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

The BulletinNovember 20, 2019

The Bulletin: Pressure mounts on NZ First, wider government

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: Pressure mounts over NZ First Foundation, range of changes made to overseas investment office, and accusations of bottom trawling destroying coral.

The allegations swirling around the NZ First Foundation are serious enough to warrant going back to again today. Party leader Winston Peters has angrily denied any wrongdoing, both to media, and in a short statement that includes the line “I am confident that New Zealand First has operated within electoral laws, now and for the last 27 years. Declarable donations were declared to the Electoral Commission.”  But now the Electoral Commission is looking into the matter, and huge new questions are tumbling out of the story.

What were the allegations? There are two key stories that made the public aware of the NZ First Foundation. The first came from Radio NZ’s Guyon Espiner, discussing loans being made to the party, and outlining how the foundation operated. Then Stuff’s Matt Shand reported much more detail around the foundation yesterday, with an explanation of the two possible scenarios in which electoral law might have been breached. His updated reporting today provided more detail about what money from the foundation had been used for, which could be considered party expenses, and if so would therefore be a breach of electoral law.

The other matter – who was giving money to the NZ First Foundation? That hasn’t been revealed, but Shand’s story included the line “donors to the foundation are primary industry leaders, wealthy investors and multi-millionaires.” It becomes very dangerous at this stage to speculate too much, but if there was a demonstrable link between foundation donors and policy outcomes, that would be extremely serious.

Winston Peters continues to argue that no laws have been broken. There is still every chance he will be proven right. But as this piece from electoral law expert Andrew Geddis masterfully argues, that in and of itself represents a huge problem, because it would mean that our political donation laws are fundamentally broken. I wouldn’t normally quote at this much length, but this is important – he writes:

“Let’s pause and look big picture. We have a political party that is a keystone of the current government. Its members are ministers, with responsibility for (among other things) distributing $3 billion in government largesse around the country’s provinces.

And now we are told that a legally-opaque Foundation intimately connected to the party has raised hundreds-of-thousands of dollars from “primary industry leaders, wealthy investors and multi-millionaires”. That foundation allegedly has used the money for the benefit of the party and its MPs. And no-one outside of the party and those that gave the money are made any the wiser.

If this is legal, then there’s no way that it should be.”

For the PM herself, there was a microcosm moment of the risks to her personally in all of this, in her interview with Newshub’s AM Show yesterday morning. She was asked about Peters calling a journalist asking a question a “psycho”. We’ll leave aside the fact that the journalist in question was merely doing their job. The PM said it wasn’t language she would have used, and that’s not how she conducts herself. But she also didn’t condemn it. The response provided both a degree of distance from the comments, and also tacitly signalled that there would be no censure from Ardern for them being made.

But extrapolated out, that’s not really a politically tenable position about any of this stuff long-term. The Labour party and NZ First are a coalition government, and the continuation of that government is effectively an endorsement of each party towards the other. Ministers from both parties share collective cabinet responsibility. Nobody is going to blow up a coalition over comments about journalists, but really, this whole thing could develop a lot further. Could the PM continue to walk a line of neither supporting nor condemning her coalition partner? This piece by Danyl Mclauchlan on it all is must read, and makes the point forcefully – there is a serious risk for the Ardern government that it could be dragged down by this in the same way Helen Clark’s administration was.

Changes will be made to the Overseas Investment Office, with a ‘national interest test’ on infrastructure sales at various levels depending on where the purchaser is based. The NZ Herald’s Hamish Rutherford has a good wrap of how the changes would be applied, and how they’d differ from the current system. Other journalists have pulled out some interesting angles from minister David Parker’s announcement. Anna Whyte from One News has reported on a new hoop for water bottlers – a constantly contentious issue. And Pattrick Smellie at Business Desk (paywalled) reports that the country’s spy agencies were particularly keen on the changes around investment in “military and other national security assets, and privately-owned news media.”

Greenpeace is accusing the fishing industry of destroying thousands of tonnes worth of coral every year, reports Stuff. That’s because of bottom trawling, which results in damage to ecosystems far beyond what actually gets brought up in nets. The environmental group is also accusing the government of being beholden to fishing interests, because they haven’t put a ban on bottom trawling in place, as had been called for in a petition signed by tens of thousands of people.

The costs and risks imposed on farming has been a topic I’ve become increasingly fascinated by over the past few years. And this piece, from Interest’s Jenée Tibshraeny, is an absolute must read about it all. It takes various government policies that have sparked revolts in the regions, and applies a wider context to the situation so the claims being made can be tested. It’s that context which often gets missed in day to day coverage of issues, so it’d be worth keeping this page bookmarked to come back to.

StuffMe is back. The media merger that couldn’t get over the line last time around has returned, with NZME confirming they are interested in purchasing Stuff, which is currently reluctantly owned by Australian TV network Nine. Interestingly, the story was first reported by Stuff, which included discussion of a ‘Kiwishare’ model, in order to ring-fence and protect Stuff’s editorial assets, thus potentially getting around the Commerce Commission’s objection around media plurality.

This is a piece worth reading about the emissions generated by the country’s vehicle fleet, from Newsroom contributor Pat Baskett. It argues that with increasing numbers of petrol and diesel cars being imported, cities should sidestep central government policy and instead start setting their own rules on what sort of cars can be driven when and where. Other cities have done this, and it works to bring down emissions and urban pollution.

Otago households could face power price rises into the hundreds of dollars, reports the ODT. It’s partly because Aurora (the local lines company) has a lot of ageing infrastructure to fix, to the tune of $400 million over three years. Aurora boss Dr Richard Fletcher says unfortunately that maintenance needs to happen to correct previous under-investment, though acknowledges many customers will find it hard to manage.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Tim Maurice of the Asylum Seekers Support Trust warns that the warm welcome for Behrouz Boochani isn’t how most asylum seekers are received in NZ. Emma McInnes and Amanda Gilmore write about solutions for making cities safer for women at night, without blaming women for the dangers they face. Alice Webb-Liddall updates the latest around Ihumātao. Sam Brooks has a rundown of the new mega-sized streaming service Disney+, and what on it is worth watching. And I took that general knowledge test that went viral yesterday morning, and then meditated a bit on intelligence.

Many of my favourite writers are those who aren’t actually full-time writers at all – they’re primarily sector experts who can also turn a phrase. So it is with community and housing lawyer Joe Nunweek, who has penned an excellent piece for Metro analysing the government’s recently announced tenancy reforms. It’s sharp, direct and detailed. Here’s an excerpt:

But none of this is worth much if your tenancy is fundamentally at risk. No reason notices to vacate a property have persisted in our rental laws even as we’ve fought to largely eliminate them from the employment relationship, and secured households from a hard cutoff of utilities without safeguards. Shelter, energy and livelihoods matter if we are to survive, and shouldn’t be taken from us abruptly.

In removing the no reason notices, the government is doing away with an arbitrary form of eviction that plenty of us have fretted about in the abstract, but that fell most oppressively on the most vulnerable – people with mental illness who might use the wrong tone with their landlords, people who asked for their rights and lacked the capacity or education to fight a retaliatory letter to move on. They’re a form of structural violence, and I humbly suggest mouthpieces who claim they’re never used inappropriately are liars, sadists, or some combo thereof.

In sport today, this piece about the likely future tactical makeup of NBA rosters is a really interesting read. From The Ringer, it concerns rebounding, and how there is increasingly a place for a key rebounder in an unconventional position. But more than that, it’s a deep dive into the way that the very way sports are played can change year to year, based on teams finding ‘market inefficiencies’ – undervalued talents who when used effectively can have an outsize influence.

Finally, the All Blacks coach recruitment process is all getting a bit farcical. Gregor Paul at the NZ Herald (paywalled) has a good column on it all, lamenting the fact that with it being left so late, many of the best (and NZ born) coaches in the world have ended up ruling themselves out. Paul’s theory is that NZ Rugby vastly overestimated the lure of coaching the All Blacks, and as a result left their own process far too late in the cycle.

That’s it for The Bulletin. If you want to support the work we do at The Spinoff, please check out our membership programme.

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