PM Jacinda Ardern and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at ASEAN (Getty Images)

The Bulletin: China conundrum for government amid outcry

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Open letter on China aimed at government, no new taxes if Simon Bridges is elected to government, and three issues could be on the ballot in 2020.

The government has been called on to protect academic freedom, and the personal safety of academic Anne-Marie Brady, reports the NZ Herald. It came in the form of an open letter with signatories from across academia and civil society. What might both of those need protecting from? Allegedly, the Chinese government.

Professor Brady’s house and office have been burgled in suspicious circumstances, and her car has been dangerously tampered with, since she started speaking out about Chinese influence campaigns around the world and in NZ. And academic and political freedom largely doesn’t exist in China, and certainly not in the same way it does here, reports Foreign Policy. The country is also largely moving towards more repressive policies under President Xi.

The PM said yesterday that she’d “absolutely” defend academic freedom, and is still awaiting a police report into the burglaries, reports the NZ Herald. But she also said she hasn’t received any information or proof confirming Professor Brady’s suspicions, reports Radio NZ. And all the while, a request from the NZ Herald for a substantive interview with PM Ardern about the government’s China policy remains unfulfilled.

Why does that matter? Because this all comes at an extremely delicate time for NZ-China relationships. We’ve become something of the meat in the sandwich between China and the USA, in a trade and diplomatic conflict which in fairness has largely recently been driven by US aggression on both fronts. But China’s neighbours are also wary of China’s plans – witness, for example, the Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad expressing substantive concerns about China when meeting PM Ardern, while media were still in the room to hear them. New Zealand politicians have talked about being a “bridge” between the USA and China, but such a suggestion is fanciful, reckons security analyst Paul Buchanan. We’ll have to choose one or the other, sooner or later.

Then there’s the direct relationship between NZ and China, in which it appears something is going on behind the scenes, but it is unknown what it is. PM Ardern was meant to meet Chinese President Xi this year, and open a massive new embassy in Beijing, but as Politik reports, that’s now not going to happen any time soon, and it’s not clear when it will. Apparently, it’s all just a scheduling issue. But this from Politik is how we know for sure that the NZ government expected the visit to go ahead: “The Prime Minister’s office had even suggested the Press Gallery shift the date of their annual Christmas Party to account for the potential absence of a number of journalists.”

Is this all a bit hysterical? Former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr – who is now head of an independent think tank on Australian-Chinese relations – had things to say on the matter on Q+A on Sunday night. He warned both Australia and New Zealand to avoid panic about China, and accept that they’re a rising power. But what that means in practice if the relationship between the US and China further deteriorates remains to be seen.

National leader Simon Bridges has promised no new taxes if his party takes government after the next election, reports Stuff. In particular, he’s criticised measures made by the government in housing, which he says have raised rents by raising costs on landlords. Mr Bridges also promised to remove various new taxes, and perhaps counterintuitively promised to spend more in health, education and transport, paid for out of different spending priorities.

We could end up getting three referendums (referenda?) for the price of one at the 2020 election, reports Newshub. Not only will some form of cannabis legalisation and euthanasia law reform be on the ballot, but there has been a strong signal that changes to MMP will also be put to the public.

Justice minister Andrew Little basically said that we may as well look at the reforms suggested by an Electoral Commission review in 2012, and then shelved by the previous government. Those were that the 5% threshold be lowered, and that the coat-tailing rule for extra MPs be abolished. As yet though, nothing on any of the issues is set in stone, so how the details get worked out remains to be seen.

(An earlier version of this incorrectly said abortion law reform was on the table for a referendum. That has now been corrected)

Northland is gearing up for an emergency meningococcal vaccination programme, after the death of three people, reports the Northern Advocate. A mother who lost her daughter in the outbreak is urging her fellow Northlanders to take it seriously, and get their kids vaccinated. There is a relatively high proportion of unvaccinated Northlanders – some by choice – which dramatically increases the danger of an outbreak.

Short-term lender Superloans is under attack on the front page of the Dominion Post this morning. The Commerce Commission is launching an investigation after a slew of complaints into the lender, who have been accused of both specific illegalities, and also of charging extreme and exorbitant interest. Stuff says Superloans declined to comment when contacted.

People in South Canterbury are being urged to go easy in the water, because so much of it has fallen from the sky, reports the Timaru Herald. A boil water notice is on the Downlands and Te Moana schemes, and it is suggested that those on the scheme temporarily shut them off if they’ve got enough water stored. The Waimate District Council are doing various civil defence updates here, so if you’re in the area, keep checking for more.

Housing minister Phil Twyford has turned down proposed legislation from National on apartment management, reports Interest. It had been something National MPs Nikki Kaye and Judith Collins had worked on while in government, but didn’t have time to get through. Mr Twyford now says it’s well down the priority list, and in his view the National bill needs big changes.

A big welcome back to work for Green MP and government minister Julie Anne Genter, who has been on maternity leave. She told the NZ Herald that being a new mum has been the toughest job she’s ever had, so her various portfolios should be a breeze now. Befitting her brand as a constant cyclist, her first public event was announcing new initiatives to get kids into biking.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Justice minister Andrew Little responds to yesterday’s story about the government not taking the power of facebook seriously – that story comes from Toby Manhire. We’ve published an open letter from many members of the Wellington LGBT community, who back the ban on police uniforms at Pride parades. And Madeleine Chapman and Don Rowe go toe to toe over when and where its all good to be in bare feet in public.

You’ve probably never heard or thought about the sport of competitive ploughing in your entire life. There’s no judgement there – neither have I. But the Guardian have published a long and involved feature on this field, which has somehow existed in plain sight for years. Rather than an excerpt, here’s the opening paragraph, because with something like this you really need to start at the beginning:

On 31 August, the night before the first day of the World Ploughing Championship, the bar of the Hotel Fortuna in the small German town of Reutlingen was crammed with the global ploughing elite. The scene resembled a low-key United Nations afterparty – Swiss, Kenyans, Australians, Latvians, Canadians and French, all slugging back long glasses of German beer. The top flight of international ploughing is a limited pool, the same faces recurring every year, and so the atmosphere was jovial, like a school reunion, 50-odd ploughmen and two ploughwomen (the sport has historically been dominated by men) hailing each other affectionately across the room. Much of the talk concerned the wild boar who had apparently dug up the field where the following day’s competition would take place. But there was something else in the air too, a bonhomie edged with rivalry. They were here to win.

Michaela Blyde has been the sole New Zealander to pick up a major gong at the World Rugby Awards, reports Radio NZ. She was named Sevens Player of the Year, in a season that included a Commonwealth Games gold, a World Cup win, and a casual 37 World Series tries. Brodie Retallick won try of the year, after selling some serious candy in this effort against the Wallabies.

And in shock coach news, Irish coach Joe Schmidt says he won’t go for the All Blacks job after the 2019 World Cup, reports Radio NZ. Why is that such a big deal? Because all this year he has been seen as an extremely strong candidate for the job if NZ Rugby decide they want new blood. Steve Hansen, after all, worked under Graham Henry during the latter’s tenure. It’s also not clear if Mr Hansen will actually step away after the tournament, but a decision on that should come before the end of the year.

Shaun Johnson appears to have made peace with his impending exit from the WarriorsOne News reports that he’s posting on facebook about getting to “spread his wings” when he comes off contract at the end of 2019. The Raiders were maybe interested a few weeks ago, but have now pulled back.

Finally, don’t check the score in the test cricket. Just, don’t do it to yourself. Have a happy day instead. Don’t let the Black Caps ruin your mood.

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