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Don’t squander this chance to improve democracy

You might not have heard, but Parliament is currently conducting an inquiry that will help determine the future of New Zealand's political independence. Laura Walters explains why she thinks Kiwis and the MPs in charge need to take it a little more seriously.

Right now, in the engine rooms of Parliament, MPs are considering the future fate of New Zealand’s sovereignty.

I know it’s a grandiose thing to say, but the inquiry into foreign interference in New Zealand elections and political system is an opportunity to build a more resilient democracy for future generations.

On Thursday, the Justice Select Committee heard a group of submitters, including outspoken China expert Anne-Marie Brady. They spoke about the rise of China in the region, the change in geopolitics, the difference in New Zealand and Chinese values, and the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to influence foreign countries' politics.

Unfortunately, I’ve had the growing fear the committee members haven’t felt the weight of the responsibility resting on their shoulders.

Sure, every decision Parliament makes is important, but this strikes to the heart of our values as a free, sovereign democracy.

Almost a comedy of errors

So far, the select committee inquiry has been plagued by cock ups, but given the nature of the inquiry’s topic some have questioned whether these cock-ups are more conspiracy. Among the shambles has been a reversed decision on whether submissions would even be allowed, the recusal of the committee chair, and scheduling errors.

The hearings are finally underway but on Thursday the committee was down a member, after Nick Smith was kicked out of the House and suspended from his duties as an MP the previous day. Just another distraction from the issue at hand.

“I urge you, please, you represent us, please, serve us New Zealanders, and do the right thing and strengthen our democracy. Forget your personal, political interests, or whatever happened before... I want you to do the right thing and help to fix our weak spots within our society that are being preyed on.”

When it came time for Professor Brady's submission, based on her 30 years of research, and her globally discussed paper on the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) united front work, Magic Weapons, National MP Mark Mitchell questioned Brady on whether she had any evidence to back her allegations of the CCP’s interference in New Zealand politics and media.

When she pointed to the publicly available conference paper and its 10 pages of footnotes, Mitchell admitted he hadn’t read the research. To be fair, he is probably not the only one on the committee who hasn’t read the conference paper published in September 2017, but it does call into question just how serious members are about the topic of foreign interference.

Complacency the biggest risk

While committee members questioned Brady on whether her allegations were based on fact, she sat with her hand on her heart and pleaded for MPs to focus on solutions.

“We need all of you at the table to be part of the solution of this,” she said.

“I urge you, please, you represent us, please, serve us New Zealanders, and do the right thing and strengthen our democracy. Forget your personal, political interests, or whatever happened before... I want you to do the right thing and help to fix our weak spots within our society that are being preyed on.”

When asked by media to name the greatest risk to New Zealand’s elections, she was quick to say 'complacency'.

The Kiwi ‘she’ll be right’ attitude will be the thing that undermines New Zealand’s democratic independence.

When it’s too late we will throw up our hands, exclaiming we had no idea this could happen in New Zealand. Because, you know, it’s New Zealand! Sound familiar?

Now is the chance, but it needs to be seized while there is momentum.

Committee members hear Chinese-Kiwi Freeman Yu give evidence on the threats and harassment he has experienced after criticising the Chinese state. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

We should not waste time questioning whether MPs, academics and others are satisfied with a certain level of verification of those who raise the issue of China’s interference.

This is largely irrelevant. We don’t need to know what has happened to know what can happen.

In countering Brady’s points, veteran China academic Paul Clark pointed to the inefficiency of China’s efforts.

The University of Auckland Asia Studies professor, who has studied China for the past 45 years, said the CCP’s efforts to influence the Chinese diaspora have been ineffective.

He raised valid points relating to his "grassroots" approach to studying the Chinese community.

“The experience of such Chinese has not been one of compliance and being corrupted and forced and captured by the state or the Communist Party, it’s a remarkable picture of the limitations of these Chinese organisations,” he said.

But we know China under Xi Jinping is changing, and just because the CCP’s efforts haven’t been successful in the past, doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future.

Changing world of geopolitics 

Brady said getting the China relationship right will be New Zealand’s biggest geopolitical challenge in the coming decades. It’s not about “headbutting” China, but about understanding differences, and having a constructive relationship beyond that.

“It’s in China’s interest to extend an influence in New Zealand, there’s nothing wrong with that – that’s what great powers do. It’s up to us. We need to set boundaries well ahead of time,” added China business expert Rodney Jones.

Beyond China, we should be strengthening our political system and democracy against interference from any great power.

I fear we shy away from the complexities of the debate, and our terror of sounding racist or xenophobic.

“Much of the impact of these allegations has been fostered by the media and I’m sure you, as politicians, are aware of the power of the media and the way in which the media will grab a bone like a dog and pull on it, and play with it forever."

The conversation is stuck on China as the rising superpower in the region, but it needs to be about what we can possibly do to strengthen our democratic system against interference from any foreign power.

Brady and others offered practical steps to build resilience, including changing political donations laws, putting in place a lobbying register, and setting up an anti-corruption commission and other oversight bodies.

The way the inquiry has been conducted so far does not inspire a lot of hope for the scope of the recommendations, but I’m wholly prepared to be proven wrong.

Among those recommendations, should be the call for a fully independent inquiry, which gives the issue due consideration. This is the approach favoured by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters.

During his submission, Clark was critical of the oxygen media have given to Brady’s paper and the issue of foreign interference.

“Much of the impact of these allegations has been fostered by the media and I’m sure you, as politicians, are aware of the power of the media and the way in which the media will grab a bone like a dog and pull on it, and play with it forever,” he said to the committee.

“And I think the media in New Zealand is always looking for exciting stories of derring-do, and this appeared 18-or-so months ago, as an exciting story where there might be scandal, or evil, at work and it helps sell newspapers.”

I’m not sure how many newspapers this story has sold, but he’s right that any reporter worth their salt will doggedly pursue an issue if it’s important.

And democratic freedom is one of those issues.

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