Week in Review

Huo steps down as inquiry chair to avoid conflict claims

Labour MP Raymond Huo will step aside as chair of the Justice Select Committee while its members consider the issue of foreign interference, due to a perceived conflict of interest.

China-born Huo said it was his “personal preference” to recuse himself from the committee while it deals with business relating to an inquiry into New Zealand elections and foreign interference.

The decision comes after conflict between National and Labour over the committee’s initial decision last month to deny a request by University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady to be heard on the issue of Chinese interference.

Committee says no to China professor 

In March, National’s Nick Smith accused Huo and other Labour committee members of blocking Brady from submitting.

The committee initially told Brady she would not be able to submit on its inquiry into the 2017 general election and 2016 local body elections, which had been recently widened to canvas potential foreign interference in New Zealand’s elections.

The committee’s four Labour MPs voted against hearing Brady; the four National MPs voted in favour. Huo - who has featured in Brady's writing on Chinese influence on New Zealand politics - made the final decision.

At the time, Smith said Brady was being unreasonably blocked, and should be allowed to submit given her expertise and body of work on Chinese influence. Huo said the National Party was demonstrating “latent ethnic profiling” by stirring up the controversy.

National MP Nick Smith has been critical of Raymond Huo's decision to turn down a request from Anne-Marie Brady to talk about foreign political interference. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“National’s view is that a committee cannot do an inquiry without having access to people other than government officials,” Smith told Newsroom in March.

"It's an issue the Justice Minister has himself asked us to consider, and it's an appalling look that the Government members are blocking an expert professor from being able to give evidence in Parliament."

After Smith approached media with the story the committee reversed its decision, and extended the submission deadline, allowing for Brady and others to file late submissions.

Raymond Huo maintains decision was procedural

Huo has featured in Brady’s research on China’s influence in New Zealand.

Brady’s Magic Weapons paper named Huo as someone who "works very closely with PRC representatives in New Zealand” and had connections to the United Front, a Chinese government department that promotes the CCP's values at home and with the Chinese diaspora.

The implication by National was Huo did not want Brady to submit to the committee due to this connection. However, Huo has always maintained the decision was procedural.

Submissions had already closed when members received Brady’s request, and the committee seldom accepted late submissions – “no matter how important the professor, or anyone else, is we do have a process to follow”, he said.

When the committee heard from the New Zealand Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) earlier this month on foreign interference, Huo was not present.

At the time, he told Newsroom he was travelling, and had been granted leave for the day. It’s since become clear he asked to be excused that day due to the perceptions and controversy.

"My challenge to him is that should I not be a Chinese-born MP who happens to chair the Justice Committee would he be successful in setting the theme, which is an easy story to regurgitate?"

National’s Maggie Barry sat in as chair, and independent MP Jami-Lee Ross was assigned by Labour chief whip Ruth Dyson to replace Huo for the hearing. It's understood Barry will continue as chair for the remainder of the election inquiry.

Ross used his seat on the committee that day to continue his attack against National leader Simon Bridges, asking the spy bosses questions in keeping with the issue of alleged attempts by Chinese interests to both make donations and gain candidate selections for National.

Dyson said she had planned to fill Huo's spot that day as she was on voting duty. But Ross approached her, asking to take the spot, citing his interest in the topic of foreign donations.

Dyson said Ross had a valid interest, and as part of the democratic process she would consider requests from anyone with a genuine stake in the issue.

Perceptions too distracting to continue

Huo said he now planned to recuse himself from the position of chair, and from the committee, while it finishes dealing with the issue of foreign interference.

He was yet to have a thorough discussion with colleagues, he said. This is expected to take place on Thursday when the committee is due to meet.

Barry referred questions to Huo, only saying she hoped the issue would be on the agenda for the committee’s meeting on Thursday.

When asked about his decision, Huo reiterated he and the committee’s Labour members had always voted based on procedure, not bias or self-interest.

“But from those headlines one can see that nobody is interested in the truth,” he said.

“Instead almost all headlines followed Dr Smith, who successfully blew the matter out of proportion by resorting to some latent ethnic profiling…

“My challenge to him is that should I not be a Chinese-born MP who happens to chair the Justice Committee would he be successful in setting the theme, which is an easy story to regurgitate?

“I have been at pains in pointing out that we didn’t try to block anyone from making a (late) submission, we only voted procedurally as the only way to allow late submissions is to reopen the submissions and/or update the terms of reference, which the Justice Committee has now resolved unanimously."

Huo also accused Smith of trying to shift the attention from Chinese-born National MP Jian Yang onto himself - a Chinese-born Labour MP.

Ahead of the 2017 election, Newsroom revealed Yang taught English to Chinese spies while working at an elite school in mainland China, and was scrutinised by the SIS.

Scrutiny over National MP Jian Yang's past seemed to subside after the focus turned to Labour MP Raymond Huo. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Both MPs are often present at political fundraising events in the Chinese community, but Huo said that was not synonymous with any affiliations with China's United Front, as some suggested.

He said perceptions relating to his “Chinese-ness” were now so entrenched it would be a distraction if he were to continue as chair while the committee continued its election inquiry.

Huo also expressed his frustration at Smith’s decision to breach Standing Orders by leaking the results of the initial, confidential committee vote to reporters. It’s understood MPs decided not to lay a formal complaint with the Speaker.

Submissions for the foreign interference branch of the inquiry closed on Friday, April 26. The committee is expected to consider submissions at its meeting on Thursday, before the submissions became public. Members will also discuss Huo’s recusal.

Brady has not responded to requests for comment, or to confirm whether she did end up making a written submission to the committee.

Dyson said Ross would not attend committee meetings this week as he was away. But she would consider any requests from him to sit on the committee, as a voting member, in the future.

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