Government

Experts fume over foreign interference ‘shambles’

The drama surrounding the Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference continues, with a raft of scheduling errors described by expert submitters as “a shambles”.

The investigation is an extension of the committee’s inquiry into the 2017 general election and 2016 local body elections.

The inquiry has been plagued by controversy since it became clear the scope had been broadened to include issues surrounding hacking by foreign powers and foreign political donations, at the request of Justice Minister Andrew Little.

In March, the committee denied a request by University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady to be heard on the issue of Chinese interference.

National suggested the decision was made by the committee’s chair Raymond Huo, because he featured in Brady’s paper on China’s influence in New Zealand, Magic Weapons, which alleged Huo has ties to China's Communist Party. 

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady questioned the scheduling issues surrounding the inquiry. Photo: Supplied

Huo has always maintained the decision was procedural.

He said 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”.

That decision was reversed, and the committee extended the submission timeframe. It received 40 further submissions, 20 from submitters requesting to be heard in person.

Then last month, when it became clear the perception issue was not going away, Chinese-born Huo recused himself from the committee for the remainder of the inquiry.

He said the perceived conflict of interest stemmed from his ethnicity, and accused those who questioned his impartiality as focusing on race. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Huo did not have a conflict of interest but he had made the decision to recuse himself.

Scheduling issues raise questions

National MP Maggie Barry has taken over as chair for the inquiry, and has been considering submissions with other committee members, with oral hearings due to kick off this Thursday, after submissions closed on April 26.

However, Brady, and others, including China expert Rodney Jones, and Chinese community member and petitioner Freeman Yu, were told their oral submissions had been postponed.

Brady tweeted her displeasure at the timetable issue on Tuesday, suggesting Huo was being obstructive. Huo said he had relinquished all control of the inquiry, including administrative decisions.

He referred questions to Barry, saying he had been told by the clerk that Barry had made the scheduling decision.

Meanwhile, Barry said it was the responsibility of the clerk to schedule submitters and manage meeting times.

The on-again, off-again nature of the hearing came down to the desire of the committee to hear all submitters together, Barry said.

It became clear that was not logistically possible and the clerk shuffled around the hearings, she said.

But the message from the clerk to the (currently recused) chair, Huo, seemed to contradict Barry’s statement. The text said the hearing had been postponed to the next sitting block by Barry.

“I think what the shambles tells us, is it’s not a priority.”

While the clerk of the committee was tasked with scheduling meetings and submitters, any decisions – including administrative issues – were ultimately made by the chair. In this case, that was Barry, who was acting chair for the inquiry.

After what seemed to be a day of confusion, the committee announced Thursday’s hearing was back on, with eight submitters on the schedule.

Independent MP Jami-Lee Ross said he hoped to fill Huo’s spot on the committee, as he did during the GCSB and SIS hearing.

Labour chief whip Ruth Dyson allowed Ross to take the spot last time, and said she was willing to consider having him take a Labour spot on the committee again, due to his special interest in the subject of foreign political donations.

Ross was at the centre of the Simon Bridges donation saga, which involved Chinese-born businessman Zhang Yikun. While he was a National MP he was also present at a private fundraising dinner with foreign business people and former Prime Minister John Key in 2016, and received a $25,000 donation from controversial Chinese-born businessman Donghua Liu, which was later returned.

The Serious Fraud Office is currently investigating political donations, following on from the bombshell Ross dropped last year.

Foreign interference 'not a priority'

Hearings are often rescheduled, but submitters said scheduling issues around the much-plagued inquiry were “confusing” and “a shambles”.

As well as Brady expressing her frustrations online, submitter Freeman Yu – who had a petition regarding foreign influence before Parliament – said he was confused by the scheduling issues.

“The hearing conference arrangement changed again and again,” he said.

China expert Jones, who was also due to submit on Thursday, said it had been a shambles.

Jones, who worked in Asia for 30 years, said foreign influence was a complex issue and one that was important to consider.

“I think what the shambles tells us, is it’s not a priority.”

Most submitters were each given 20 minutes, which included the time allotted for questions. This was not enough time for experts to drill down into the issues surrounding foreign interference, Jones said. Some submitters have now been given longer, with Brady now scheduled for 30 minutes.

The economist and the principal of Wigram Capital Advisors said his submission on Thursday would focus on how New Zealand could build resilience and understanding of the issue of foreign interference, particularly in relation to China’s rise in the region.

He advocated for changes to electoral laws around foreign donations, and for politicians to take a clearer stance on the ethics and morals needed to maintain New Zealand’s political independence.

New Zealand’s democracy needed to build resilience – something that had become clear in the past two years. But Jones said he was not optimistic this inquiry would lead to concrete improvements, saying the country had regressed in terms of its understanding of China and how it protected its democracy.

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