Calls for inquiry into foreign influence

As the Simon Bridges donation saga rages on, Kiwis are calling for an inquiry into foreign influence in New Zealand politics.

The petition, which has about 50 signatures, was lodged with Parliament earlier this month.

The petition’s Auckland-based author Freeman Yu is a pro-democracy groups member of Auckland’s Chinese community. After moving to New Zealand two years ago, Yu said he experienced the influence of the Chinese Government in New Zealand's Chinese community.

Yu is calling for a Parliamentary inquiry into foreign influence in New Zealand politics, including whether any laws could be passed to protect the country’s laws and electoral system.

"As far as I can judge, New Zealand has to do something to stop the inappropriate influence of the Chinese Government, like the US and Australia have done."

The Chinese community in New Zealand was scared to speak out against China's Government, or discuss issues like human rights, he said.

It comes at a time when more questions around China’s soft power, and the level of foreign influence upon New Zealand’s political system, are being asked.

Ousted National MP Jami-Lee Ross has accused party leader Simon Bridges of splitting up a $100,000 donation from wealthy businessman Zhang Yikun, in order to hide Zhang’s identity.

Bridges denies having broken any electoral return laws.

In an audio recording of a private conversation between Ross and Bridges, the pair discuss a donation, as well as advancing Zhang’s business partner and trusted interpreter Colin Zheng (Zheng Shijia) through National’s candidate’s college.

The pair then go on to discuss the value of Chinese MPs, versus Indian or Filipino MPs.

Last year, Newsroom and the Financial Times revealed National MP Jian Yang had taught at a school for Chinese spies, before moving to New Zealand.

At the time, now-Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said the issue needed further investigating.

But so far that investigation had not come in the form of government action, despite Peters earlier this month telling US radio network NPR: “At that level of growing public interest — and I would think intelligence interest as well — plus the shared intelligence from our closer allies, one would be naive in thinking that our response would not be forthcoming."

On Thursday, Peters said it was clear from the tapes the National Party had a “cash-for-candidates scheme”.

This is something that’s been strongly denied by Bridges and other members of the National Party.

But Peters said he did not believe it was up to the Government to take action to investigate the level of foreign influence in New Zealand’s political system.

“It’s for the system to do that, rather than sit there in silence and do nothing.”

Peters welcomed questions being asked about the scope of the problem but said at this stage he believed the issues were only present in the National Party.

“So, let’s hope it’s cauterised there.”

Peters said New Zealand First had never accepted cash in exchange for candidates, and the coalition Government had a clear attitude about foreign influence.

“With respect to New Zealand First’s foreign policy and its commercial policy, this new Government has demonstrated it’s not in the throes of external influence in any way shape or form.”

The United States and Australia have been wary of what they’ve increasingly referred to as foreign interference in their political systems but so far New Zealand politicians have not expressed the same level of concern.

Earlier this year, a report called China and the age of strategic rivalry, said "New Zealand provides a vivid case study of China's willingness to use economic ties to interfere with the political life of a partner country".

It refers to new Zealand as a “soft underbelly” for China's efforts to infiltrate the Five Eyes international security and intelligence network.

At the time, Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand was vigilant against any interference intended to harm the country's values, institutions and economy, adding that New Zealand regularly reviewed whether its policy settings were fit for purpose.

In the past, there had been changes to protect New Zealand's interests, and the national security system identified and managed risks of national significance.

"The existing protections we have in place include criminal law relating to some interference activities, electoral law and organisations' internal systems to protect against corruption and espionage.

"As I've said before, we're always looking to ensure that these tools protect New Zealand's economy and democracy.”

It seems Peters is the only current MP who has explicitly stated his concerns about the issues. However, those within the political sphere have begun to voice their unease at the way in which the system allows donors' names to remain hidden, and the potential implication that has when it comes to buying influence.

On Thursday, former Green MP Barry Coates tweeted, “we are allowing NZ politics to go down the route of the US and other countries where politics becomes a contest of who can offer access and influence in order to secure the funding”.

He said the saga should be a catalyst to clean up political funding.

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