The BulletinOctober 17, 2018

The Bulletin: What fresh horrors await National today?


Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: National party knife-fight gets extremely bloody, Naura detainee refugees may be allowed to come to NZ, and a shake-up coming for Māori media.

The developments at Parliament yesterday are almost without precedent, as renegade National MP Jami-Lee Ross threw astonishing accusations at his party leader Simon Bridges. He alleged that Simon Bridges directed him to split up a $100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman into smaller amounts, so that they could be hidden. Mr Ross held forth at Parliament for almost an hour, in a press conference that had the dramatic intensity of a Russian novel. Here’s a rundown from me of the duelling press conference narratives,  and for a view of how that played out at Parliament, read this from Stuff.

Moreover, Mr Ross says he has a tape recording of a conversation with Mr Bridges that he’s going to hand in to police, and also tweeted photos of Mr Bridges with the businessman. And he even dropped the C-bomb on Simon Bridges – calling him a “corrupt politician.”

What??? Exactly, it’s huge. Otago University law professor told the Newstalk ZB that if the allegations are found to be true, that would breach the Electoral Act, with potential penalties of two years in prison. Not only that, Mr Bridges would be automatically expelled from Parliament, which would make it difficult to continue leading the party to say the least. Here’s an explainer on donation law from Stuff. Mr Bridges, for his part, completely denies any wrongdoing. He welcomed a police investigation. But he also refused to discuss donations at all, which shouldn’t be taken as an admission of anything, but was in contrast to Mr Ross who held forth on pretty much everything thrown at him.

So what happens to Jami-Lee Ross now? He basically told his caucus colleagues that they couldn’t fire him, because he was quitting. The party voted to expel him anyway. What it means is that there will now be a by-election in Botany, which Mr Ross says he’ll stand in as an independent. It’s a safe National seat, and Mr Ross says it will be a referendum on Simon Bridges leadership. That’s likely to be held around the end of the year.

Will Simon Bridges even still have the leadership by then? Honestly, who would predict anything at this stage. If there’s any sort of police investigation, that could make his position untenable. If anything alleged by Jami-Lee Ross and denied by Simon Bridges turns out to be true, that’s probably the end of it too. And one other twist of the knife that Mr Ross dug in – he says internal party polling shows Simon Bridges has a net favourability with the public of -27 – that basically means a lot more people don’t like him than do. For a party as ruthlessly committed to electoral success as National, that won’t sit well at all if true.

Sounds like Mr Ross has come out of this all pretty well. Er, no, not really. He’s openly admitted to secretly taping his boss and using that for political gain, and has thrown a whole lot of other colleagues under the bus in the process. Not only that, he brought up what he says are false allegations of sexual harassment at his press conference. Deputy leader Paula Bennett responded to that, saying it wasn’t sexual harassment allegations that had been discussed with Mr Ross – it was that he had behaved inappropriately “for a married member of Parliament”. Whatever that means you’ll just have to use your imagination. Or don’t, up to you.

Also, who was the businessman who donated? He’s a Chinese New Zealander called Yikun Zhang, and there’s no suggestion he’s done anything wrong. But there are a lot of curious details about it all. He was recently made a member of the NZ Order of Merit, on the recommendation of former National MP Eric Roy, current National MP Jian Yang, and Auckland mayor Phil Goff, reports the NZ Herald. He owns $40 million worth of property in Auckland, and has founded community organisations. And as Stuff reports, according to his secretary, he doesn’t speak English.

What’s the mood of the commentators? There’s a wide consensus that Bridges’ leadership is in deep trouble. Tracy Watkins at Stuff says it may have been dealt a killer blow. Heather du Plessis-Allen says he needs to go for the sake of the party. On The Spinoff yesterday morning before it completely kicked off, conservative columnist Liam Hehir wrote that above all National needed to avoid the leadership merry-go-round Labour suffered from in opposition. And for a full audio digest, Gone by Lunchtime convened for an emergency episode, to process what the hell was going on – describing it as a ‘political kamikaze supercut.’

It’s hard to overstate just how big a story for politics this is. It’s on pretty much every front page in the country this morning. Some of the Stuff papers have reached a bit with ‘Mutiny on the Botany’ for the headline. The NZ Herald’s one though is perfectly snappy – ‘Blue Blood.’ Meanwhile, other news somehow still continues, so like National will want to do, let’s move on.

Refugees detained on Nauru by Australia may be allowed to come to New Zealand after all, reports Newshub. The Aussie PM Scott Morrison says that will depend on the so-called ‘back door’ being closed by legislation – that means that refugees who end up in NZ would then be prohibited from applying for a visa to Australia. The conditions refugees are living in on Naura are reportedly deplorable, including widespread mental health and self-harm concerns, and children being detained for five years.

Māori media is in for a significant shake-up with the first review since 1998, reports Radio NZ. It will focus on Māori Television, the Māori radio network and Te Mangai Paho – the organisation that funds Māori content. Māori TV is welcoming the review, saying they’re also looking at a strategic refresh to adapt to the new media environment.

Dunedin mayor Dave Cull has hit out again at the localised system of alcohol policies, saying it puts commercial interests above communities. The ODT reports the Council is currently in a bit of a battle over their local policy, after a more strict version was successfully appealed by a group that included supermarkets and liquor stores. It’s a big story down in Dunedin, to the point where it even made the front page on today of all days.

A family of eight say they’re going to be evicted from their Whanganui home today, but have nowhere else to go, reports the NZ Herald. The house has been sold and the new property investor owners want to renovate. They can’t find anywhere big enough for the whole family, and say they’re out of other options. In some ways it’s a microcosm of the wider issue of homelessness in NZ – the definition is not necessarily sleeping on the street, it’s about having your living situation be completely precarious.

A cap on gender reassignment surgeries funded by the government will be lifted, reports Newsroom. Previously it has been just four surgeries funded every two years, but under the new policy there won’t be any caps. Currently 105 people are on the waiting list. Madeleine Holden reported on this for The Spinoff two years ago, and at the time she wrote that, the wait list was fifty years long for surgery that could have a demonstrably life saving effect.

Radio NZ is reporting in their news bulletins this morning that dairy prices have fallen again at the latest global auction. It means they’re at the lowest price in two years. Fonterra recently cut their forecast payout to between $6.25-$6.50 per kg of milk solids.

And finally, The Spinoff’s new TV show Get It To Te Papa is now out on LightboxThe most dogged collector of Kiwi culture in the country Hayden Donnell has been unleashed to gather artefacts that deserve to be preserved forever in our national museum. I’m going to abandon all objectivity here and just come out and say it – I love this TV show. It made me think, it made me laugh, and the New Zealand that it depicts felt like home.

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Lakiloko’s granddaughter Patricia dancing at the opening of Fafetu. (Image: David St George)

Right now on The Spinoff: Food editor Alice Neville writes about the time we got the judge of the Great Kiwi Bake Off into the office to tell us whether our cakes were any good. Madeleine Chapman has written a deep feature about the meaning of Tuvaluan art. And Hayden Donnell offers up a tribute to the real star of the first episode of his TV show – but I can’t say what that is because of email spam filters.

Here’s a really fascinating story about the chess game of geopolitics, and the geopolitics of chess. It comes from Five Thirty Eight, and chronicles the astonishing career of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov – Russian politician, businessman, and president of the World Chess Federation, better known as FIDE. It’s a story that becomes more sordid and brutal with every chapter. Here’s an excerpt:

He was elected to the Russian parliament in 1990, at which point, he wrote, he “began to allot money from [his] personal funds” to fill the gaps in the state’s budget. A few years later, in 1993, he was elected president of Kalmykia.

He was 31 years old. His first decree was to make chess obligatory in Kalmyk schools.

FIDE came calling shortly thereafter, and Ilyumzhinov harbors no illusions about the reason behind the sudden interest in his leadership.

“Why was I elected? Because FIDE was bankrupt then,” Ilyumzhinov told us. “There was no money. And so they asked me.”

In 1995, he was unanimously elected president of FIDE, giving him control of the sport that had long ago captured his imagination. He immediately moved to close FIDE’s debts, spending $2 million, he said, from his personal fortune.

Another big coup for the ASB Classic tennis tournament, reports the NZ Herald. They’ve secured the return of defending champions Julia Goerges and Roberto Bautista Agut for the January event. The women’s draw especially will be incredibly hard fought, with the likes of Victoria Azarenka, Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams also confirmed.

And this is something I’ve been fascinated by for a while, since writing about the emerging professionalism of ESports years agoThe Guardian reports that professional gamers are working ever harder on their physical fitness as a way to get whatever edge they can. That goes to the point of pro gaming teams having chefs prepare the right sort of food for their players – apparently Caesar salad is good for gamers because it’s low on carbs.

From our partners, Vector’s sustainability manager Karl Check explains why the company is pushing for more urban forests, despite recent storms in Auckland bringing trees down on powerlines, and cutting electricity to parts of the city.

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