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Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern (Getty Images)
Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern (Getty Images)

The BulletinFebruary 14, 2019

The Bulletin: What to do about China challenge?

Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern (Getty Images)
Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern (Getty Images)

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: China conundrum deepens for New Zealand’s diplomats, massive shakeup for polytechs signalled, and seagulls under serious threat.

The relationship between the New Zealand and Chinese governments appears to be particularly strained right now. Over the course of this week, there have been a range of individual reports and incidents, none of which would merit panic on their own. But taken together, and in the context of the events of the last year or so, a pretty bleak picture is building up.

We’ve covered a few of those incidents earlier in the week in The Bulletin, but just as a recap: There was the indefinite postponement of a joint tourism promotion, which could be taken as a sign that China intends to direct citizens to go elsewhere. There are concerns about Huawei’s role in New Zealand’s telecommunications network, and the company has launched a PR campaign to try and convince the country they’re worth having involved.  The Air New Zealand flight being turned back was perhaps a bit of a red herring – it turned out to be because paperwork mentioned Taiwan. But also, perhaps not – China is known to sometimes crack down on technicalities to show diplomatic displeasure.

But the latest one seems a lot more significant. National claims that five government ministers are currently awaiting permission to visit China, and the government didn’t immediately deny the claim, reports the NZ Herald. If that is the case, it’s a terrible sign – and remember, the PM’s planned visit to China is also on hold. This morning, Radio NZ are reporting a much more strong denial on that point from foreign minister Winston Peters. Though his denial rested on the fact that minister had visited China, rather than pending visits. PM Jacinda Ardern in turn accused the National party of trying to politicise the relationship between the government and China.

The stoush matters a lot for New Zealand’s place in the world. We’re culturally and diplomatically far closer to the USA and their sphere of influence, but if China decided to put the squeeze on milk and meat exports, for example, the New Zealand economy would scream. There’s some useful commentary on Point of Order about the likely untenability of this situation continuing, with New Zealand likely to have to have to make a more firm choice between the two superpowers.

It may be as well that conditions in China end up affecting New Zealand’s economy anyway. There’s a lot of reporting coming out of predominantly American outlets at the moment that suggests that China is in a real economic slump – for example, this from the Wall Street Journal about US companies experiencing falling sales to China, and this from CNN about the difficulty of getting a clear economic picture of the country. If that is really happening, the rapidly growing Chinese middle class (who buy our milk powder and fly here for holidays) might stop spending.

So, what to do? Writing on The Spinoff, Professor Robert Ayson suggests the government should show more clearly some independence from the USA, if we’re also going to show independence from China. He also suggests the PM should take more control of the public presentation of NZ’s foreign policy – a move that Politik suggests may have just happened in Parliament, through her assertion that she, not Winston Peters, was ultimately responsible for foreign policy. Either way, we’re living in interesting times for diplomacy, and we can only hope the meaning of interesting times doesn’t become the same as the apocryphal Chinese curse.

Massive changes are coming to the governance structure of New Zealand’s polytechs and industry training organisations, reports Radio NZ. The sector isn’t in good shape, with many institutes losing students and suffering huge financial deficits, so part of the solution is that 16 polytechs will be merged under the umbrella of a new, centralised New Zealand Institute of Technology. The plans also massively strip back the role of industry training organisations. It’s all seen as a vital part of the education system that has gone wrong for too long, as these institutions provide many of the graduates with the skills the country is in short supply of.

Expect plenty more reaction on this as the consultation process continues. It has already begun in Dunedin, with Otago Polytechnic boss Phil Ker telling the ODT that it would be a disappointing outcome “if the institution was reduced to being a branch office of a national organisation.” And Newshub reports Invercargill mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt absolutely hates the proposals, saying it would devastate the Southern Institute of Technology, a distinctive institution which has performed well and added significantly to the city.

Seagull populations in New Zealand are in serious decline, in what should be seen as a real conservation warning sign, reports the Guardian. It’s not something that would seem immediately obvious, because they’re such a visible and audible presence. Some might even be glad to hear this news, for example, those who voted Seagull in the 2017 Dirtbag Bird of the Year awards. But pests, land conversions and overfishing are all having a serious effect on their numbers. And it really does raise the question – if creatures as hardy as seagulls are in trouble because of human activity, how much damage are we doing to the rest of the ecosystem?

The Budget Responsibility Rules could soon be a thing of the past, if the Greens stay in government. Stuff reports they’re going to review their commitment to keeping them, to be held before the 2020 election. It’s understood their membership are not keen at all on them, as they’ve prevented the type of spending and investment favoured by the base.

Credit rating agencies have also indicated they’d be comfortable with the government taking on a bit more debt. On the other hand, the Labour party (the other signatories to the rules) have made no such plans to review the rules, and may well have political concerns about looking too flashy with the cashy.

Five districts across the Central and Eastern North Island now have total prohibitions on lighting fires, reports SunLive. It’s hot and dry out there, and Fire and Emergency are concerned any fires lit could quickly get out of control. In the Canterbury region, total fire bans are in place in some areas, and restrictions are in place in others, reports Newshub.

An increase in the number of burials in Auckland means the country’s biggest cemetery is running out of plots for sale, reports Newsroom. Under the Unitary Plan, Waikumete in West Auckland also doesn’t really have any opportunity to expand further. It could be quite a significant cultural issue for the city, as burials are far more popular among non-Pākehā communities. As well as that, the cemetery holds a lot of significance for many whose families have lived for generations out West.

There was some procedural rubbish at Parliament yesterday, which caused a select committee session to be shut down. I won’t bore you with the details, but here’s an NZ Herald report on it. A whole lot of citizens who had come to make submissions had their time wasted, as a result of elected MPs failing to do their jobs. Anyway, Andrew Geddis, who is an expert on these things, has written on The Spinoff about why the episode is bad for our parliamentary processes and long term constitutional culture.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Gone by Lunchtime is back for the year, saving all of us nerds from the summer drought of politics podcasting. Transport blogger Matt Lowrie questions why a significant chunk of Queen’s Wharf is effectively closed to the public. Madeleine Chapman has put in the hard yards on a typically rigorous investigation into what Word Art choices say about our elected representatives. And Alex Casey casts her eye over where Cadbury could make their next PR disaster, after reducing the size of their chocolate bars without also reducing the price.

The debate over a law change to allow people to self-identify or change their gender on birth certificates has become a pretty nasty one. Much of it has taken place on the margins of political discourse – not widely followed, but extremely intensely fought over by those who are actively following it. This feature from Radio NZ’s Susan Strongman does a really good job of unpacking it, especially if you haven’t been actively following it. It should be noted too – many of the arguments that have been raised in this debate don’t actually really relate to the law change itself – they’re about the wider acceptance of transgender people in society. Here’s an excerpt:

What Jack Byrne likes to remind people is that the Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Relationships Registration Bill is about making it easier for gender diverse people to be legally recognised, and live their lives. It’s not about prisoners, sports, bathrooms, or children transitioning. And, he says, it’s not taking women’s rights away.

In 2008, five and a half years after Byrne transitioned, his father died. Byrne was still in the process of changing his birth certificate through the Family Court, and the sex marker still said ‘female’. His brother, who was filling out details on his father’s death certificate, asked him what what his legal name and sex was. Byrne lied to him. “There was no way I wanted to have female written beside my name… It was a couple of days after dad died. Those circumstances are very raw. I’m just really grateful he didn’t push me to show him the incorrect document.”

You might have noticed that I’ve become rather fond of the Phoenix this season, with their underdog attitude and attacking flair. Here’s another reason to like them – Stuff reports the team has sent teenagers out onto the field more times than 8 other A-League clubs combined, mostly because Sarpreet Singh and Liberato Cacace have become regular starters. It’s seen as a sign that the academy is doing a good job preparing players for the next step up. The Nix play at Eden Park this Friday night, and I’m pretty tempted to head along despite literally never going to see them play when I lived in Wellington.

From our partners: Barbecuing is one of New Zealand’s national summer past-time, but what are the nuances in our barbecue culture? Brenda Talacek, Vector’s Group Manager for Gas Trading, lifts the lid.

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