Good morning, and welcome back to The Bulletin for 2020. In today’s edition: A collection of news stories you probably wisely ignored over the last month.
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To start off today, a strange update on a story that started last year. There was an edition of The Bulletin that covered National leader Simon Bridges’ trip to China, in which he met with senior government official Guo Shengkun (who runs China’s secret police) and gave an interview to Chinese state TV. The update was reported by Stuff’s Harrison Christian, who found that the trip wasn’t organised by MFAT (though they it was subsequently revealed that they had some awareness of the trip) and rather that it was entirely arranged by National MP Jian Yang, who in a former career trained Chinese spies.
The weirdness of the story comes mostly from the fact that it breaks established conventions on diplomacy. Bridges of course has every right to travel wherever and meet whoever he wants. But as this follow up story reported, former PM Helen Clark said “when I was NZ Leader of Opposition, provision was made for an annual overseas mission, always organised through [the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade], one assumes because of the potential for impact on NZ foreign relations.” The danger of such a trip is that it raises the perception of the National Party conducting parallel or competing diplomatic efforts to the government, with the government of another country.
The role of New Zealand’s soldiers in Iraq has been a constant concern, since brief hostilities between the USA and Iran. The story has been developing over several weeks, but in general terms, they will be staying until the end of their scheduled deployment. The latest comes from Radio NZ, who have covered the responses of various parties to the decision – most parties are in favour of seeing the deployment out, with the Greens the sole party in parliament in favour of withdrawing now. No injuries among NZDF personnel have been reported. Meanwhile, the NZ Herald (paywalled) reports the Defence Force is under pressure to find financial savings wherever possible.
Public transport fares in Auckland are set to rise, and advocates aren’t happy about it, reports Newshub. The Public Transport Users Association says they want central government to step in to make more money available to cover Auckland Transport’s shortfall, which has led to the rise being needed. It is the first story in a year that is likely to be dominated with transport stories. The NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Simon Wilson has looked at the respective plans of the two major parties heading into election year, and argued that both plans seem like attempts to not get punished by voters.
Many people right now are saying Wellington’s rental market is broken – well, it’s working pretty well for landlords. Supply is extremely tight, and there have been many stories (covered here) about how much prices are rising, and how difficult it is for renters to find new places. A fascinating development on it all was announced earlier this month, and reported on by One News. The Council will partner with a developer, to provide affordable apartments specifically targeted at key workers like teachers and nurses.
Meanwhile, Stuff reports the social housing waiting list is at yet another new high. And in response, Newsroom reports the government has quietly but significantly raised the debt limit for Kainga Ora – their social housing agency – so that it may build several thousand more state houses on top of the 6,400 already planned.
Also in Wellington, the sewage pipe problem that began near the end of last year continues. Part of Willis St will be closed until March or later while necessary repairs are identified and made, and overflow into the harbour caused spikes in dangerous bacteria levels. The latest story on this all comes from Stuff, who report bacteria levels at Ōwhiro Bay are many times higher than what would be safe to swim in.
Every year, there are summer stories about something going down at a rodeo, but normally they’re mainly focused on animal rights. This year’s have included an incident in Wānaka, involving an apparent neo-Nazi saluting and shouting abuse towards protesters, reports the Wānaka Sun. They followed up by publishing a letter from the event’s organisers, and responded in turn.
Religious education in state schools will soon require explicit parental permission, reports the NZ Herald (paywalled.) It would mark a change from the existing, opt-out system. This isn’t always a topic that gets a lot of attention, but has really rumbled away for years now, and a case is likely to be heard in the High Court later this year which could set down a real marker on the future of religious education in state schools.
Staying with schools, the first big argument around climate change of the year has focused on a teaching resource on the subject. The non-compulsory resource encourages students to consider eating less meat, and consider other ways they can turn climate-anxiety into action. Farmers groups are furious about it, contending that facts in the resource are wrong, and Federated Farmers have launched a petition, reports Stuff. An alternative perspective comes from Gordon Campbell at Scoop, who argues that it would be bizarre for the classroom to ignore an issue that will be hugely influential on the lives of kids. One thing seems ominously likely – it looks like we’re going to have another year of climate change politics that focuses obsessively on symbols and messaging, rather than how to actually cut emissions.
It was pretty bloody warm in 2019. Radio NZ reports that several places around the country experienced their hottest year on record, in part because of marine heatwaves. That in turn is having a serious impact on marine life. Exacerbating it all is climate change, which according to scientist Dr Jim Salinger means in future further temperature records are likely to be broken. Meanwhile, central Otago and Northland in particular are very dry right now, and a moderate forest fire took place earlier in January north of Napier.
And finally for this section, The Spinoff’s absolute must-read piece of the summer is David Farrier’s triumphant return to the story of Zach, a medical AI system that seemed a bit too good to be true. The father and son team behind it have been savaged in a report from Internal Affairs, even though a DIA investigator appears to have been rather sucked in by the claims of the Terrible New Zealand Charitable Trust. It’s full of increasingly bizarre details about the inner workings of Terrible, including, for example, a side-business carbon offsetting scheme that consisted of growing strawberries at the office.
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Right now on The Spinoff: There was a lot published over the summer, so the following is a huge list of a whole lot of things you might want to read. It’s also incomplete – over the next few days, there will be a few more summer pieces mixed in with our latest stories.
In politics: Joe Nunweek looks askance at the Australians who want the Queen to fire their PM Scott Morrison. Rosemary Williamson contrasts Morrison’s reaction with that of PM Ardern when tragedies have happened during her tenure. A group of us pick the issues to watch for the election. Danyl Mclauchlan pleads for politics-watchers to devote far less energy to worrying about the USA. I profile lawyer Sue Grey, who has taken over the co-leadership of The Outdoors Party. And Toby Manhire has put his cards on the table, nailing down exactly when the election is most likely to be held.
In business and food: Maria Slade writes about a Wellington-made sunscreen startup who wants to stop the damage done by many sunscreens to ocean life. Terry Baucher writes about tax avoidance, and why he feels he has no choice but to boycott Uber. Business is Boring speaks to the brewers behind Urbanaut. I look into why the prices of limes (citrus, not scooters) spiked so alarmingly. Alice Webb-Liddall writes about co-housing, and how it can increasingly be a solution to property unaffordability. Samuel Scott writes about convenience stores, and how they contain the true essence of travel eating.
And in a collection of great writing with no other unifying theme: Ollie Neas investigates the increasing involvement of New Zealand forces in war games around the militarisation of space. Emily Writes explores the difficult discussions parents have been having with children about the Australian fires.Michael Andrew writes about his internship with a far-flung West Coast newspaper. Madeleine Chapman demolishes criticism of the parenting of tennis star Serena Williams. Nadine Anne Hura writes about the lessons of te ao Māori for those wondering how to respond to climate change. Alex Casey writes the cultural history of the lolly scramble, a venerable and peculiar pastime of New Zealand. Tara Ward pays tribute to the Shortland St Christmas cliffhanger. And Sam Brooks went to FOMO to see Lizzo, but came away with much more.
One of the biggest stories in local sport over December and January has been the astonishing recovery of the Wellington Phoenix. They enjoyed a nine-game unbeaten streak to move right into playoff contention, a run that came to an end in a 1-0 defeat to Brisbane over the weekend. You might recall last year some idiot wrote a piece called ‘See the Wellington Phoenix now, because this magic won’t last’ – well, look at them go.
And it has been a dream summer for cricketer Sophie Devine, who has been in rampant form across both the Australian and New Zealand domestic summer. Already in January she’s scored two domestic centuries, and in December was named the WBBL Player of the Tournament. A rapid half-century in a rain shortened game delivered victory for Devine’s Wellington Blaze yesterday, in the final of the T20 Super Smash competition. The achievements were capped off by the announcement that Devine will take over the White Ferns captaincy, with her first major test the Women’s T20 World Cup in February.
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