Former trade minister Todd McClay (Radio NZ: Claire Eastham-Farrelly)
Former trade minister Todd McClay (Radio NZ: Claire Eastham-Farrelly)

The BulletinAugust 28, 2019

The Bulletin: Foreign interference fears rise around donations

Former trade minister Todd McClay (Radio NZ: Claire Eastham-Farrelly)
Former trade minister Todd McClay (Radio NZ: Claire Eastham-Farrelly)

Good morning, and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Foreign interference fears rise around donations, anti poverty group disgusted at tobacco company approach, and Labour MP Clare Curran to depart in 2020.

The National Party has denied MP Todd McClay facilitated a major party donation while he was the trade minister, reports Radio NZ. The allegation from former party colleague Jami-Lee Ross was in regards to $150k from the Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry NZ Limited, an NZ company which is owned by a Chinese billionaire. McClay said he had met the donor Lang Lin, but no donations were ever discussed while he was in his capacity as trade minister.

As for the donation itself, it had long been on the public record, but there has been a lot of concern around foreign influence regardless. PM Jacinda Ardern says it goes “outside the spirit of the law” – McClay disagreed. Green MP Golriz Ghahraman says it shows the rules need to be overhauled, so that such a donation would be banned. And former PM Helen Clark said on twitter that “‘Money politics’ is a curse the world over. It’s corrosive of the democratic process. In NZ people have long decried it & feasted on whatever compromising information comes to light, but where are the media calls for public funding & tighter donation rules?”

But according to the boss of the NZSIS Rebecca Kitteridge, that wouldn’t necessarily be an effective way of ensuring transparency around donations and foreign influence, reports Newshub. They do want some reforms, but her concern was based on the fact that any sort of sophisticated operation would be able to sidestep a regulatory regime. However, since April Kitteridge has said foreign interference is plausible, though declined to go into any specifics around what was known or suspected.

Fears around Chinese government and business interests undertaking interference have been raised frequently, in large part thanks to the work of academic Anne-Marie Brady – she was quoted in the NZ Herald (paywalled) story that started this recent episode off. But China obviously isn’t the only other country which might have interests in New Zealand domestic politics. And Kitteridge warned activity had been noticed which “spans the political spectrum and occurs at a central and local government level,” so the discussion around the foreign interference concerns shouldn’t just focus on one potential source.

For further reading on it all, the must read piece comes from the NZ Herald’s (paywalled) Claire Trevett. It puts the donation into both a legal and political context, and outlines why changing the rules would be so politically difficult.

An anti-poverty group has rebuffed efforts by Philip Morris to work together on getting low-income people to switch to a ‘smokeless tobacco’ device, reports Guyon Espiner for Radio NZ. Auckland Action Against Poverty were approached twice by the tobacco company, who have also been looking to make inroads with marae and rugby league clubs. AAAP coordinator Ricardo Menendez described the approach as “disingenuous and, quite frankly, disgusting”. Philip Morris insist their product is a less harmful alternative to smoking.

Labour MP and former minister Clare Curran has joined the procession of departures at the 2020 election. The NZ Herald reports she will stay on as the member for Dunedin South until then. PM Jacinda Ardern – who sacked Curran as a minister last year – thanked her for her work around public broadcasting, and her efforts on behalf of her constituents. As for who will take over for Labour in the seat, the ODT reports there will almost certainly be a lot of interest, as it is a fairly safe red seat. However, local party members say they could well be opposed to someone from outside coming in and trying to claim it.

The story of the Shelly Bay development around Wellington has taken another twist. Stuff’s Tom Hunt reports that it relates to a caveat put on a piece of land by an iwi group (Mau Whenua) that was opposed to another iwi group selling it off. But it turns out when the caveat was put in place, a deal had already been done, and now Mau Whenua say they’ve been misled.

Millions of dollars will be needed to fix the foundations of a Christchurch motorway bridge, reports Stuff. The bit of the northern motorway is on extremely soft ground, which had been taken into account – however the foundations have sunk further than expected. At this stage it is not expected that the allocated budget will be exceeded.

Some news from the media world: NZME has reported another big drop in profit and revenue, reports Radio NZ. The media company, which will be most well known for the NZ Herald, Newstalk ZB and various commercial music radio stations, will not pay out a dividend to shareholders as they look to cut debt further. However it’s not all bad news – the NZ Herald itself reports the number of Premium digital subscribers has hit 15,000.

And a big story from one of our biggest neighbours: Indonesia will be moving its capital away from Jakarta, reports AP News. The current capital is literally sinking, as well as being overcrowded and polluted. The new space that has been carved out is on Borneo Island, and it has been billed as a way to spread the wealth of the country further from just Java Island. The East Kalimantan area of Borneo used to be heavily covered in rainforests, but a lot of it has already been heavily deforested.

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Right now on The Spinoff: Tony Burton writes about the misleadingness of unemployment stats, and how they don’t necessarily count the people they need to. Alice Neville picked up some kitchen tricks for making a meal that doesn’t waste a single bit of food. Arts co-editor Megan Dunn explores a new exhibition about the work of Frances Hodgkins, through conversation with designer Karen Walker.

And on the local government beat: Hayden Donnell goes on a long, painful search to try and find a single sitting Auckland councillor who supports John Tamihere’s idea of a rates freeze. And Hayden Donnell again goes into bat for the STV system, and argues why every local election should be using it, not just the handful that currently do.

For a feature today, a many-faceted look into the alcohol industry. Newshub’s Michael Morrah has been running a series this week about various aspects of the country’s alcohol legislation, and the harm being caused. The one I’ve linked is about the varied was in which liquor licenses get issued. Here’s an excerpt.

“Any sane person would look at that and say ‘oh, my God. How can you be a commissioner and make decisions about the issuing of licences on one hand and then represent the applicant on the other?’ That is so wrong,” said Ratu.

The rules state: “A commissioner must not have involvement, or appearance of involvement, with the alcohol industry to the extent that there would be a bias or appearance of bias.”

David Ratu’s complaint to Auckland Council was dismissed. Auckland Regional Public Health had also complained about Katia Fraser.

Then when Newshub started asking questions, the situation suddenly changed.

In sport, we relived the Cricket World Cup final with someone who was right there in the middle. Black Caps allrounder Jimmy Neesham came on for a bonus episode of The Offspin, and told us about the process of recovering from such a brutal finish. If you’re ready to think about that whole thing again, I reckon it’s a really good way through it, and my word he was an interesting person to talk to. Simon Day has also done an excellent job of writing the episode up, so there’s something good to read there too.

From our partners: With several high profile government objectives in the spotlight, a single ministry could drive better outcomes across them all. Robyn Holdaway, senior policy advisor at Vector, makes the case for a Ministry for Energy.

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