The not-very-serious foreign interference inquiry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But

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

In the body of the submission I developed the point

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

What about those economic risks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ending on this note.

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

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

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

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

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

Reforming housing/land, and compensating some losers

There seem to have been more than a few people on the left pretty deeply disillusioned with the Prime Minister after she walked away from the possibility of a capital gains tax, not just now (when the parliamentary votes for it probably couldn’t be found) but at any future time while she is Labour leader.    Some parallels are drawn with John Key ruling out doing anything about raising the age for New Zealand Superannuation while he was leader –  an important difference perhaps being that Key had never evinced any enthusiasm for such a policy, only to recant, let alone been the leader who put the issue back on the table.     Perhaps something closer was Key’s refusal to use whatever “political capital” he had to do anything much useful around economic reform.  But, again, despite occasional encouraging rhetoric while in Opposition, no one ever really thought Key was someone who would rock the boat, or was that bothered about doing useful longer-term stuff, as opposed to holding office and managing events as they arose).  Some, perhaps, thought Ardern was different.

But in the wake of the Prime Minister’s abandonment of the possibility of a CGT –  and whatever (quite diverse apparently) hopes people pinned to that quite slender reed – there is the growing question of what, if anything, the government might actually do. It is, after all, in their phraseology, supposed to be the year of delivery.

In his Political Roundup column yesterday, Bryce Edwards posed the question as “What will Labour do about inequality now?”.   There is a lot of talk about different possible tax reforms –  I might even come back and look at a couple in later post – and some reference to the forthcoming “wellbeing budget” (which can surely only disappoint, given the self-imposed fiscal constraints).   But there was nothing about the option most directly under government control which would probably make the biggest tangible difference to the most people, with clear efficiency gains not losses, and with the possibility of a considerable degree of across-Parliament support: fixing the housing and urban land market at source.

As a reminder of the symptoms of the problem, I ran this chart in my post earlier in the week. It is Australian data, but the picture seems unlikely to be much different in New Zealand.

aus 1

The young and the poor (especially the young poor, and probably especially the Maori and Pacific young poor) are increasingly squeezed out of the possibility of home ownership, for decades or at all.   There is no good economic or social case for tolerating this systematic penalisation of the more marginal groups in our society.

But there are obstacles to reform, including the economic interests of those who could suffer quite seriously –  through no real fault of their own –  if the situation was fixed.

Some elements of the government –  well, really only one, the Minister of Housing –  talks a good talk.  In a recent speech he talked up the prospect of reforms that the “flood the market” with development opportunities and thus lower, presumably quite considerably (when you use a strong word like “flood”), urban land prices.   It warmed the hearts of many (mostly rather geeky) readers, including me.   And yet I’m very sceptical that it will come to much. As I noted in a post shortly after the speech

And yet, I remain sceptical.  Perhaps Phil Twyford’s heart is really in this.

But is the Prime Minister’s?  Even though housing was a significant campaign issue, even though she has been in office for 18 months now, we’ve never heard her putting her authority behind fixing the housing disaster at source, let alone substantially lowering house prices.

And is the Green Party on board?  Quintessentially the party of well-paid inner-city urban liberals, are they really on board with bigger (physical footprint) cities, or with encouraging intense competition among landowners for their land to be developed next.  Some of them seem to believe that it would somehow be morally virtuous –  and “solve” the affordability issues –  if people lived instead in today’s equivalent of shoeboxes.

The approach of the Wellington City Council –  led by one of Labour’s rising figures –  just reinforced my doubts.

There are various practical issues to be worked through in any serious reform effort.  But one consideration that always seems to play on the minds of politicians (understandably enough I guess) is that lower house prices means lower house prices: in other words, people who currently own a house will find their asset worth a lot less than it was.     For those of us without a mortgage on our primary residence or with only a modest remaining mortgage, such a fall wouldn’t matter at all.   Our natural position is to own one house, and we intend to own one house (perhaps a different one) well into our dotage.  The label (the estimated value) attached to that property doesn’t really matter.  And for our kids hoping to enter the market in the next decade or two it is pure gain.

But it, understandably, feels quite different if you are one of the growing number of people who have taken out a very large mortgage (perhaps 80 per cent or more LVR) to get into a house.   If someone talks of halving house prices, that can sound pretty threatening.  As a result, very few politicians ever do (I recall Metiria Turei doing it, but only once, and……).    Banks have the legal right to call in their loan if the value of the collateral (the house) drops below the outstanding value of the loan, and although they probably wouldn’t do so in normal times –  when the labour market was okay –  it leaves people feeling quite vulnerable, and also quite trapped (hard to move cities if selling would immediately crystallise a large loss).

When house prices first shoot up there aren’t many people affected that way.  The longer they stay high –  five or six years now of the latest surge up –  the more people have taken out mortgages based on the high house and land prices.  Most of the owner-occupiers among them aren’t business operators or “speculators”, just people at a stage of life where they want to settle and to be secure in a place of their own.   And they –  and their parents – vote.

Of course, there is a whole other class of people who would lose from house and land prices coming down.  But mostly they are a less sympathetic group.   There are the “landbankers” –  people who responded to government-created incentives –  to sit on potentially developable and let the artificial scarcity push up the price of their asset.   That’s a business operation, and in business you win some and you lose some.   Risk is at the heart of business, and that means the possibility of real and substantial losses.  And there are those in the residential rental business, many of them (especially recent entrants) quite highly leveraged.  Halve the price of city properties –  and that is what re-establishing sensible price/income multiples would imply –  and many of those owners would be either wiped out, or see their real wealth (real purchasing power for things other than houses) very dramatically reduced.  But, again, it is a business, and business implies the possibility of gains and losses (one reason I was always at best ambivalent about a CGT was that no real world CGT really treated gains and losses symmetrically).

Of course, these business owners vote too, and will lobby intensively.  But (a) there are fewer of them than mortgaged owner-occupiers,(let alone unmortgaged renters, hoping to be mortgaged owner occupiers) and (b) they just don’t command the same public sympathy (and rightly so) –  we might sympathise with any business owner whose operation falls in hard times, but we know that is the nature of business.

Back when Jacinda Ardern first became leader of the Labour Party I did a post on what a radical reform package, that might really make a difference to our economic woes (housing and productivity), might look like.   Buried in that post was a suggestion for a partial compensation scheme for mortgaged owner-occupiers that might help smooth the way towards overdue structural reform.  I noted then the desirability of getting house prices down a long way.

No one will much care about rental property owners who might lose in this transition –  they bought a business, took a risk, and it didn’t pay off.  That is what happens when regulated industries are reformed and freed up.    It isn’t credible –  and arguably isn’t fair –  that existing owner-occupiers (especially those who just happened to buy in the last five years) should bear all the losses.   Compensation isn’t ideal but even the libertarians at the New Zealand Initiative recognise that sometimes it can be the path to enabling vital reforms to occur.  So promise a scheme in which, say, owner-occupiers selling within 10 years of purchase at less than, say, 75 per cent of what they paid for a house, could claim half of any additional losses back from the government (up to a maximum of say $100000).  It would be expensive but (a) the costs would spread over multiple years, and (b) who wants to pretend that the current disastrous housing market isn’t costly in all sorts of fiscal (accommodation supplements) and non-fiscal ways.

If I recall rightly, I came up with the rough suggested parameters as I was typing, but a couple of years on it still looks like the sort of thing that might be worth considering, perhaps with a larger cap on the maximum payout and a restriction to a first (owner-occupied) home.   The expected cost will have escalated since 2017, because we have had another couple of years of people taking our large mortgages on properties with values inflated by government-controlled regulation in the face of trend increases in demand), but so has the number of people unable to do what they would otherwise “naturally” do; purchase a first house in their mid to late 20s.

This is a sketch outline of a scheme, and like all such government schemes would need lots of detail to limit abuses.  But what are some of the features of the scheme:

  • you only get to lodge a claim if you sell your house (someone who is going to stay in the same house for 50 years doesn’t need any explicit compensation, even if they are left with a heavier servicing burden than might otherwise have been possible if they’d waited to buy).  Of course, some people will choose to sell and buy somewhere different just to crystallise the right to make a claim, but selling a house – a genuine arms-length transaction –  and moving isn’t cheap.
  • the nominal price has to have fallen more than 25 per cent to be able to make a claim at all.  For the last few years LVR restrictions have meant that most owner-occupiers have been borrowing only 80 per cent of less at purchase, and there will have been some principal repayments since then.      Relatively few people would be in a negative equity position if their house price fell by 25 per cent, and even fewer would be facing immediate pressure from their lender.  Owning an asset has to mean some exposure to reasonable swings in price.
  • beyond a 25 per cent fall, you could claim back up to half of subsequent losses from the government.  Thus, if you had bought an $800000 first house and the price halved, you would be eligible to claim $100000 back from the government (half of the difference between $800000 and $400000.   On reflection, and with such a large deductible (the owner takes the first 25 per cent loss) it might be more appropriate for a compensation scheme to cover 75 per cent of subsequent losses (in this example $150000).
  • any such scheme should have a maximum payout capped.  There is no obvious justice in paying out large amounts to a couple who happened to buy a $4 million house which then halved in price (there was a similar issue when the government bailed out AMI).

I don’t have a good sense of how large the cost might be (but it would be in the billions, spread over at least a decade).  Unfortunately, I’m not one of those who believes that fixing the housing market would produce significant productivity gains for New Zealand –  so it isn’t by any means a free economic lunch –  but the sheer injustice of what successive central and local governments have done to our young and poor cries out for action, and sometimes it is worth offering compensation to help pave the way for the sort of thoroughgoing reform that is desperately needed.

Fixing the housing/land market at source would be a huge step to improving the economic and social wellbeing of so many.  Compensating some of the more sympathetic of the losers from such a reform –  most of whom won’t be in an overly strong financial position themselves –  shouldn’t offend too many canons of justice. In an ideal world, one might seek to finance such a scheme from those who benefited greatly from the previous (well, current) rigged market – but that would be hard to do.  In the real world, we are fortunate that the government has fiscal surpluses and very low net debt (especially including the politically managed money pools in NZSF).

I’m not optimistic the government (Prime Minister) really has much interest in addressing the housing/land problems at source.  But if she is ever is tempted to take seriously Phil Twyford’s rhetoric, a compensation scheme of some sort might be an option to consider, to help dull the inevitable opposition in some quarters (some purely from business interests who would have misjudged, but some from people who through little fault of their own became trapped by these longrunning government policy distortions, that generated the scandal of the New Zealand housing market).

 

 

CEOs, the PM, and the degraded state of the public sector

What do you think of when you think of a CEO of a large or prominent New Zealand entity?   Mostly, I think of a highly-paid confident political operator and virtue-signaller.

I’m sure there are exceptions (many of them will be the ones who consciously choose to kept a modest profile).  There will even be some hugely-impressive people who’ve created and built businesses that have made them and society as a whole better off.  Sadly –  marker of our long-term economic failure –  there aren’t many of them, at least among that “large or prominent” grouping.

But apparently I don’t really know what I’m thinking at all.   At least according to a bunch of highly-paid corporate bureaucrats (private and public).

I opened the Dominion-Post newspaper this morning to find a full page advert, half of it in Labour Party red, screaming “What does a CEO look like?”.   Well-dressed, highly paid, and scared of upsetting anyone was my first thought?

But I was wrong (at least according to this advert)

“Admit it. You pictured a white middle-aged male didn’t you.”

Well, no, I didn’t actually.  Of course, the majority of (big private business) CEOs in New Zealand probably are white, middle-aged, and male, but (conservative as I am) I try to view people on their merits, not their sex, skin colour, age, religion or whatever.  In passing one might note that most people in New Zealand are “white”, and mostly I’d expect heads of big and powerful agencies to be middle-aged (that loose label than can encompass anything from about 37 to 67 – although at least one 12 year old reader of the paper tells me 35 is really the starting point).

Ah, but really age has nothing to do with.  It is all about sex.

Could it be because every time we see a female CEO we still refer to her as a “female CEO”?

Speak for yourself, because I know I don’t.  Incompetence (and no doubt competence) knows no bounds of sex.

But apparently it is “indefensible”, this crime that the advertisers have convicted us –  the (overwhelmingly) liberal readers of the Dom-Post –  of, the more so

in a country where a mother in her late thirties is up there on the world stage being a pretty excellent Prime Minister

I guess advertisers are welcome to their opinion.  Personally, I view our current Prime Minister as proof that we have now reached the generally welcome stage in public life where a woman leader can be as useless and ineffectual as any man (Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir may well have been in days when a woman had to be markedly better to excel).

They go on, strangely, to describe the Prime Minister as “the CEO of New Zealand”, which is wrong both in law and in substance.  The government is not the country.  The “CEO of New Zealand” is invoked in support of their cause –  “ask her and she’ll tell you”.

And who is behind this advert?  Given the Labour Party colour and the slathering praise of the Prime Minister you might have assumed it was paid for by the Labour Party, or some front body.

But it wasn’t the Labour Party.  It was a group called Champions for Change.  When you look them up you find that they are a bunch of CEOs and board chairs (one was a chair until very recently when a High Court judgment against her saw her ousted), who also seem to have forgotten the name of the country (it isn’t called Aotearoa New Zealand).  There are 52 of them, about 30 per cent female and the rest male.   They represent (note the word –  these people aren’t here as individuals) 45 organisations (their logos bedeck the front page of the website).

If people in the private sector want to spend their money, or that of their shareholders, on praise of the Prime Minister –  a party political figure –  that is, of course, their choice.

But who is on this list of leaders?  Among them is

Gabs Makhlouf, Secretary to the Treasury

Mike Bush, Commissioner of Police

Peter Chrisp, Chief Executive of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise

and the Ministry for Women (CEO not pictured) is also a sponsor.

These people have clear responsibilities to be neutral public servants, not putting public money under their control into full-page adverts championing the Prime Minister personally.   There are State Services Commission guidelines around the political involvement of public servants, and if involvement in an advert like this doesn’t breach those standards, there is something very wrong with how the guidelines are written.    Among the key points of those guidelines

Very senior State servants, and those who have regular, direct contact with Ministers, or represent a public face of their agency should exercise careful judgement when considering involvement in political activities.

Judgement that seems to have been sorely lacking in this case.

These aren’t the only public sector people involved (although they are the clearest breaches of acceptable conduct).

We also have the CEO of Auckland Council (note the Labour mayor) and the chairs and chief executives of various SOEs (wholly state-owned) and majority Crown (or council)-owned companies.  That list includes New Zealand Post, Air New Zealand, Genesis Energy, Ports of Auckland, and Transpower.    You could add in a couple of a university senior managers as well, one of whom (Massey) must be very grateful to the Prime Minister for giving her cover in her little spot of bother last year.

I get that these individuals, and even their organisations, might want to bash the public around the ears and do their virtue-signalling, but they simply shouldn’t be using their office (and public resources) to champion the Prime Minister.  It is the sort of thing one expects in degraded semi-authoritarian states, not in New Zealand.  It should be totally unacceptable.

One other thing that was striking about the advert was that looking through the organisations these people represent there were (see above) lots of public sector agencies, government bodies, and Crown-owned businesses. There were plenty of local bosses for big overseas businesses.  There were people from really highly-regulated entities (looking at you banks), really quite dependent on government favour, and professional services firms –  dead keen on government contracts – likewise.  There wasn’t, as far as I could see, a single representative of a successful outward-oriented New Zealand business that had developed in the last 30 years (and, actually, only a couple of inward focused ones).

It was not a confidence-inducing sign that these people really had any idea how to build and lead a top-performing business in a genuinely competitive environment. But I guess they know how to keep on the right side of the Prime Minister.

As I say, private sector people can do or say (“get with the project peasants”) whatever their board and shareholders are happy with.  Public sector figures –  particularly the heads of such important agencies as the Police and The Treasury – need to get out, and stay out, of partisan political projects.  They need to called to order, but in the degraded state of modern New Zealand (isn’t Shane Jones still a senior minister?) you’d have to wonder who would actually do that.

(UPDATE: And I almost forgot to mention that the CEO of Stuff –  publishers of the Dominion-Post – is also part of the slathering praise of the Prime Minister.)

virtue

 

 

Foreign interference and deference to foreign powers

On Monday evening, the Australian ABC network broadcast its Four Corners current affairs show, with a feature slot (the link will take you to the video or to a full transcript) on what they describe as the PRC’s “covert political influence campaign in Australia”.

Somewhat corrupted as the system might be, they seem to take this stuff quite seriously in Australia: just this week, there have stories expressing concern about the Opposition leader attending the wedding of the daughter of a PRC billionaire (and donor) who was then a resident of Australia but has subsequently been stripped of his residency and right of return on security grounds.   And, around issues raised in the ABC programme, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been out calling for action around claims that a Liberal minister had allowed preferential access to this same billionaire.   Sure, it is election time (and Turnbull no doubt wants his revenge on Peter Dutton) but the contrast to New Zealand is pretty stark.   As Turnbull put it, “this is the national security of Australia”.   The programme including comments from the former ALP senator forced to resign over his too-close ties to PRC-linked interests.

The programme has clips from Andrew Hastie, the chair of the federal parliament’s intelligence and security committee, and from Christian Porter, Australia’s Attorney-General, responsible for the foreign interference laws.

ANDREW HASTIE, MP: In Australia it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party is working to covertly interfere with our media and universities and also to influence our political processes and public debates.

and

ANDREW HASTIE, MP: We’ve had multiple briefings at the top secret level from ASIO and other agencies that foreign interference is being conducted in Australia at an unprecedented level.

and

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: There are several authoritarian states who are involved in foreign influence across the globe. But in Australia the Chinese Communist Party is probably the most active. China is seeking to influence our elites, particularly our political and business elites, in order to achieve their strategic objectives.

There is chapter and verse –  including emails –  on one particular episode of the PRC embassy/consulate pressuring a local council to decline sponsorship from one of the few Chinese-langugage media outlets that won’t bend to PRC pressure.

Or accounts of an ethnic Chinese radio host –  himself too scared to talk to the ABC –  whose programme was stopped because he wouldn’t bend to the demand to not say anything negative on air about the PRC or the CCP.

We had comments from John Garnaut, previously Fairfax’s correspondent in Beijing, and then senior adviser to Malcolm Turnbull (and author of a classified report on PRC influence/interference in Australia).

Of the aforementioned billionaire

JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: There is a lot of well documented evidence, to use your word, of Huang Xiangmo’s umbilical connection to political organizations which were guided, if not controlled, by Beijing. He was the president of the most important United Front work department platform in Australia.

JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, it tells us how cheap our political systems are. I mean, it’s extraordinary that nobody did any due diligence, any serious background checks for so long. In fact, it was the case also, people weren’t even reading the newspaper. So, political systems and parties just took what they could for as long as they could get away with it. And the danger was, that they were becoming financially dependent on a foreign political system. And that is a precarious place to be.

SAM DASTYARI, FMR ALP SENATOR: I’ve been very upfront and honest. I was too close to the big donors like Huang Xiangmo, I paid a very, very high price for that, I resigned from Parliament because that was the most appropriate thing that I could do.

Dastyari goes on to note his (successful) efforts to get approval from Peter Dutton for an (almost unprecedented) private citizenship ceremony for the wife and children of the billionaire.

Of the billionaire, Andrew Hastie observes

ANDREW HASTIE, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: He did have a lot of access. Um, he was photographed with a lot of senior figures. undeniably, he had a lot of influence. And, um, you know, you can make the connection between his donations and that influence.

Later in the programme it turns to the situation of Professor Anne-Marie Brady, whose house was broken into the day before she was due to testify before Hastie’s committee.

PROF. ANNE-MARIE BRADY, UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY: There are many indications that from the start, from what was taken and what was left behind, that make it look like it was not your normal burglary, for example, targeting of a broken laptop. Of no value to anybody, unless you wanted to know who my contacts are or get other evidence off my laptop. Taking a burner phone that I’d last taken to China, but not taking cash, not taking other valuables that are of great re-saleable value. That’s unusual.

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: We were very disturbed. We had an esteemed academic from New Zealand, telling us that she’d had her, ah, home broken into, her laptops taken from her, and she was suggesting foreign interference. We took it very seriously.

The presenter goes on to report that

Government sources [NB, presumably Australian government sources] have confirmed to Four Corners that intelligence assessments identified China’s spy service, the Ministry of State Security, as the prime suspect behind the intimidation of Brady. Just after she was called before the Australian parliament, Chinese intelligence agents interrogated her academic collaborators in China about her testimony, which had been published on the parliamentary Hansard record.

PROF. ANNE-MARIE BRADY, UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY: There was a visit to the university who had hosted me in November 2017, also from the Ministry of State Security, and they were upset that I had spoken to Hansard about that evidence. All these kind of factors told me that I was of interest to the Ministry of State Security in China.

There is more on the intimidation and imprisonment of a couple of Chinese-born Australians.  Well worth watching and reading.

Perhaps the other bits worth quoting relate to the question of political donations.  Here is Hastie

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: When it comes to donations, particularly, politicians should be naturally circumspect about who they receive donations from. Particularly if donors have connections to overseas, and particularly to foreign governments who are seeking to influence our political processes.

Would that we heard anything of the sort from any New Zealand MP.  The programme goes on from there to focus on one particular donation

Jack Lam is a member of three organisations involved in the Chinese Communist Party’s united front overseas influence network. He also a fugitive. In 2017, Lam was charged with paying a 1.3 million dollar bribe to senior immigration officials in the Philippines.
After fleeing the Philippines, Jack Lam visited his Australian golf club, twin creeks. It was there in February 2018 that Lam and fellow director Tommy Jiang hosted a golf day. Their special guest was Tony Abbott, who as prime minister had been warned by ASIO about foreign influence and donations. A fortnight later, Tony Abbott was again hosted by Twin Creeks, this time for an event supporting his local liberal party branch. Mr Abbott told the fundraiser he was no friend of communism, while the liberal party later declared $40,000 in services donated by Twin Creeks.

JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: Look, if I was a politician, I wouldn’t be taking money from somebody who is involved in a foreign propaganda outlet.
NICK MCKENZIE: Why not?
JOHN GARNAUT, FMR ADVISOR PM, MALCOLM TURNBULL: Because there’s at least the risk of the perception of conflict of interest, of being tainted.

That’s all Australia, of course.  But why, given what we know about Australia, and the work of people like Anne-Marie Brady on New Zealand, why would anyone suppose that the situation here would be any less serious?  The names, laws, and precise details will differ, but the interests – on both sides of those corrupted exchanges – won’t be.

But what do we have here?  Take those Four Corners comments about the Brady break-ins.  The Prime Minister has shown a longstanding preference for nothing uncomfortable to be discovered about those break-ins, never once making a robust public defence of Brady’s position and the appropriateness of her work. It all seemed embarrassing and potentially awkward for the government.

The Herald had an article on Tuesday following the Four Corners programme, which included this (with, incidentally, a Huawei advert appearing between the second and third paragraphs when I downloaded the article)

But last night Australia’s Four Corners current affairs TV show said conclusions had been reached behind closed doors in Canberra.

“Government sources have confirmed to Four Corners that intelligence assessments identified China’s spy service as the prime suspect behind the intimidation of Brady,” the programme said.

The claims were rejected last night by Ardern, the minister responsible for national security, who said she had seen no such assessment.

“This claim is completely wrong. I have received no advice identifying the Ministry of State Security as the prime suspect.”

It is a strange comment, because the transcript suggests that the comment was about Australian government sources.  What would our Prime Minister know about the views of the Australian security services on such issues?    Perhaps the ABC meant New Zealand government sources, but even if so, given her clear lack of interest in any embarrassing outcome to the Brady case, why would she even necessarily know who  the New Zealand Police and security services regarded as the prime suspect?    Perhaps it would be constitutionally appropriate for her to be told if she asked, but if her office made clear that she didn’t want to know any potentially embarrassing (but not beyond reasonable doubt) stuff I doubt they would be rushing to tell her.  After all, Andrew Little, not her, is Minister for the SIS, and Stuart Nash, not her, is Minister of Police.  It might be quite convenient for her not to know, given her apparent desire to keep firmly on the right side of Beijing.

Ah, but of course we have the inquiry into potential foreign interference being conducted by Parliament’s Justice Committee.  Under pressure –  after attempting to block Anne-Marie Brady from appearing –  the committee finally opened public submissions.  But who chairs the committee?  Why, the same person who (a) tried to block Brady, and who (b) has strong connections to various United Front bodies, and is on record as supporting, for example, PRC perspectives on Tibet.  I don’t suppose he will be fronting for any current affairs programme any time soon on PRC interference in New Zealand, or that he would have much credibility if he did.

This morning, the heads of the GCSB and the SIS appeared to testify to this inquiry.  The text of their public remarks is here.  It was all pretty tame and, mostly, quite convenient stuff.   They claimed they would give more material in a classified briefing to the committee –  of the sort which, if disclosed, would “be likely to affect New Zealand’s national interests in an adverse manner”.  You mean like naming names (countries or individuals), which would no doubt be uncomfortable for our politicians, but might well be in the interests of our country?

There were a few interesting snippets nonetheless.

NZSIS and GCSB therefore use “foreign interference” only to describe an act by a foreign state, or its proxy, that is intended to influence, disrupt or subvert a New Zealand national interest by covert, deceptive or threatening means.

That must be frightfully convenient.  So if, for example, someone who had served in a foreign state’s military intelligence and had close ongoing ties with, including business interests in –  all of which had been widely known for some time – was sitting in the New Zealand Parliament that wouldn’t count as “foreign interference”?  I guess not, it is more like “domestically-chosen subservience”.

Offering well-paid jobs to former members of Parliament and ministers in entities owned or controlled by foreign state wouldn’t count as “foreign interference” either on this definition.  The incentives in those arrangements are quite obvious.

Much of the GCSB/SIS commentary seems very concerned with material along a spectrum of what they label “misinformation”, “disinformation” or “malinformation” (you can look up their definitions for themselves).  As they note, there wasn’t much sign of this stuff in the 2017 election.  On the other hand, there is a very major media outlet that runs People’s Daily articles, has a Chinese-language outlet, which is alleged to select stories for their acceptability to Beijing, translate articles in similar directions, and where the parent outlet allows one its staff –  who serves on the Advisory Board of the government-funded smooth-the-Beijing-waters propaganda body  –  to write about PRC issues (at all, let alone with no disclosure of that potential conflict).

Is there some good stuff?  Sure.

Motivated state actors will work assiduously over many years, including in New Zealand, to covertly garner influence, access and leverage.

But there is also quite a bit that reads as if the GCSB/SIS would really preferable the great unwashed were not even aware of the issue (emphasis added)

I would also note, given public commentary on these issues, that interference efforts do not need to be successful to cause damage to our democracy. Trust in the institutions of government and democracy can easily be eroded.

and

Whether or not interference activities are effective, growing awareness of them creates room for the perception, domestically and internationally, that foreign states wield improper influence in New Zealand. This perception may be concerning to New Zealand’s partners and may degrade confidence in our values and democratic institutions;

Perhaps you didn’t intend to convey a sense that it would be better if only all this were kept under wraps, but that is how it read to me.

What about some other good stuff?

Manipulation of expatriate communities is a vector for interference. Some states engage overtly or covertly with their diaspora as a means to achieve strategic aims. NZSIS is aware of efforts by foreign states to covertly monitor or obtain influence over expatriate communities in New Zealand. Shared culture, language or familial connections can facilitate this. Ongoing family ties in the foreign state can be leveraged to suppress unwelcome political or religious activity.

Foreign language media is another way through which expatriate communities or diaspora populations can be influenced or mobilised towards particular issues, including issues relevant to elections.

Which country has a large diaspora here, where such issues might be relevant? North Korea?  No.  Russia? No.   Iran?  No.   (Not even what is left of ISIS).  So I guess that leaves the PRC.  But haven’t people in a position to know suggested that the chair of the committee hearing this evidence is close to the PRC embassy?

On political donations, they pull their punches.

….political donations are a legally sanctioned form of participation in New Zealand politics. However, NZSIS becomes concerned when some aspect of the donation is obscured or is channelled in a way that prevents scrutiny of the origin of the donation.

One of the main reasons we become concerned about these activities is because as relationships of influence, or a sense of reciprocity is established, they may be used as leverage to facilitate future interference or espionage activity.

I have already commented on the constraints we face in talking about specific intelligence. However, in broad terms, I can say that we have seen activities by state actors that concern us.

So it wouldn’t raise concerns with the SIS if a New Zealand citizen with close ties to the PRC /CCP authorities arranged for fully-disclosed and lawful substantial donations to a political party?

Or if such donors –  often photographed with New Zealand political figures –  were being given royal honours?

I guess not, because after all whatever motivations the PRC might have, in the end it is willed deference, and deliberate looking the other way, by New Zealand politicians.    Remember that Andrew Hastie quote from the Four Corners programme

ANDREW HASTIE, MP, CHAIR, COMMITTEE FOR INTELLIFENCE & SECURITY: When it comes to donations, particularly, politicians should be naturally circumspect about who they receive donations from. Particularly if donors have connections to overseas, and particularly to foreign governments who are seeking to influence our political processes.

Would that they were, would that they were.

Quite probably the heads of the SIS and GCSB are well-intentioned people, but when I got to the final page of their testimony there was a line that highlighted the kabuki-theatre nature of this inquiry.

We also need to equip those on the front line of our democracy – Members of Parliament, Ministers, political parties and relevant government agencies – with the capability to identify and protect themselves from foreign interference risks.

It is our political parties, members of Parliament, and ministers who are the real problem here (enabling most –  but not all –  of what probably should be of real concern), and yet Kitteridge and Hampton have to go through the motions of pretending they are the solution.

This is a Parliament where not one member, from the Prime Minister down, will express the slightest concern that Jian Yang –  acknowledged former member of the PLA intelligence system, someone who acknowledges misrepresenting his past on his residence/citizenship firms, someone who was a CCP member (and experts tell us no one leaves voluntarily) –  sits today –  as he has for eight years now –  in the New Zealand Parliament.  One where the presidents of the National and Labour Party compete in their gushing praise of Xi Jinping and the CCP.  One where the government refuses to say anything about gross human rights abuses, and the Opposition foreign affairs spokesperson channels CCP propaganda.  And where many of those close to these things know that there is a significant issue around political donations, and yet no party is willing to take a lead, acting in a “circumspect” way, even around transactions that may be lawful but are not proper.

There was one last story out of this morning’s select committee hearing, reporting Jami-Lee Ross

The now-independent MP followed up his question by asking if Bridges had been basing his comments on a briefing from her when, in an alleged conversation between Ross and Bridges on May 14 last year, Bridges said the Chinese community were keen on a Chinese minister in a future Government.

“He said to me ‘I can’t do it because basically the spooks are telling me he’s a Chinese spy’,” Ross said.

Can’t imagine who he was referrring to…..

Wouldn’t it be pretty dreadful if such a person were still sitting in the National Party caucus?

Surely such a thing couldn’t happen?

But in New Zealand it seems to.

 

 

 

Not happening (at least under this government)

I’ve had a couple of posts (here and here) this week prompted by Phil Twyford’s generally encouraging recent speech about fixing the market in urban land, in ways that might –  in his own words –  flood the market with development opportunities, and thus materially lower land prices in and around our cities.

My bottom line: I see no reason to believe that far-reaching reform –  in ways that might make a real difference, as distinct perhaps from just some rewritten laws – is actually likely to be implemented under this government.   We have a weak government, united on relatively little, and there is no sign that serious reform in this area is a prime ministerial priority.  A mere fifteeen months from now the election campaign will be in full swing.

More importantly, market prices suggest that people transacting in the urban land market don’t believe it either.

There was another excellent illustration in this morning Dominion-Post as to why one would be foolish to put a high probability on such reform happening.   It appeared in the form of two articles, one with the (hard copy) headline of “Where will Wellington grow?”  and the other with the hard copy headline “Tough Choices”.  I’ll set to on side for now the point that with a sensible immigration policy, the abolition of corporate welfare and longstanding New Zealand birth rates the city probably wouldn’t be growing at all –  as I pointed out recently, it is not as if stellar productivity growth is some irresistible lure.     Wellington City Council can’t be held responsible for New Zealand population growth, so lets grant for the sake of argument that the population probably will keep on rising.

There are Labour mayors in all three of our largest cities. But it is worth recalling that the Wellington City Council is one the most woke-lefty outfits in the country –  if any council is well-aligned with the government it must be them.  It has a Labour mayor who surely has national political ambitions, several Green councillors, and deputy mayor who if she had her way would strip out all reminders of the Anglo heritage and culture of the bulk of the population, and even the councillors who are not from Labour or the Greens are mostly only a softer shade of pinky-green.  The same issue of the newspaper reports council officers questioning the “appropriateness and relevance” of street names in my own suburb, mostly named for various British and European rivers.  As I’ve noted previously, it must stick in the craw of councillors and their staff to have their offices on (Edward Gibbon) Wakefield St and (Queen) Victoria St and their (well, our) city named for the Duke of Wellington.

This is the opening of the article

City councillors are bracing themselves for a “nimby” backlash as a major plan to find space for 80,000 more Wellingtonians to live goes out for public consultation.

Councillors voted unanimously this week for their spatial plan to go out for feedback.

and goes on to note

The council’s spatial plan posits four scenarios that people will be able to provide feedback on: one centred on high-rises in the CBD, another focused on building upward in suburban townships, a third creating a new suburb in Ohariu Valley and a fourth scenario extending developments at some existing greenfield sites.

No sense anywhere of letting the market work, in response to the revealed preferences of prospective purchasers. No sense of getting the pricing right (for infrastructure connections etc) and then letting things develop in an evolutionary way. No, it is all a matter for councillors to choose, for councillors to “make space”.   And, of course, all led by the Council’s (Australian) Chief Planner.

One councillor notes that

councils were required by law to have a plan for expected growth and Wellington had “no choice” but to come up with a plan to accommodate the extra 80,000 people expected in the city over the next 30 years.

Perhaps, but why couldn’t that plan be, we will get the pricing right, we will allow for appropriate differential rating, we will build (or allow to be built) connections pretty much as required, we will facilitate intensification where local property owners are agreeable, and then let people and the market take it from there?  An abundance of competitive development opportunities – a superfluity –  is what keeps prices down.

That sort of approach might look something like the fine words from Phil Twyford. But not a single comment, from councillors or council staff, in the article suggests anything like that sort of mindset.

If the government were really serious about thoroughgoing reform, wouldn’t it have been an ideal opportunity to have sought to work with their ideological allies on the Wellington City Council to make it happen here – to actually lead the way and bring land prices back to something more like the value in the best alternative use?

Instead, we have the right-on Labour mayor, emphasising not choice, not facilitation, but his own ideological preferences, all supported by the bizarre rhetoric of having to “squeeze people in”, when Wellington City (let alone the greater Wellington region has abundant land).

When mayor Justin Lester is asked for the scenario he wants he just points up

As I understand it, he himself lives in a low-rise family home in a quiet suburb.  But apparently he thinks it is up to him to determine that many fewer of the next generation would have that opportunity.  His Chief Planner is clearly right behind him –  his distaste for a physical expansion of the city seeps through in almost every comment in the article.

It is a democracy, and too much power in such matters rests with councillors and their staff.  My point here isn’t so much to champion an alternative model –  much as I would support one –  as to make the point that anyone who doubts the government is serious about thoroughgoing reforms and significantly reducing land prices in and around our cities, need only look to the lead being provided by the government’s close ideological allies at the Wellington City Council.

As the Dominion-Post articles suggest, there is likely to be lots of blowback against the options preferred by the council (intensification and more intensification) and so in the end whatever gets approved will be some sort of lowest common denominator.  There will be more houses built over time –  as there have been in fast-growing cities around the country in the last 30 years –  but never enough land-liberalisation to ever create a sustainable rational expectation that future land prices in and around our cities will be materially lower than they are today.

Perhaps one day reform will really happen, and prices really will sustainably adjust.  But, as yet, there is nothing in the wind –  whether from the Prime Minister, or Labour mayors or Labour/Greens councils – to suggest it will occur on this government’s watch.  And the young and the poor  (especially the young poor) will be the ones who pay the price, in lost opportunities.

Xinjiang: an opportunity for Ardern and Bridges

On my way home this afternoon I listened to an interview, in the Sinica podcast series (on all sorts of matters Chinese), with Nury Turkel, chairman and founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project.  For anyone at all interested in the subject it is well worth listening to.

As the interviewer himself put it, he is someone who is not generally seen as anti-PRC, and indeed regards himself as still being listened to to some extent by some of the more strongly nationalistic/pro-PRC people.  But he is clearly appalled at what is going on in Xinjiang, initiated and executed by the regime in Beijing.

In the programme notes there is this summary

6:44: Nury calls for a larger international coalition to decry the horrors in Xinjiang, and highlight the shadow that Uyghur internment will cast on the longer history of China, stating, “In the end, we want two things. One, we want the camps to be shut down. It’s an embarrassment to the Chinese people, even in their history. It needs to be shut down. And, two, we want to be able to restore the Uyghur people’s basic dignity. Give them their dignity and respect back.”

In the course of the discussion it was noted that while Beijing is not generally that receptive to international criticism and pressure at all,  some people are more likely to be listened to –  or be awkward for the regime – than others. Hardline permanent anti-Beijing hawks are easily brushed off.

But people, institutions, and countries that have toadied to Beijing at every turn are a different matter.  Much as I am critical of Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges I don’t believe either of them is likely to be comfortable with the atrocity that is Xinjiang.    Fairly or rationally or not, the Prime Minister now seems to carry with her  –  perhaps internationally even more than at home – some sort of halo of kindness, decency etc.  That image etc surely carries some responsibility.

New Zealand doesn’t matter much in the scheme of things, but precisely because our main political parties and successive governments have been such toadies, it would not be nothing –  in Beijing or in the rest of the world – if Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges rediscovered some moral core, some courage, some decency, and were willing (together perhaps) to openly and publicly deplore what is going on in Xinjiang.   (They might add in the plight of Falun Gong, Christian believers, and so on too).  To call it as it is: a moral stain, and one that blights the reputation of any leaders who just walk past quietly, or make excuses  (Todd McClay) for the atrocity.

Fairly or not, it often isn’t the people who strongly opposed evil from the start whom history remembers most favourably, but those who once walked with the perpetrators of evil and then stepped away and spoke up early enough.   The evil in Xinjiang has gone on quite long enough, that no decent person should any longer be able to turn a blind eye.  That includes New Zealand’s sycophantic officeholders.

For anyone interested in learning more, Sinica has a monthly article on the situation in Xinjiang.

 

Three totally unrelated items

Rather than clutter in-boxes with three separate shortish emails.

First, a follow-on from yesterday’s post about house prices. I noted that the absence of any real sign of falling land prices in and around our cities suggests that the (admirable) words around possible reform from the Minister of Housing are not being treated as credible. Asset markets typically incorporate expectations about future changes in factors that might affect prices in the relevant market.

I had a brief exchange in the comments to that post with Eric Crampton of the New Zealand Initiative, and I see that Eric has now set out comments along those lines in a post on his own blog.

Eric’s key point is that it is hard to short houses. That is quite true, but not (I reckon) determinative. There is no traded derivatives market (eg a futures contract on the QV index, whether nationally or regionally), and although someone who would naturally own one house can sell that house and rent for a few years, it isn’t easy or cheap to do so (actual transactions costs are non-trivial, it is often hard to get a secure long-term rentals, many people have ties to specific neighbourhoods etc). Of course, many holders in other markets are pretty passive too – you can short US equities (say) but a huge proportion of holders are either in passive index-following funds, or in funds that allow only small deviations from benchmark.

But, to get back to the land (and housing) market in New Zealand. If hardly any suburban owner-occupiers (like Eric or me) are going to sell and rent, even if we believed – as Eric seems to – that substantial reform really is coming, there are plenty of other market participants, and it is the marginal choice that will drive the price. Young people starting out can make a choice to hold off buying for a few more years (they are already renting, so have no new transactions costs). Older people looking at trading down can bring forward that move by a year or two. And probably more importantly still, marginal players often aren’t owner-occupiers (actual or potential at all).

If, as someone owning rental properties, you believe the government is really serious, and change is really coming (in fact, even if you only believe it with a 50 per cent probability), you face a high chance of a large fall in the price of your asset over the next few years. A rational response to that expectation would be to sell now – to get out while the going is still good. If you had a bought a few sections in the outer suburbs thinking you might develop them a few years from now, if you believe the government is serious and change is coming, you would want to offload your land exposure now. And – for the really serious players – if you hold pockets of land, large or small, on the periphery of major cities, and have seen the value of that land sky-rocket as population growth and regulatory scarcity rewarded you, any serious prospect of a change in regime, in which peripheral land might once again go for something like its best alternative (farming) use, would surely see you reassessing now.

None of these effects are as instantaneous as (say) the fx market’s response to a Reserve Bank OCR announcement, or even the stock market’s response to possible corporate tax cuts, but they are real and efficacious mechanisms which we should expect to see already at work if the Minister’s plans are likely to be the real deal. Sure, if his speech to the New Zealand Initiative two weeks ago changed expectations – and it certainly impressed some people, including me – we won’t yet see the results in the data (house price data is at best available monthly, and decent land price data is even harder to come by). But that won’t be a credible story as the months roll by.

Of course, in any such experiments with non-instantaneous effects, it is hard to untangle precisely what part of any price movement is due to the specific factor one is trying to isolate. But if these reforms are really the big event the Minister suggests (recall that the aim was to “flood” the urban land market), the effects should be pretty apparent pretty soon (especially with a slowing economy, easing migration, extended brightline tests, ringfencing, talk of CGTs, tighter credit conditions and so on). I remain pretty sceptical, less (as I noted yesterday) because I doubt Phil Twyford’s intentions, than because I doubt the commitment of the government as a whole (the PM in particular), or its interest in actually seeing land and house prices fall materially.

My second item related to the Reserve Bank.  Yesterday, there were two emails from the Bank.

The first was this press release

pac c banksThis from an organisation that claims it is underfunded.  “Fostering investment in green technology” simply is no part of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s mandate.  Nor, to be blunt, does the Reserve Bank have any obvious expertise.

Perhaps I should be encouraged to learn that the Governor is going to focus on lowering the cost of capital in New Zealand (bearing in mind that our real risk-free interest rates have long averaged the highest in the advanced world), but I don’t suppose that is what he meant.

And the second email from the Reserve Bank was this

capital

I guess it is better than not publishing the material at all, but this new 65 page document is finally released more than 3.5 months since the consultation document, setting out the Governor’s plans, was published, and with only a month until submissions close.  I haven’t yet read it, but someone who has tells me that it still doesn’t deliver a proper cost-benefit analysis, and only promises that they will do one one day –  probably after the final decision has been taken, to provide support for whatever the Governor settles on.

This is no way to make policy on serious matters.  Meanwhile the Governor cavorts with his tree gods and dabbles in things –  green technology just the most recent example –  that are no responsibility of his.

Thirdly, and finally, why is the case of Shane Jones (Associate Minister of Transport), the Northland trucking company (owner by a donor and distant relative), the NZTA, and the prosecution, not leading all media outlets?  Why is the Prime Minister not fronting up and facing hard questions about acceptable conduct in her Cabinet?   Appearances of impropriety should not be tolerated, let alone substance.

Matthew Hooton’s tweet seemed apt

Reminding ourselves that Transparency International is itself largely government-funded.