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PoliticsJuly 13, 2020

Live updates, July 13: SFO investigating Labour donations; 30 deportees returning this week

Image: Toby Morris
Image: Toby Morris

For all The Spinoff’s latest coverage of Covid-19 see here. Read Siouxsie Wiles’s work here. New Zealand is currently in alert level one – read about what that means here. For official government advice, see here.

The Spinoff’s coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak is made possible thanks to donations from Spinoff Members. To support this work, join The Spinoff Members here

8pm: The day in sum

Director general of health Ashley Bloomfield returned from holiday to announce there were no new cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand.

Health minister Chris Hipkins confirmed 30 New Zealanders were being deported from Australia this week and would spend their two weeks in managed isolation at a dedicated facility at an inner-city Auckland hotel.

The Christchurch mosque gunman sacked his lawyers and will now represent himself at his sentencing in the Christchurch High Court next month.

The Serious Fraud Office has commenced an investigation in relation to donations made to the Labour Party in 2017.

The woman who escaped from a managed isolation facility by climbing a fence has been charged with failing or refusing to isolate for the required 14 day period.

7.05pm: Amy Adams apologises over candidate confusion

Ever have the sensation some powerful force is thwacking your head over and over against your desk? That must be how the National Party feels right at the moment, with the latest example – after the Paul Goldsmith of Ngati Porou cock-up – ethnic confusion.

Senior MP Amy Adams “has apologised for wrongly claiming a party candidate, Catherine Chu, was Chinese”, reports Stuff. “Adams was interviewed on Magic Talk on Monday morning and, asked about who represented the Chinese community in the National Party after MP Jian Yang announced his retirement on Friday, said Chu was Chinese. Chu, the Banks Peninsula candidate for the 2020 election, is Korean.” In a statement, Adams told Stuff: “I got that wrong. I had thought Catherine was Chinese but I was mistaken. I have spoken with Catherine and apologised fully for my error.”

Read the full story here.

6.40pm: Labour responds to SFO investigation

The Labour Party has released a statement in response to a Serious Fraud Office investigation into 2017 donations (see 4.20pm).

“We have not been advised of the specifics of the inquiry, however the Labour Party will fully cooperate with any SFO investigations,” a Labour Party spokesperson said.

“For completeness, however, we note that we have already made statements to media in February confirming that two men who were then being investigated by the SFO and had made donations to the National Party, had also made donations to Labour.

“We will not be issuing any further statement while the investigation is underway.”

The two men referred to in the statement are brothers and businessmen Shijia (Colin) Zheng, who donated $1,940 to Labour in 2018, and Hengjia Zheng, who donated $10,000 to Labour through a silent auction purchase in 2017. The pair were previously investigated by the SFO for donations to the National Party and were criminally charged alongside MP Jami-Lee Ross and Yikun Zhang earlier this year.

5.50pm: Today case data, charted

With no new cases announced, today’s graphs remain unchanged.

5pm: Managed isolation escapee in court

A woman accused of escaping from an isolation facility before her mandatory quarantine period ended has appeared in court, reports RNZ.

Suzanne Marie Derrett, 43, was charged with failing or refusing to isolate for the required 14 day period at the Auckland District Court this afternoon. Derrett, who’s said to have climbed a fence at the Pullman Hotel after flying in from Brisbane, is one of the first people charged under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Act.

She was remanded on bail without plea and will appear again in two weeks time. In total, there have been four escapes from managed isolation in New Zealand.

4.20pm: SFO investigating Labour donations

The Serious Fraud Office is very busy, at least as far as party campaign financing is concerned. Already Jami-Lee Ross and a couple of others are before the court after the SFO laid charges in relations to donations to the National Party. The SFO is currently mulling whether to lay charges over allegations levelled at the New Zealand First Foundations. There are investigations under way, too, relating to the Auckland and Christchurch local elections. And now – well, the press release is short, so here it is in full:

“The Serious Fraud Office has commenced an investigation in relation to donations made to the Labour Party in 2017. The SFO is presently conducting four investigations in relation to electoral funding matters. A fifth matter that the agency investigated relating to electoral funding is now before the courts.

“’We consider that making the current announcement is consistent with our past practice in this area of electoral investigations and in the public interest,’” the director of the SFO, Julie Read, said.

“In the interests of transparency and consistency, the SFO has announced the commencement of all these investigations. The SFO has no further comment to make.”

Earlier this year The Spinoff published a special series about political donations. Read it here.

3.00pm: Victoria records 177 new cases

The Australian state of Victoria has recorded 177 new cases of Covid-19 in the last 24 hours. That’s lower than the 288 new cases recorded on Friday, but health officials warn the peak of the outbreak may be still to come. “I would like to see a week of decreasing numbers before I come and say I have greater confidence about the direction we’re going in,” chief health officer Brett Sutton said at today’s briefing. Of today’s new cases, 25 are linked to known outbreaks, one is in hotel quarantine, and 151 are still under investigation.

1.00pm: No new cases in New Zealand

There are no new cases of Covid-19 to report in New Zealand today, director general of health Ashley Bloomfield, back from holiday, has announced.

It has now been 73 days since the last case of Covid-19 was acquired locally from an unknown source.

The total number of cases remains at 1,194. Of those, 25 are active cases. None of those cases require hospital level care.

Bloomfield said 1,043 tests were processed yesterday – lower numbers than usual on account of it being a Sunday. It brings the total tests to date to 429,643.

Health minister Chris Hipkins said he and Bloomfield had visited a managed isolation facility, the Grand Mercure in Wellington, this morning, and were very impressed with staff commitment.

He said the government was committed to “doing the right thing” by returning New Zealanders, outlining the range of supports available to people during their stays in managed isolation, including health and wellbeing assessments, mental health resources and a 19-page booklet on what to expect during their stay at the facility.

“It’s important that we show compassion towards those New Zealanders who are returning and who are using these facilities, and acknowledge that they are doing their part in keeping our team of five million Covid-19 free,” Hipkins said.

He also repeated the request for all New Zealanders to keep a digital diary of their whereabouts using the NZ Covid Tracer app. “It is free, it is secure, it is your information and it is going to be a key tool for us if we ever reach the point where we have to do more widespread contact tracing.”

The app has had 594,000 registrations to date, Hipkins said.

On the 30 New Zealand-born Australian residents being deported (see 8.30am update), Hipkins said while the government is opposed to Australia’s deportation policy, it was working closely with its trans-Tasman counterpart to ensure the process was well-managed. He said Australia had assured the New Zealand government no more people would be deported without first ensuring we have capacity to receive them and the relevant logistical arrangements are in place.

12.45pm: Hipkins to give media briefing

Multi-portfolio minister Chris Hipkins will hold a media briefing at 1pm today, giving the daily Covid-19 update along with any other news from the country’s managed isolation and quarantine facilities. Please stand by for updates, and/or watch here:

12.30pm: Absconder bailed

The woman who allegedly escaped managed isolation at the Pullman Hotel on the 4th of July has appeared in court. A medical report was presented to the court outlining the woman’s mental health issues, the NZ Herald reports. She was bailed without plea to stay with family in Dunedin until her next court appearance in two weeks time.

10.45am: Terrorist sacks lawyers, will represent himself in court

The Christchurch mosque gunman has sacked his lawyers and will represent himself at his sentencing next month, the NZ Herald reports. The man pled guilty to all 51 murder charges, 40 attempted murder charges and a terrorism charge at the Christchurch High Court on the first day of level four lockdown in March. His sentencing is due to begin in Christchurch on the 24th of August.

The man’s lawyers told the Herald they were “not disappointed” at being sacked.

10.30am: Fewer deaths, upset tummies during lockdown

The number of deaths in New Zealand dropped markedly during lockdown, research by University of Otago epidemiologists has found, with 548 fewer people dying compared to the same period last year. Public health professor Nick Wilson said while the data only showed the number of deaths and not the cause, research had shown a reduction in respiratory disease. “Far fewer people were getting cough and fever symptoms. The lockdown did stop these viruses from circulating,” he told RNZ. This adds weight to the theory that people should stay at home when they have a virus, or wear a mask if they leave the house, he said.

Lockdown may also be responsible for a “significant drop” in stomach bugs and gastroenteritis cases in Auckland this year, Stuff reports. The Auckland Regional Public Health Service says its lab tests have detected far fewer “specific enteric pathogens” like salmonella, campylobacter and the evil giardia in recent months. Fewer people being out and about and eating in restaurants during lockdown was one possible reason for this, the ARPHS said.

9.00am: ‘Distinct smell’ to leaked Covid case info saga

Last week’s saga of Michelle Boag, Hamish Walker and the leaked confidential Covid-19 case information had the “distinct smell” of dirty politics, Nicky Hager says. “Of course, sometimes in politics things stuff up and go wrong and you don’t know what’s going on, but yes, this had a distinct smell from the beginning,” the Dirty Politics author told TVNZ’s Breakfast this morning.

“The distinctive things are you’ve got a party that is kind of in trouble, it’s not doing very well in the polls, it’s looking for a way to knock down its opponents rather than sort of win the arguments,” Hager explained. “You see, one after the other, tricky things start to happen. When we talk through it, I think it’s become pretty clear that this was an organised campaign.”

Hager said he didn’t think Hamish Walker sending the information to the press was part of the plan, describing it as “an act of thoughtless craziness”.

8.30am: Deported New Zealanders to isolate at dedicated inner city hotel

The 30 New Zealanders being deported from Australia on a charter flight this week will spend their two week mandatory isolation in a dedicated facility, Chris Hipkins has told RNZ. “It will be an inner city hotel”, the acting health minister confirmed, with “extra military and police at that hotel to make sure they are following the rules”. 

Hipkins told RNZ he wouldn’t be naming the hotel out of concern for the deportees’ privacy. “At the end of the day I don’t want to see a whole lot of people exercising some form of vigilante justice here,” he said.

He also stressed that the government didn’t agree with the Australian government’s deportation policy, telling RNZ “we’re receiving them because we’re obliged to receive them but it would be wrong to say we’re happy about it”.

Megan Woods, the minister in charge of managed isolation, said there would be a break in deportee arrivals after the initial group of 30 this week. “This group will be a first go at it and we’ll see how that’s managed,” she told RNZ.

7.45am: WHO reports another record daily increase in Covid-19 cases

The World Health Organisation’s global total of Covid-19 cases has risen by 230,370 in the last 24 hours, the largest daily number of new cases since the pandemic began. The previous record was 228,102, recorded three days ago.

The biggest contributors to the record total were the United States, Brazil, India and South Africa, according to the WHO’s daily report. South Africa has now reported more than 10,000 new daily cases for several days in a row.

Despite the increase in cases, the number of daily global deaths remains steady at around 5,000, the WHO reports.

7.30am: Updates from today’s edition of The Bulletin

There was another attempted escape from managed isolation over the weekend, bringing the total up to four in the space of a week. It sounds bad, but here’s a stat for you from this Stuff story – about 99.9% of returnees haven’t attempted to do anything of the sort. The most recent case involved someone who allegedly broke a window to get out, which indicates that security has been tightened up quite a bit. Meanwhile, Radio NZ reports Covid-19 research funding is being put towards technology that will allow police to track people with CCTV more easily, which instinctively feels a bit troubling.

There’s a convention in journalism called Betteridge’s law of headlines. Basically what it means is that headlines that end in a question mark can almost always be answered with a no. So it is with today’s Bulletin. In the strictest sense, National leader Todd Muller did not lie about his knowledge of whether former party president Michelle Boag leaked active Covid-19 case details to health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse. He was aware that Boag had sent some information to Woodhouse, but the case he made to One News on Friday was that “what Michael Woodhouse received was not the same information as what Hamish Walker received.” He also defended Woodhouse, who did not leak that information to the media, as Walker did – losing his political career in the process.

The thing is though, Muller learned about this from Woodhouse on Tuesday night, and then later gave a flat answer of no to questions about whether Boag had also sent Woodhouse information. And so while it isn’t a lie in that strict sense, Muller was given a clear opportunity to come clean with anything that might be pertinent to the story, and he chose instead to try and get through without revealing it. That meant that when it all came out on Friday, it suddenly became a very fair question to ask if Muller is hiding anything else, and whether his statements on the matter could be trusted. As press gallery veteran Patrick Smellie put it, “repeatedly asked whether he knew that other National Party MPs had received leaked information from Boag, Muller tried various formulations to avoid saying “no”, but eventually said “no” when he should have said “yes”. For a politician who has always presented himself as a straight shooter, being forced to admit that he “could have been clearer” doesn’t look like that at all.

There are also serious questions around Woodhouse’s actions with those emails Boag sent him. He told Radio NZ that he deleted those emails – sent in mid-June – at the start of the week, when it was becoming clear that there was going to be an investigation into how confidential Covid-19 patient information was getting out. “He also deleted the emails from the trash folder,” said the story, with Woodhouse arguing that he thought it was the right thing to do. It’s difficult to imagine how attempting to scrub all traces of potentially relevant information from your inbox when an investigation is about to get underway could be considered the right thing to do, but at this stage we’ll have to take his word for it that those were his motivations.

The issue has forced the party onto the defensive, right when they would have been hoping to focus on the upcoming election. Deputy leader Nikki Kaye appeared on Q+A over the weekend, and had to spend the whole extended interview talking about one aspect or another of the story, including her own close links to Boag. There was no chance to talk about National policy, or government mistakes, or her race in Auckland Central, or the price of fish, or anything at all apart from this scandal.

Senior figures in the press gallery have also made their views on the matter completely clear. There was a huge amount of commentary over the weekend from people with openly declared political views, so I’ll stick with a few neutral voices on it. Stuff political editor Luke Malpass said “the leaks really call into question one of the central ideas of the Muller ascendancy: that National is the party of the grown-ups”. The NZ Herald’s political editor Audrey Young said that Woodhouse’s reputation is “tarnished”, and that “the more that information drips out, the more that questions mount about Muller’s management of this crisis.” Interest’s Jenée Tibshraeny saw it as a case of the party “disarming” itself, on one of their strongest lines of attack. And One News political reporter Maiki Sherman described the story as “completely self-inflicted” for Muller and National. For now, it will be a nervous wait until the investigation by Michael Heron QC is completed, which is expected to land around the end of the month.

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Read the weekend’s live updates here

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