The BulletinFebruary 19, 2020

The Bulletin: Political donations quagmire deepens


Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Fresh developments around in the political donations saga, the Chinese ambassador speaks out, and some troubling poll numbers for advocates of cannabis law reform.

The Serious Fraud Office is formally investigating the operations of the NZ First Foundation. The confirmation came in an SFO statement which was nothing if not succinct. It reads, in full: “The Serious Fraud Office has today commenced an investigation in relation to the New Zealand First Foundation.” That didn’t change the position of the prime minister. Jacinda Ardern said: “In my mind we need to apply natural justice here, I am awaiting the outcome of the SFO investigation and I think that’s the right thing to do.”

The news came as RNZ published a fresh report about the foundation, revealing that a lobbying firm run by Doug Woolerton, who is a NZ First Foundation trustee, advocated for legislative change on behalf of a property developer which subsequently donated tens of thousands of dollars to the foundation.

At parliament yesterday afternoon, Winston Peters chose to ignore journalists’ questions in favour of playing them Queen’s “Radio Gaga” on his phone. His newly embraced role as a digital disruptor continued with a video posted on Facebook, in which he took on the usual target: the media. He railed against “sloppy and biased journalism, and, dare I say it, lies”. He did not quite specify, however, what the lies were. Guyon Espiner and Kate Newton’s report is here.

The SFO has certainly been busy on political donations in recent times. It announced late last month that four individuals would face criminal charges in relation to donations to the National Party, stemming out of the Jami-Lee Ross whirlwind of 2019. Yesterday it was reported that the prosecution involves not one but two $100,000 donations to the party – something which party leader Simon Bridges (who is not one of those charged) says came as a surprise to him. Speaking to the AM Show this morning, Simon Bridges said “I’m as interested as you are, frankly. But it’s before the courts and I can’t speculate”.

RNZ reports that three are charged with having used a “fraudulent trick or device” to split a donation into chunks under $15,000 – thereby avoiding the need to declare their identity. The fourth person charged over the 2018 donation is also charged with providing misleading information to the SFO. We can’t yet name any of them, but if those first three have their way we’ll be able to soon: they yesterday asked the Auckland District Court to lift their name suppression.

The Chinese ambassador to New Zealand has questioned travel restrictions imposed in response to the Covid-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak. At a press conference in Wellington, ambassador Wu Xi said the ban on foreign nationals entering the country from mainland China was an overreaction to a problem that was “generally under control”. The ban, she pointed out, went further than the advice issued by the World Health Organisation.

Stuff reports that when asked whether the measures were hurting the relationship between New Zealand and China, Xi said it was already negatively affecting trade and education. “We have already seen an impact on bilateral cooperation. I hope this impact will be short term rather than medium term or long term.”

In the NZ Herald this morning, Hamish Rutherford assesses the dilemma for the New Zealand government: “Health Minister David Clark said yesterday the restrictions would not be in place any longer than necessary, our economic interests were being considered, but ‘first and foremost we’re looking after the health and safety of New Zealanders’. But keeping the current restrictions in place could also be damaging; the warnings about the impact on the economy are growing more serious, almost by the day.

In other coronavirus headlines, New Zealanders quarantined on The Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan will be on board a flight out provided by the Australian government, assuming they followed official advice. More than 150 people are expected to emerge from quarantine after a fortnight isolated in Whangaparāoa. New Zealand Post has suspended mail to and from China. Air New Zealand is reducing the frequency of flights to Shanghai and Hong Kong. And the NZ Asia Media Centre reports on “disappointment and confusion among Chinese students who are barred from coming to study in New Zealand”.

There are failures of leadership, vision and coherence in New Zealand water management. That is the finding in a report from the auditor general presented to parliament yesterday. The review says central and local government oversight of a range of water issues from waterways management to drinking water is lacking – and, crucially, not as joined up as it needs to be, with “a more strategic and integrated approach” required. It also found that Māori interests had not been adequately heard.

“The lack of clarity about what the issues are, how to address them, and who will deliver programmes of work increases the risk that public organisations are not directing their efforts towards the same outcomes,” said the auditor general, John Ryan

In the NZ Herald, Jamie Morton has the best summary of the findings. You can read the report itself here.

A brief message from, well, me, about Spinoff Members: If you value the work we do at The Spinoff, the best thing you could do to help us survive the stormy weather that continues to buffet the NZ media is by becoming a Spinoff member. Contributions allow us to keep making homegrown, NZ-owned and independent journalism that’s free to all. Across politics, social issues, climate change and a host of other important topics, Member contributions enable us to commission and publish content that would be hell of a hard to justify on a solely commercial basis. If you do sign up, you can contribute any amount you like, but give $8 a month or more and you’ll get a free copy of a Spinoff tea towel designed by Toby Morris. It’s a good tea towel, and nothing would delight me more than having my cartoon face dry your dishes.

Advocates of cannabis legalisation have some serious work to do ahead of the referendum. That’s the message of poll numbers just released by Newshub.

Asked for the Newshub Reid-Research poll, “do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill?”, 39.4% said yes and 47.7% said no, with 11.6% don’t-knows. Anna Bracewell-Worrall explains: “Since the last time Newshub polled on this in June, despite additional details released in December, more people have moved from the ‘yes’ camp to the ‘don’t knows’.”

The poll also asked about the other referendum question: “Do you support the End of Life Choice Act 2017 coming into force?” The results suggest a yes vote is looking considerably likelier on this front, with 61.9% yeah and 23.7% nah.

Spare a thought for the banks of New Zealand, which have seen a combined net profit drop of almost 1%, according to a new KMPG Financial Institutions Performance Survey. After two years of healthy profit growth, they’ve been hurt, in part, by pay-later schemes such as Afterpay, reports Stuff. But don’t panic, they’ll get by: the combined net profit was $5.71 billion.

Elton John just extended his tour of New Zealand all the way into 2021. Hobbled by walking pneumonia, which happens also to be the name of The Spinoff pub quiz team, the rocket man has put back his remaining Auckland concerts – one of which had already been postponed – to January 15 and 16, 2021. “I want to send my sincerest apologies to my amazing fans for any inconvenience caused”, said John in a press statement issued late last night. “I always want to be able to give 100% and I’m afraid that, right now, I’m not able to do that. I am grateful for the love and loyalty I have been shown by all of you and I can’t wait to return in January next year to perform my final New Zealand shows.” As one Spinoff reader noted, it’s gonna be a long, long time.

Right now on friendly local website The Spinoff: Leonie Hayden talks to people in the NZ disability community about the upcoming visit of controversial philosopher Peter Singer. Madeleine Chapman has some thoughts on that story about the school requiring Counselling for girls to wear shorts at school – and they may be not what you’d expect. Alex Braae ruthlessly cheers the eradication of a species in the Wairarapa. Josie Adams has reviewed the latest addition to the streets of Auckland: shareable e-bikes. Here’s a terrific review of what looks like a terrific debut novel from a terrific writer, Eamonn Marra. Should vegetarians bite the bullet and go vegan? Gareth Shute weighs up the evidence. And whether you’re a Bachelophile or a Bachellophobe, Alex Casey’s roundups of the reality show are essential reading.

Normal life in China has come to a halt following the coronavirus outbreak. Among the countless impacts is that on schools, pupils and parents. Anna Fifield, a New Zealand journalist who is Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post, has described the impact in a striking feature.

“More than half the country’s 1.4 billion people are now restricted from leaving their homes in some way. Public gatherings are banned, including those in schoolyards,” she writes. Schools have adopted “online or home learning system, straining the resources of teachers, the attention of kids and the patience of parents” …

“Some parents vented anonymously on social media. ‘When all schools’ online classes officially kick off today, parents will become teachers’ assistants and nannies,’ one mother wrote on Weibo. The sentiment was apparently not appreciated. The post was soon deleted by censors.

Fifield writes: “The Ministry of Education on Monday introduced a ‘national internet cloud classroom’ supported by more than 7,000 servers and designed to cater to 50 million elementary and middle school students at the same time. Lessons cover 12 academic subjects, including ‘moral education’ and ‘epidemic education’.

Meanwhile, China Education Television is broadcasting online learning programs through satellite to remote areas with weak Internet connections.

China’s state media has tried to turn these lemons into lemonade. “Every disaster can serve as a shock and challenge to our life values,” China Comment wrote. “The ongoing war against the virus is a great class for students and real-life training for adults as well.”

The online solution isn’t feasible for everyone. “Many families don’t have computers. Those with more than one child may not have more than one device. Child care in many families in China is provided by grandparents, who may not be internet-savvy. There is also the problem of extended screen time.

“At the upper levels, the disruption to the school schedule could prove calamitous. Each June, about 10 million seniors sit down for their day-long college entrance exam, a single test that can make or break their futures. The Education Ministry is closely monitoring the epidemic and will decide later whether to delay the exam, an official said last week.”

Keep going!