate.

The consul-general in Auckland is treated like a God, more so than any New Zealand politician, except probably the Prime Minister of the day. Each successive consul-general seemed to be better and more effective at holding New Zealand residents and citizens of Chinese descent in their grasp. Consul-generals Niu Qingbao and Xu Erwen were also treating us, as MPs—not just myself, others—as long-lost friends. All this effort, if you read Professor Brady’s paper called Magic Weapons, is a core plank of the Chinese Communist Party’s deliberate and targeted efforts to expand political influence activities worldwide. It’s also the very risk that Rebecca Kitteridge warned the Justice Committee about. Professor Brady’s paper is a 50-page academic work. I can’t do it justice here, but I recommend all MPs read it.

The activities of the Chinese Communist Party here domestically, where Chinese New Zealanders have been targeted, should be concerning enough for all of us. But the efforts that Chinese Communist Party – connected individuals have been making over the years to target us as politicians, and New Zealand political parties, also needs to be taken seriously. Every time we as MPs are showered with praise or dinners or hospitality by Chinese diplomats, we’re being subjected to what Professor Brady calls “united front work”. Every time we see our constituents bow and scrape to foreign diplomats, it’s a result of their long-running efforts to exert influence and control over our fellow Kiwis.

Both Professor Brady and director Kitteridge have warned about the risk of foreign interference activity where funding of political parties is used as a tool. This isn’t necessarily unlawful provided the donations meet the requirements of the Electoral Act. In 2018, I very publicly made some allegations relating to donations. I have said publicly already that the donations I called out were offered directly to the leader of the National Party at an event I was not in attendance at. I did not know at the time that those donations were made that they were in any way unlawful. I never had any control over those donations and I have never been a signatory of any National Party bank account in the time that I’ve been an MP. I never benefited personally from those donations. I was never a part of any conspiracy to defeat the Electoral Act. And the point at which I blew the whistle on these donations—first internally, then very publicly—that point came after I learned new information that led me to question the legality of the donations.

After raising these issues publicly, they were duly investigated first by the police and then the Serious Fraud Office. The result of those allegations is already public and I can’t traverse much detail here, but I will say that I refuse to be silenced and I will keep speaking out about what I know, and have seen, goes on inside political parties. I refuse to be quiet about the corroding influence of money in New Zealand politics.

Last year, I learnt, off the back of concerns I myself took to the proper authorities, that the National Party had been the beneficiary of large amounts of foreign donations. These donations are linked back to China and linked to the Chinese Communist Party, and with ease entered New Zealand. I didn’t go searching for this information. I was asked if I knew anything of the origins of the donations. I didn’t know. It was all new information to me, and I was surprised by what I learnt.

What I learnt was that large sums of money adding up to around $150,000 coming directly out of China in Chinese yuan over successive years ended up as political party donations. Two individuals, _________, were used as conduits for the donations.

These funds eventually made their way to the New Zealand National Party. The New Zealand National Party still holds those funds. The National Party is still holding at least $150,000 of foreign donations received in two successive years. I call on the National Party to return those foreign donations that it holds or transfer the money to the Electoral Commission. I doubt the National Party knew at the time that the money was foreign—I certainly didn’t either—but now that they will have that information to hand, they need to show leadership and do the right thing.

To avoid doubt, this $150,000 dollars’ worth of foreign donations is not the same as the $150,000 from the Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry company that they raised last year.

The warnings sounded from academics and spy agencies are not without reason. These two examples I give are very real examples of foreign money that has entered New Zealand politics. Professor Brady, with reference to the list of overseas members of the overseas Chinese federation, which is part of the Communist Party’s infrastructure, listed three top united front representatives in New Zealand:

_____, _____, and Zhang Yikun. All three are well known to political parties.

In a recent press statement from a PR agency, representatives of Zhang Yikun highlighted the philanthropic approach that he takes in New Zealand. The press statement on 19 February specifically said that he has been “donating to many political parties and campaigns.”, except his name has never appeared in any political party return. When asked by the media if political parties had any record of donations from this individual, all said no. But a quick search online will find dozens and dozens of photos of Zhang Yikun dining with mayors and MPs over the time, inviting them to his home, and his recent 20th convention of Teochew International Federation had a who’s who list of politicians turning up, including a former Prime Minister.

The foreign donations I mentioned earlier all have connections to the Chao Shan General Association. The founder and chairman of Chao Shan General Association is Zhang Yikun. To summarise these two bits of information, the largest party in this Parliament has been the beneficiary of large sums of foreign money. That money is linked to an individual who was listed as one of the top three Chinese Communist Party united front representatives in New Zealand. That individual’s PR agents say he has donated to many political parties and campaigns, yet he’s never showing up in any donation returns in the past.

One of Professor Brady’s concluding remarks in her submission to the Justice Committee was that foreign interference activities can only thrive if public opinion in the affected nation tolerates or condones it. We must not tolerate or condone any foreign interference activities. We must also not stay silent when we see problems right under our nose. It’s time for the political parties in this Parliament to address seriously the political party donation regime that we have.

I realise that both the two main parties in this Parliament often have to agree, but perhaps it’s time to put that out to an independent body. It’s too important for us to ignore, and it’s not right that we should allow these things to go on under our nose.

I seek leave to table two charts that show a flow of money from China into New Zealand and to the New Zealand National Party.

SPEAKER: I seek an assurance from the member that these charts are not integral to any matter currently before the courts.

JAMI-LEE ROSS: These charts have been prepared by the Serious Fraud Office and I cannot give you that assurance.

SPEAKER: You cannot give me that assurance. Well, I’m not going to put the question.

Source: Office of the Clerk/Parliamentary Service. Licensed by the Clerk of the House of Representatives and/or the Parliamentary Corporation on behalf of Parliamentary Service for re-use under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence. Full licence available at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Anne-Marie Brady fills in the gaps –  names – Hansard chose to omit from Ross’s speech.

I thought three things were particular interesting in what Ross said:

  • the explicit guidance given to him as a new candidate/MP about currying favour with the PRC Consul-General et al,
  • the allegation about the new large, apparently disclosed, donation from people with very strong PRC/CCP ties
  • and the suggestion, not verified in what we have there (tho perhaps in that SFO schematic he tried to table) of the funds for these donations having come initially from the PRC  (whether or not National initially knew that).

Quite possibly, none of that activity was illegal.  But even if so, none of it is proper –  at least in a political party that cares anything about the values and interests of the vast mass of New Zealanders.  Then again, this is the same party that just re-selected the former PLA intelligence trainer, (former?) CCP member, clearly still in the very good graces of Beijing, Jian Yang for their list –  the same MP who refuses to face questions from the English langauge media in New Zealand, the same MP in business with the party president who himself has been free with his praise of tyrants of Beijing.

But just as bad is the apparent determination of ever other political party –  but most especially Labour, the alternative main party –  to simply ignore all this. In some cases, perhaps, to envy National’s ‘success’ (until now).   Where is the leader of the Labour Party on these issues (you know her, she happens to be the Prime Minister).   Where are the Greens, who once could have been counted on to deplore this sort of thing?   Where, even, are the tiddler parties trying to convince us they offer something different and better than National and Labour?  ACT?  TOP?  New Conservative?  Maori?  Not a word.

I’m sure there is some sensitivity about not jeopardising the prospects of a fair trial in the specific cases the SFO has taken against three donors and Ross himself.   But there is no way that is anything like the whole story.   After all, all those other parties have been very very quiet on the Jian Yang story, ever since the first of it broke 2.5 years ago.  Prominent National and Labour figures, including Jian Yang, got together to have the Crown honour Yikun Zhang for, in effect, services to Beijing only 18 months ago.  There has been no action on closing the legal window for donations through companies owned by foreigners, let alone the (im)moral window that has had NZ citizens who are CCP affiliates donating heavily.  I’m quite prepared to believe that National is deeper in all this stuff than the other parties, but those other parties lose any excuse, any sympathy, when –  most especially the Prime Minister –  simply sit quiet and walk on past. In doing so, they demonstrate their own standards –  or lack of them.

It certainly is important to ensure a fair trial. But voters are also entitled to a fair election, where the sorts of material Jami-Lee Ross has highlighted, allegations made, are properly scrutinised and the actions of parties and key individuals contesting the election are put under the spotlight before the election.  The trial isn’t going happen before then, Simon Bridges refuses to answer even basic factual questions, and the media and his political opponents seem happy to just let it pass.   That is little more than a betrayal of the public interest.

 

Preferring to look the other way

It was remarkable to pick up the Herald yesterday and find their coverage of the SFO prosecutions over the donations to the National Party given over to some “gotcha” attacks on Jami-Lee Ross.    The huge headline is “Own Goal” and the next level down is “Jami-Lee Ross’ spectacular political faux pas”.   Almost as if it were some sort of National Party newsletter.

Three things struck me about the Herald’s coverage (and, as far as I could see, other mainstream media were not that much different).

The first was that this jeering at Jami Lee-Ross’s comeuppance seems a weird approach for a major media outlet to take, when we’d not have known anything about the events now subject to prosecutions on serious charges without Jami-Lee Ross’s disclosures.  There was certainly no sign the Herald had been getting to the bottom of the issues.   Whistleblowers have a wide variety of motives, and not all of them are noble –  and even those with elements of nobility are not infrequently tinged with more than a little of the less savoury side of things.   And yet we rely on whistleblowers to uncover lots of wrongdoing: in specific circumstances, we even have statutory protections for them  (but whistleblowing often comes with costs to the whistleblower, perhaps especially if they themselves have been directly involved in the alleged wrongdoing).

I guess I could understand the attacks at Ross’s expense had he, prior to all this coming out, been a longstanding public campaigner for clean elections, transparent financing of political parties, keeping foreign influence out of politics etc etc.   The (apparent) hypocrisy would be stunning –  akin to, for example, the morals campaigner caught in an extra-marital affair.   But that wasn’t Ross.  Did anyone ever mistake him for the moral face of politics when he was rising rapidly up the ranks of the National Party?

Perhaps he just generally was not a very nice or admirable person –  there are, for example. those reports of his flagrant, repeated, violations of his marriage vows etc.  But the fact remains that this wrongdoing (as alleged by the prosecutors for the SFO) would not be known had Ross simply stayed silent, whether that had involved continuing his efforts to climb National’s greasy pole, or just moving on quietly.     Either might have suited the National Party.   But it isn’t clear why such silence – about these specific donations, or about his involvement with others (Todd McClay and the PRC billionaire) that aren’t illegal but aren’t universally regarded as proper either – would have been in the wider public interest.  Unless, somehow, all that now matters to the New Zealand elite (political, media or whoever) is maintaining that veneer of cleanness, even when they know the substance has become very different.

Perhaps some of the jeering might have seemed reasonable to some back in late 2018 when the story first broke.  But the SFO clearly seem to think there is enough evidence that makes it worth a severely resource-constrained organisation actually laying charges on points of substance.  It doesn’t have the feel any longer of something just relying one (motivated) individual’s words.

And to Ross’s credit, since the story first broke (and all the drama of that time) Ross does seem to made some effort to contribute constructively to the public debate on some of the policy issues around donations to political parties.  He participated in the Justice committee’s (rather lame) inquiry into foreign interference, and spoke very forcefully in the House when the government was pushing through its travesty of a foreign donations law in December (the one that accomplished almost nothing useful,but perhaps looked/sounded to some like action).    Who knows quite what mix of motivations he has.  Perhaps some desire to bring down the existing National Party leadership (in Parliament and outside) with whom he previously worked so closely.   Perhaps some element of genuine remorse, or recognition of how far he himself had been part of the system degrading.    In a way, his motives don’t matter –  it is the facts and the merits (or otherwise) of his arguments.  No one appears to have contested the facts around the Todd McClay/billionaire donation.  Few appear willing to openly champion the current law which allows tightly-held foreign-owned New Zealand registered companies to donate freely to our political parties (even as none of the parties is willing to end that provision).    Ross’s call –  having been a key figure in the alternative model in recent years –  that only those registered to vote in New Zealand should be able to donate is a constructive contribution to the debate on our future laws (one I happen to agree with, but that isn’t the main point here).

In many ways, Ross seems an unsympathetic character –  down to and including the claims about whether he had ever wanted his name suppressed  – but when alleged serious wrongdoing is only brought to light by the voluntary choices of one individual (however self-destructive some of those choices might also be for now), there is something a bit tawdry and desperate about media kicking the man when he is down.  Better, surely, to encourage Ross to tell us all he knows –  and then test and scrutinise such claims/records –  whether or not particular actions happen to skirt inside current law or pass to other side of the law.

Perhaps the second thing that struck me was how little all of the coverage tied back to the National Party.   Jami-Lee Ross was re-elected to Parliament at the 2017 election under National’s imprimatur, and he was hardly a peripheral figure.  In fact, he’d risen quite rapidly and might have seemed to be a face of the future.  He was Chief Whip, and then was moved further up into senior spokesman roles.  Most likely, he’d have been a Minister of the Crown had National remained in office after 2017.  The (alleged) donation splitting occurred both when National was in office (under Bill English) and while it was out of office (under Simon Bridges).   Not only had Bridges promoted him, but read the transcript of one of those calls between the two of them  –  only a few months before all this became public –  and this clearly wasn’t someone on the outer with the leadership, no matter how quickly they later jettisoned him (while still trying to pretend nothing was wrong).

Before the names of those being charged become public, National had sought to distance itself with a statement welcoming the fact that no one now involved in the National Party had been charged.  But it doesn’t really wash does it, when (mostly from that transcript)

  1. the donations involved were to the National Party,
  2. the recipient of the donation (the Botany National Party account), and liaison with the donors, was a front-bench National MP,
  3.  one of those charged had hosted Bridges and Ross to dinner at his house, and Bridges was planning to host him for dinner at his own house (with Ross also to be invited),
  4.  one of the others of those charged was quite openly being championed for a place on the National Party list, and –  we are told –  had put his name in to go through National’s “candidates’ college” –  which presumably would require either prior party membership or some high level support from somewhere in the party,
  5. one of those charged had been nominated not long previously for an honour by another National MP.

Very conveniently, National is now saying nothing further on the grounds that “the matter” is before the courts.   And isn’t it convenient for them, in an election year, that the justice system works so very slowly that the cases are unlikely to come to trial before the election (and then, of course, we’ll have excuses about rights of appeal etc).   The defendants are entitled to a fair trial, but the public –  voting just a few months from now –  is also entitled to some straight answers from National and its leaders.

I’m not here taking a view on whether Bill English or Simon Bridges (or perhaps John Key before them) knew about the specific transactions and conduct over which the four individuals have been charged, in ways that might render them liable themselves to prosecution.  Who knows  (perhaps Ross, but he has yet to produce firm proof).  And frankly, I’m less interested in prosecutions as such, than in the underlying culture and conduct.  And there it is very hard to believe that the party leaders (in Parliament and outside) were somehow oblivious to that, especially when a rising MP is involved.  Organisations are rarely like that, when something pretty central (for a political party these days, fundraising) is involved, even if key people sometimes deliberately refuse to inquire more deeply into methods, lest that knowledge prove awkward.

This is the bit from the transcript that struck me

JLR: [laughs] Hey um you know at Paul Goldsmith’s function you saw those two Chinese guys, Zhang Yikun and Colin? You had dinner at their home?

SB: Yes.

JLR: They talked to you about a hundred thousand dollar donation –

SB: Yep

JLR: That is now in.

SB: Fantastic

and, a little later,

JLR: Donations can only be raised two ways – party donation or candidate donation. Party donation has a different disclosure which is fine, and the way they’ve done it meets the disclosure requirements – sorry, it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level because they’re a big association and there’s multiple people and multiple people make donations, so that’s all fine, but if it was a candidate donation it’s different. So making them party donations is the way to do it. Legally, though, if they’re party donations they’re kind of under Greg’s name as the party secretary, so –

Bridges doesn’t challenge, dispute, express surprise or anything here. The conversation just moves on.

It just beggars belief that Bridges did not know that what was being talked about here was, at very least, sailing extremely close to the legal line.   Note that “hundred thousnad dollar donation” and the description “it meets the requirements where it’s under the particular disclosure level because they’re a big association and there’s multiple people and multiple people make donations”.     No talk of 20 people independently chipping in and the total happening to come up to $100000, no talk of an aim that a group might look to raise something like $100000 –  but explicit prior talk (with a key figure being someone we are told does not speak English) about “a $100000 donation”  –  a description Bridges clearly recognised –  and then once the money is in talk about how “it” meets the requirements.   Bridges either knew/realised, or actively preferred not to.  Neither should be acceptable in someone who wants to be Prime Minister.

It is remarkable that Bridges is not facing more scrutiny, relentlessly, whether from the media (every time he faces the media), in Parliament, or from other political parties more generally.   Even just straightforward questions like were any of the other defendants (notably Colin Zheng) ever National Party members, for how long, when did that membership cease?   Have other caucus members dined privately with any of the other three defendants?  What exact role does the leader play in party fundraising?  And so on.

(For the record, and in case it has not long been clear, while this particular issue involves the National Party, I have no unusual animus towards them –  except perhaps as a party for whom a social conservative pro-market middle-aged person might more normally be inclined to vote for.)

The third aspect of the coverage that I find perhaps most troubling is the near-complete media silence on the connections of one of the defendants, the Auckland businessman Yikun Zhang. These are issues which have no direct bearing, it would appear, on the cases to come before the courts, and yet nothing.

It isn’t as if Yikun Zhang is some independent and private individual who just happened to one day invite the Leader of Opposition (and his senior offsider Ross) home to dinner and out of the goodness of his heart popped a modest donation into the National Party account.   Apart from anything, media reports of a statement issued on behalf of the defendants suggests they claim to have given to various different parties (a point which really should be verified).  But when you don’t speak English, you don’t invite senior politicans home for dinner –  let alone welcome an invitation to dinner at the Leader of the Opposition’s (no doubt much less fancy –  as Bridges says, less-good wine) house – for the quality of the sparkling intellectual debate around, policy, political philosophy or the mechanics of government.

This rather is someone who seems to assiduously cultivate associations –  how much substantive, how much photo-op isn’t clear –   with almost anyone in New Zealand political circles.   Before his background was widely known, he pops up in photos with Andrew Little, Jacinda Ardern, Raymond Huo, Phil Goff, Paula Bennett, Simon Bridges, Jami-Lee Ross, Jian Yang, Simeon Brown, Paul Goldsmith and more.     He was nominated for his 2018 Queen’s Birthday honour –  conferred under Labour, initiated (we are told) under National – with nominations from prominent National and Labour politicians.   Not the sort of thing that happens to your run-of-the-mill community-oriented private citizen.

Yikun Zhang’s net stretches more widely: there are the ties to the Gary Tong, Mayor of Southland, which came to light a couple of year ago.   Tong went to China with Yikun Zhang.  Not a typical connection for a businessman with an Auckland construction company. [UPDATE: Anne-Marie Brady reminds us of this interview with Gary Tong, acting as some sort of mouthpiece for, and defender of, Yikun Zhang in 2018.]

And what of Yikun Zhang’s associations back in the PRC?    Auckland ethnic Chinese writer Chen Weijian documented those a couple of a years ago.  I wrote about it here, where I observed

On my reading, the author’s key point is that the evidence of Zhang Yikun’s close association with the Chinese Communist Party, and the high regard in which he is held by the Party, is crystal clear.  Among that evidence is his very rapid ascent in various significant organisations that are part of the party-state’s overall United Front programme.

and there is a translation of the original article here.  None of this seems to have been disputed.  It looks a lot as though Yikun Zhang’s principal orientation –  despite now being a New Zealand citizen (how do we let people become citizens when can’t speak English – or, presumably, Maori?) is to the CCP/PRC.     Since then specialist China commentators have further highlighted the prominent position Yikun Zhang has in the regime’s United Front activities, advancing the interests of the CCP at home and abroad.  (There is no suggestion that any of this is illegal.)

All this became public knowledge more than a year ago.  You’d have hoped that political leaders would have done due diligence on people their leaders are regularly photographed with, but even if they’d chosen to keep their eyes wide shut before late 2018, they had no such excuse since.

And yet remarkably, even after the material about his background, even after the allegations re donations emerged, there is little or no sign that either side of politics has become warier of Yikun Zhang.   One of his big activities last year was the international conference for a grouping of people from the area he originally came from in China, which was held in Auckland.

He’d managed to get the National Party’s president –  known for his past praise of the PRC regime and of Xi Jinping – to serve as honorary chairman of this conference, and the turnout of prominent political people, from both sides, is striking.  There is an article from the PRC consulate here (open in Chrome for a translation), featuring (perhaps among others) John Key, Jian Yang, Anne Tolley, David Parker, Jenny Salesa, Willy Jackson, Peter Goodfellow, Raymond Huo, Nicky Kaye and Phil Goff.

This is one very well-connected person, across both sides of politics, with considerable pulling power, who was gifted a New Zealand honour essentially for services to Beijing……who is now facing serious charges around electoral donations.  Who was known for months to have been caught up in allegations around party donations.  And yet our politicians –  National and Labour –  just wouldn’t stay away.

I hope at least somewhere in our media one assiduous journalist, working with people who can navigate the Chinese language sources, is doing a serious investigative piece on Yikun Zhang and his connections –  local, and in Beijing.  Perhaps it wouldn’t sell many papers on the day –  all those confusing acronyms etc –  but it is the sort of scrutiny our tarnished democracy needs.

It all looks, from the outside, like that combined New Zealand “elite” determination to do all its possibly can to never ever upset Beijing, to pander in public and behind the scenes, to tap apparently generous sources of donations from people without regard to their ties to an alien regime with no regard for democracy, freedom of speech, and human rights.  Keep the deals flowing, keep the dollars flowing, make sure no one can ever drive a wedge between the CCP and the National and Labour parties.  It is why, to me, the big issue isn’t really whether or not Yikun Zhang, Jami-Lee Ross or the other split donations to get round the law –  courts can and eventually will rule on that –  but the value-free mentality that has taken over our political “leadership”.   What was Simon Bridges doing going to dinner at the house of someone with such close regime ties, discussing party donations with, and soliciting from, him –  he was hardly a personal friend (that English language gap is telling)?  Why were MPs, mayor, and the Cabinet getting together to honour him?   Why was such a galaxy of political figures turning up at his event, all of them surely realising the regime-affiliation and interests of all such events?   But then why was Jacinda Ardern posing alonside Xi Jinping in Beijing a few months ago, why was Simon Bridges meeting the Politburo person in charge of domestic security (Xinjiang and all that), and so on?   The pander continued as recently as this week, with the PM reportedly calling for a minute’s silence at the Lunar New Year function at Parliament for those who’ve died of the coronavirus –  nothing wrong with that perhaps in its own right but, of course,she’s never called out the deaths and mass imprisonments in Xinjiang, the imprisonments and persecutions that inhibit freedom of speech and worship and politics in the PRC, or the tens of millions of live that regime has claimed.

Then again, these are the parties that (in National’s case) keep Jian Yang in Parliament and (in the case of all the other parties) do and say nothing about it, the parties that administer a government adminstration that seems unbothered by Jian Yang’s acknowledgement that he had lied about his past to get into the country.  It is shameful, and it is mostly not covered by our media.

In ending, some kudos to David Seymour, the ACT MP, re Yikun Zhang.  On his telling

“I’m pretty happy I didn’t take the invitation to a private dinner at Yikun Zhang’s house right now,” Seymour, leader of the ACT Party, told reporters on Wednesday.

“Multiple times the guy invited me to have a private dinner at his house and I thought ‘that sounds dodgy’ and never went…I have no idea what his intentions were.”

Seymour said he received the invitation in 2018, adding: “I don’t normally go to their house for dinner if I don’t know them and we can’t speak the same language – very unusual.”

He said Zhang Yikun “made frequent appearances at various Chinese events on the calendar that a lot of MPs go to” and that he would usually have “several intermediaries standing around who would speak English”.

Seymour said, “On multiple occasions he tried to get me to have dinner at his house, I said I won’t do that, he said ‘I own a restaurant and we could meet there’, and I said that sounds worse.

“So, as a result I never had any kind of arranged meeting with the guy and I’m pleased about that.”

It can be done.