Government

Foreign interference inquiry ‘becoming a farce’

The Justice Select Committee’s inquiry into foreign interference is onto its sixth chair in less than four months. Is the inquiry falling apart as next year’s election edges closer?

Ongoing delays in the foreign interference inquiry are causing ructions as the clock ticks towards the deadline for any changes to be implemented before the 2020 election.

National's Nick Smith says the inquiry has become “a farce” and “a shambles”, echoing comments made by expert submitters.

It’s almost a year since the committee launched its inquiry into the 2016 local and 2017 general elections, which was then expanded to include an investigation into the electoral system’s resilience against foreign interference.

The inquiry, which was behind schedule from the get-go, has faced what seems like an endless number of obstructions, delays and changes of leadership.

Any changes to systems for next year’s elections would require laws to be passed by early next year. At this point, that would seem unlikely, and implementing changes ahead of the 2019 local elections is now impossible.

The committee still doesn’t have a report-back date, but the new chair says the committee is now prioritising the inquiry.

The revolving chair

Labour’s Meka Whitiri has taken over as the latest chair of the Justice Select Committee.

Newsroom has reported extensively on the ongoing issues within the select committee. But as the elections draw nearer, and the matter of Chinese interference bubbles to the surface, the stakes for the inquiry are rising.

“Foreign interference in democratic elections is, and will continue to be, a matter of pressing concern... Regardless of whether New Zealand is subject to foreign interference attempts, we need to ensure our electoral system remains resilient and our elections are free and fair."

Whaitiri will be the sixth MP to reside over the foreign interference inquiry since Huo decided to recuse himself as chair, over a perceived conflict of interest, in April.

After Huo’s decision to step down as chair for the inquiry, and the parallel inquiry into the most recent elections, then-deputy Maggie Barry stepped up. Barry was followed by Labour’s Ginny Anderson, who briefly sat in as acting deputy chair. When Barry left the committee National’s Chris Bishop fleetingly took up the reins, and was then followed by National’s Nick Smith, who became deputy chair when Bishop left.

Smith is National’s electoral law reform spokesperson and has been an active member of the committee’s inquiry since it began in September – a whole year after the last election was complete.

He has also been across the details of inquiry into foreign interference, since Justice Minister Andrew Little wrote to the committee asking it to widen its investigations.

On October 25, Little asked the committee to look at the resilience of New Zealand’s electoral system against foreign interference risks, provide any recommendations for improvement, and reassure the public they could vote and participate in future elections with confidence.

Labour's Meka Whaitiri acknowledged the inquiry had been delayed too long. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“Foreign interference in democratic elections is, and will continue to be, a matter of pressing concern ... Regardless of whether New Zealand is subject to foreign interference attempts, we need to ensure our electoral system remains resilient and our elections are free and fair," he said.

Smith has been outspoken regarding his frustrations over the constant delays, and now Little’s decision to go ahead with some changes to electoral law, before hearing back from the committee.

When Smith took up the mantle as deputy chair last month he was anxious to move things along and report back to Parliament as soon as possible.

But last week, he was removed as the head of the inquiry, to be replaced by Whaitiri, who stepped into Huo's spot after he decided to leave.

‘Inquiry a farce’

Smith said the changes of membership and chairs had “seriously compromised” the committee’s ability to do its job.

“The inquiry has descended into a bit of a farce in that we have gone through six chairs and we now have a chairperson of the committee - and most of its membership from the Government side – that did not hear the submissions," he said.

“National is disappointed in that this is one of the biggest threats to New Zealand’s democracy."

“This issue is bigger than any political party in Parliament. We are going to continue to engage as constructively as posible in the inquiry to try and resurrect useful recommendations to better protect New Zealand’s democracy.”

Recent issues in New Zealand, including China’s attempts to block a Tiananmen Square event at AUT last month, and its response to Hong Kong protests at the University of Auckland, had again brought the issue of China’s interference to the fore.

And the experience with China and Russia in the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK and Europe showed foreign interference was an increasing threat.

Evidence from the intelligence agencies and the Electoral Commission reiterated the seriousness of the threat.

“This issue is bigger than any political party in Parliament. We are going to continue to engage as constructively as posible in the inquiry to try and resurrect useful recommendations to better protect New Zealand’s democracy.”

Smith said the committee process thus far had been “a shambles”. The revolving chair and membership had also made it difficult for members to come to grips with the seriousness of the threat and the appropriate responses.

Whaitiri acknowledged the issues regarding the committee's processes and conduct but said she was confident members would produce a report with recommendations, and the inquiry would now be prioritised.

University of Canterbury China expert professor Anne-Marie Brady has raised the issue of foreign interference on numerous occasions, including in submissions to the select committee. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Whaitiri said she also aimed to ensure the committee was working “collegially and constructively” on the points where everyone agreed.

“Of course, we are a split committee and that poses some challenges and, like I said, I’m taking it one step at a time managing that dilemma or that challenge."

She also hoped to draw on the ministerial expertise of members to produce a meaningful report.

Whaitiri acknowledged she had a lot of reading to do to get up to speed on the submissions.

Committee urged to hurry up

The delays became the subject of discussions during Parliamentary Question Time on Tuesday, when Independent MP Jami-Lee Ross asked Little whether he would circumvent the normal process in order to ban foreign donations ahead of the election.

Ross has been given one of Labour’s seats on the committee for the duration of the inquiry, given his interest in foreign political party donations.

Little clearly shared the frustrations regarding the “significant delays”.

“If the committee has recommendations to the Electoral Act that deal with foreign interference and donations, then they will need to work smartly in order for them to be implemented for the 2020 general election,” he said.

"If members are equally concerned about this issue, I would certainly be happy to work with them to implement any changes necessary before the 2020 general election ... I would simply urge members on the justice committee to bring their work to a close - hopefully, expeditiously - and to bring their recommendations back to the House so that we can all consider them.”

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

Little and Smith are not the only ones frustrated by the committee’s dilly-dallying.

In May, experts who were due to submit to the committee on their experience and expertise relating to Chinese interference also said the inquiry was “a shambles”.

University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady, China expert Rodney Jones, and Chinese community member and petitioner Freeman Yu told Newsroom they faced multiple scheduling errors.

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

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