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The Bulletin: Chilling inquiry findings into govt-contracted spy firm

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Serious fallout from inquiry into government agency use of spy firm, changes announced to migrant worker system, and new developments in Karel Sroubek saga. 

An inquiry has confirmed that ordinary New Zealanders were spied on by a security firm, on behalf of the government. The inquiry looked into the ties controversial firm Thompson and Clark had with the government, in particular relating to surveilling political activists and Canterbury earthquake claimants. It didn’t find that inappropriate surveillance was widespread, reports Newshub. But the day has thrown up all sorts of other concerning revelations about those relationships.

We’ll start with the quake claimants. There are calls for Southern Response chairman Ross Butler to be sacked, after it was found Thompson and Clark spied on claimants who were organising information evenings, reports Radio NZ. During those meetings, a spy covertly recorded proceedings “without the consent or knowledge of attendees.” Minister Megan Woods was ominously warning last night that she’d be having a “conversation” with Mr Butler. He resigned shortly afterwards.

The police have also been conducting their own inquiry into ties with Thompson and Clark. Stuff reports that inquiry found officers passed information on to Thompson and Clark, and some officers were even moonlighting for private security firms. But as deputy commissioner Mike Clements says, police and ‘external security consultants’ interact on a near-daily basis. He says the review found no evidence of corruption.

The State Services Commission inquiry also uncovered more political spying on behalf of MBIE, reports Stuff. That included surveillance involving the activities of the Green Party, the Mana Party, and other groups opposed to offshore oil exploration. Then Green co-leader, and now boss of Greenpeace Russel Norman, told Radio NZ that it showed the previous government was “willing to work with Thompson and Clark to put you under surveillance, simply because you opposed government policy.” He said on Newstalk ZB this morning that one of the most corrosive elements of this was around the paid informants that were used, which undermines activist groups by destroying the trust they can have in each other.

Russel Norman said MBIE “took the side of the oil industry” over all others. He also pointed the finger at Simon Bridges, who was the relevant minister at the time of the spying – Mr Bridges denied giving any directives or having any knowledge of the activities.

Thompson and Clark are now off the books for government procurement, but in some ways that’s not the point. That’s outlined in this searing opinion piece from Stuff’s Andrea Vance, who has been following this story. “Officials became drunk on the power of the information offered up by security firms like Thompson & Clark. It allowed them to keep tabs on their critics and stave off any reputational damage.”

That’s the rub of why this matter so much. Just to put it very bluntly again – government agencies contracted a security firm which spied on private citizens. That should give every person who values privacy and the right to undertake political activities the shivers. A wide range of civil society groups have lined up to condemn this spying, as well they should. After all, if it was allowed to continue, how could they be sure they wouldn’t be next?


The immigration minister Iain Lees-Galloway has gone to Ashburton to announce proposals for regional skills shortages lists, reports Stuff. Many seasonal and regional industries rely heavily on the migrant workforce for staff, and the issue in Ashburton is particularly acute. He also pointed to more protections for those migrant workers, who as we talked about yesterday are particularly vulnerable to exploitative employers. The proposals have been warmly welcomed by groups representing employers, like Horticulture NZ and Dairy NZ, reports The Country.


Speaking of Iain Lees-Galloway, there’s more going on in the Karel Sroubek saga. Stuff have reported on a recording of a phone conversation between Mr Sroubek and his estranged ex-wife, who wrote a letter of support that was heavily cited in the minister’s decision to grant Mr Sroubek residency. But the recording includes “suggested threats” made by Mr Sroubek, to convince her to write that letter. That was the new evidence that made Mr Lees-Galloway reassess his original decision. The government says measures have been taken to ensure the woman’s safety.


Confirmation that the referendum on marijuana legalisation for recreational use will happen at the 2020 election, and it will be binding. Justice minister Andrew Little says there are still some details to be worked out, reports Stuff, but is firm on it being binding. The Greens are understood to be pushing for a bill to be put forward and passed, with the referendum being about then triggering that bill, so that people know what they’re voting for. National leader Simon Bridges also backs the referendum being binding, and told Radio NZ he’d be voting against legalisation.


Bank closures have been one of those issues that have rumbled away in smaller towns over this year. Now Labour MP Kieran McAnulty is proposing a bill that would make it more difficult for banks to close, reports Newstalk ZB. Under his bill the Reserve Bank would have to agree with closures before they could go ahead – though he was clear that if a bank’s position in a town was truly unviable he wouldn’t stand in their way.


Expect everyone to switch their positions on whether or not business confidence matters. Interest reports that it’s gone up sharply, after being in the doldrums for much of the year. However, the headline figure remains in the red, while the ‘own activity’ outlook is slightly above the halfway mark.


Love him or loathe him, National MP Chris Finlayson has left the building. The polarising but popular MP has made his valedictory speech, of which you can watch a video here. He made some very interesting personal observations about the way parliament and politics should work, including for example around the 16 minute mark, a call for a complete ban on non citizens and residents from donating to political parties.


An important update to the strangest education story of the year: Education minister Chris Hipkins has blocked a bid by Victoria University to change its name to University of Wellington, reports Radio NZ. Mr Hipkins said the university failed to adequately canvass views on the matter, and noted that the vast majority of the correspondence he received was against the change. But the university has indicated they’re considering legal action against the decision.


Some good news for those Aucklanders planning on having an after work belter this Friday. The NZ Herald reports that Auckland Transport will be making trains and buses free after 4pm, to encourage people to, well, not drive drunk basically. The last Friday before Christmas is regularly one of the worst days for that of the year. I mean, you probably shouldn’t need a carrot to stop you risking your life like that, but if you do, there it is.


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Right now on The Spinoff: Kera Sherwood-O’Regan reports from the recent climate talks, which gutted references to human rights in agreement texts. Jenesa Jeram argues that the superannuation system is entirely affordable for decades to come, but it needs to change. The Dietary Requirements podcast is wrapping up the year with a jaunt to the countryside.

And a very special one – there’s a Christmas special episode of Get It To Te Papa. Can Hayden save Santa’s winking eye? Should Hayden save Santa’s winking eye? Watch and see for yourself.


Best Journalism of 2018: So far in this series I think it’s pretty much all been other organisations highlighted, but today’s nomination is someone who’s very much part of The Spinoff. Cam has sent this in: “I think we should recognise the work that Toby Morris does. He portrays things in such a simple, understandable way. The use of visuals makes it easily consumable and engaging.”

And it’s a really interesting suggestion in my opinion, because it’s hard to categorise exactly what Toby Morris’s work is. Is he a cartoonist? A journalist? A columnist who uses pictures? Even a satirist at times? All of the above?

But the other thing to note is that he’s on the leading edge of a really interesting set of changes going on in the world of – I still dunno what to call it – news drawing? That’s unpacked in this excellent feature by the NZ Herald’s Greg Bruce over the weekend, which talked to a couple of other people working in this space. And I think we’re living in a really exciting time for this as an art form/journalistic medium. So thank you Cam for the suggestion, and more than happy to give it a shout out.


Manchester United have sacked their manager Jose Mourinho, bringing the curtain down on one of the more troubled eras at the storied club. The BBC reports he spent $400 million on new players, and yet still the club finds itself 19 points behind Liverpool, who are in first place in the Premier League. Despite his incredibly high reputation, Jose Mourinho completely failed to win the titles that matter for United, though he did oversee victories in the League Cup and Europa League. A caretaker manager is expected to be appointed soon.

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And in the cricket, two Sri Lankan batsmen have shown astonishing grit to bat out the entire 4th day against the Black Caps. Angelo Mathews will continue on 117, and Kusal Mendis will continue on 116. That is, they’ll continue if the weather is good enough in Wellington – Metservice has some nasty rain coming, particularly over the afternoon.


From our partners at Vector: The pros and cons of putting solar panels on the roof of your home are well debated. But what about the empty rooftop spaces on commercial buildings throughout our country? PowerSmart’s Sam Vivian explains why more New Zealand businesses are adding commercial solar systems to their buildings.


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