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Dr Nick Smith in 2015 when he was minister for building and housing (Phil Walter, Getty Images)
Dr Nick Smith in 2015 when he was minister for building and housing (Phil Walter, Getty Images)

The BulletinJune 2, 2021

The Bulletin: Smith resignation saga gets stranger

Dr Nick Smith in 2015 when he was minister for building and housing (Phil Walter, Getty Images)
Dr Nick Smith in 2015 when he was minister for building and housing (Phil Walter, Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Smith resignation saga gets stranger, China expresses anger at NZ-AU unity, and Sāmoan Head of State finally speaks.

The story around an alleged verbal altercation between Dr Nick Smith and a staffer has unravelled in a particularly odd way. The outgoing MP himself has gone to ground, and it isn’t clear if he’ll return to parliament. What is known though is that there is an investigation currently underway by parliamentary services, believed to involve a recording of said altercation, which Stuff reports is understood to have been overheard and recorded by another National party staffer, who made the complaint that led to the investigation. As I say, the story behind the story is really unusual, and somewhat confusing given Dr Smith’s resignation statement strongly implied a full story would be coming out yesterday.

It is possible the situation was engineered by the party leader Judith Collins. That is certainly one reading of this timeline provided by (paywalled) Politik, which also names Collins as the person who allegedly warned Smith the story would be coming out on Tuesday. The party leader is also alleged to have known about the alleged incident pretty much ever since it happened last year. If this is all true, then it would be a remarkable political play, with the upshot that Collins ally Harete Hipango would become an MP in Smith’s place, and allow Collins to remove someone who might represent a risk of bringing the party into disrepute.

Because more has come out though about what Smith was like as an employer, and several accounts would suggest he was not a good one. Newshub’s Jenna Lynch collected accounts from unnamed former National staffers, who described an MP with tendencies towards highly volatile rage. This sort of behaviour was also considered to be common knowledge around parliament – “Dr Smith’s behaviour was well-known by every National leader dating back to Jim Bolger,” was one particularly telling line in the story.

Radio NZ reports National MPs denied prior knowledge of the alleged altercation. On the face of it, that seems like nonsense – on the one hand we’re expected to believe these are highly well informed insiders who pick up constant gossip, and on the other hand we’re expected to believe that this explosive and highly shareable allegation never reached them. But this is not really unique to National, rather it’s just what any MP in our wider political culture would say when put on the spot about a potential scandal.

It also puts a spotlight on alleged bullying within the wider parliamentary culture, something addressed by the recent Francis Report. In some cases the MPs themselves are the problem, but they can’t be removed in the same way people could be in a normal workplace. That question of accountability gets covered in this analysis by Marc Daalder on (paywalled) Newsroom.

The Chinese government is not happy about joint statements made by PMs Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern. The NZ Herald’s Audrey Young reports the anger comes after references were made to the South China Sea disputes, and human rights concerns in both Xinjiang and Hong Kong. That story also gives an outline of what the current situation is in all of those cases. It’s worth noting that everything that happened isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary – Stuff’s Henry Cooke has a story that quotes foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta describing the reaction as “predictable”.

Just on the prime ministerial visit more generally, this is a great piece of writing about the symbolism of diplomatic set piece events from someone whose seen a few – our political editor Justin Giovannetti. It goes behind the scenes on the machinery to produce what then gets put in front of the cameras, while also drawing in some of the bigger themes the meeting represented.

The Head of State in Sāmoa has spoken for the first time since cancelling a scheduled sitting of parliament more than a week ago – a move that pushed the country into a deeper political crisis. Radio NZ reports Tuimalealiifano Va’aletoa Sualauvi did not address this rather important point in his speech to mark independence day, instead calling for reconciliation and forgiveness. In contrast, the Catholic Archbishop of the country has called on caretaker PM Tuila’epa to go, in a ferocious sermon reported on by the Samoa Observer. Incidentally on everything going on with Sāmoa, this is a great video from Radio NZ journalist Anric Sitanilei breaking down some of the terminology used in Sāmoan by some of the key protagonists of this story.

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The Māori Party co-leaders have lodged a complaint with the IPCA over how the police handled racist threats against them, reports the NZ Herald. The threats were made in a youtube video which has since been taken down, but the concern held by the co-leaders is that police took two days to respond to their complaint. Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said this was in contrast to the speed at which police addressed threats made against National MP Simeon Brown.

A long-running court case that I haven’t really touched on here yet: More than 1000 homeowners are currently taking a class action lawsuit against international building giant James Hardie, over allegedly selling leaky and defective cladding called Harditex. Regular updates have been turning up in the news, but this particular story from One News caught my eye, in which a former manager of the company revealed that while he was working there, he would not have bought a house that used the company’s product.

You might have noticed that one of the defining conflicts in urban planning right now is around cycling infrastructure – almost no matter which big city around the country you live in. Bernard Hickey has noticed as well, and has tied two of the major flashpoints into a piece that gets right to the heart of it all – “who should get to use our urban roads and motorways, and for what?” Hickey casts it as something of a culture war – very fairly in my view – and the piece is a great example of the tight and clear sociopolitical analysis that he’s known for.

Good news for Whakatāne: The Rotorua Daily Post reports the paper and cardboard mill has been saved, which means at least 200 jobs have been saved. A consortium of investors is taking over the facility. Regardless of the good news this week though, warnings are still being sounded about the long-term viability of these sorts of operations.

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SNAPPED: One of our intrepid journalists took a trip… beneath the mask. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Right now on The Spinoff: Ron Hanson in Taipei writes about how Taiwan’s Covid response unravelled. Taciano L Milfont writes about Brazil’s tragic mishandling of Covid, and why it matters for New Zealand. Nick Stringer writes about the difficulty of finding cost-effective alternatives to weed killer glyphosate. Casketeers Francis and Kaiora Tipene have a wonderful piece about the tikanga of hongi. Linda Burgess unpacks some complicated thoughts about the TV family reunion show David Lomas Investigates. And Sam Brooks writes about spending an afternoon in the office dressed as a giant pavlova – I was there, he actually did this.

For a feature today, a useful piece of pure scientific quotery about the Canterbury floods. The Science Media Centre has published some expert reaction on the question of why the flooding was so severe, taking in a range of factors including the river systems of the region, and the meteorological conditions that led to it. Here’s an excerpt, from the submission of NIWA hydrodynamics expert Dr Emily Lane:

“In this case, the sheer amount of water that fell is the main issue, but there are also other exacerbating factors. The sea level is higher than usual at the moment because of the spring tides from the super moon last week and storm surge driven by strong winds and low air pressure. This intensifies the flooding in coastal areas as the water can’t drain away as fast. With the drought conditions Canterbury has been experiencing recently, the ground is less able to absorb water so more of it ends up in the rivers.

While it is difficult to ascribe any one weather event to climate change, this event does illustrate an important point: Canterbury was in the grips of a drought recently and lack of water was a far bigger problem. Then suddenly when the water came, it came all at once. These sorts of extremes are expected to occur more frequently under climate change. The expected increase in these types of drought-flood cycles needs to be incorporated into future planning.”

In sport, how can trans-Tasman rugby be made more equal? This piece from Australian sports publication The Roar had some interesting suggestions, which I think raise interesting questions about the meaning of “fairness” in one-sided sporting competitions.

Meanwhile, in actual sport taking place tonight, the Winter of Cricket is about to get underway. The Black Caps will stride onto the turf at Lord’s to play England in a two-test series, ahead of the World Test Championship final. Because of the rather large assignments on the horizon for both teams, and because this series won’t actually count for any WTC points, a bit of the heat has been taken out. But still, test cricket is test cricket.

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