Third chair for Parliament’s foreign interference inquiry

The disruption for Parliament's inquiry into foreign electoral interference continues, with the current acting chair leaving the committee. Laura Walters reports on the Justice Select Committee's continued disarray.

National MP Chris Bishop will replace Maggie Barry as acting chair of the Justice Select Committee, making him the third chair to preside over the inquiry into foreign electoral interference.

Barry has quit the committee, and was replaced by National’s Chris Penk during this week’s meeting of the business committee.

The foreign interference inquiry, which is an extension of the committee’s inquiry into the 2017 general election and 2016 local body election, has been plagued by controversy and poor management.

Committee chair Raymond Huo recused himself from the helm for the duration of the foreign interference inquiry following perceptions of a conflict of interest.

This came after questions were raised about the committee’s decision to block China expert professor Anne-Marie Brady from submitting on the inquiry.

Huo has always maintained the decision to decline Brady’s request was procedural, however, there was an ongoing perception issue as Huo was named in Brady’s 2017 conference paper Magic Weapons, which explored the Chinese Communist Party’s united front work in New Zealand.

The decision was later reversed and the submission deadline was extended, allowing more experts and interested parties - in addition to the country’s two spy agencies – to submit and appear in front of the committee.

Following Huo’s decision to step down temporarily from the role, Barry – previously deputy chair - was promoted to the role of acting chair.

But the inquiry continued to face issues with scheduling, and some expert submitters called the inquiry “a shambles”.

Barry chaired the hearing earlier this month, where Brady appeared to explain the united front work of the CCP in New Zealand, and call for practical measures to improve democratic resilience.

Veteran MP Nick Smith did not sit on the committee during this hearing as the Speaker of the House had suspended Smith from his duties as an MP the previous day, due to his conduct in the debating chamber.

Following the hearing, Barry decided to step down from the committee, again leaving the chair’s seat empty.

University of Canterbury professor, and China expert, Anne-Marie Brady appeared before the Justice Select Committee to talk about what she categorised as China's interference in New Zealand's domestic politics. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It’s understood Bishop is National’s pick to replace Barry as acting chair for the remainder of the inquiry. He will be formally voted into the role when the committee meets on Thursday.

Assuming Huo returns to the role of chair following the inquiry’s conclusion, Bishop will then become the deputy chair. However, the Prime Minister has signalled a Cabinet reshuffle following the Budget, and this could also result in a select committee membership shake-up.

Following Bishop’s appointment to the role on Thursday, the committee will hear the remainder of the oral submissions from those who have submitted on foreign interference.

These submitters include Transparency International chief executive Julie Haggie, InternetNZ policy manager Ben Creet, and Falun Dafa (Falun Gong) practitioner Susan Wang.

Bishop has previously chaired select committees and holds the portfolio of opposition police spokesperson. Barry did not hold any justice portfolios in the National Party but was heavily involved in the committee’s business around the End of Life Choice Bill, as a strong advocate against voluntary euthanasia, or assisted dying.

Barry said she asked to be a member of the Justice Select Committee due to her interest in the End of Life Choice Bill.

Now the committee has reported back to the House, Barry has asked to be transferred to the Health Select Committee, which is dealing with issues in her area of interest, including palliative care and dementia care.

Barry said she did not see a need to stay on as acting chair to see out the inquiry, adding that the inquiry could go on for quite some time, and there was no agreed date for the committee to report back to the House.

Chris Penk is a former lawyer and has an active interest in justice issues. This leaves Penk’s spot in the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select committee to be taken up by new national MP Paulo Garcia. Garcia recently came into parliament to replace Nuk Kurako on the party’s list.

The committee’s inquiry into foreign interference comes at a crucial time for new Zealand in terms of its relationship with China, and the role the rising superpower plays in the region.

It also gives Parliament the opportunity to look at ways new technologies, and new uses of technologies, are being used to influence the political landscape and elections.

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