Heather Roy

10 March 2018

Let’s be clear – last Thursday’s fiasco at Parliament’s Justice Committee was not about China. It was about an assault on New Zealand’s democratic process. A day later, after significant pressure from the media, democracy won the day with Labour MP and Chair of the Justice Committee Raymond Huo forced into an embarrassing u-turn on an undemocratic decision made by four government MPs.

Newsroom’s Thomas Coughlan broke the story last Thursday of China expert, Professor Anne-Marie Brady being blocked by Justice Select Committee Chair Raymond Huo and three other Labour MPs from appearing before the committee to make a submission on foreign interference in our electoral processes.

Parliament’s Justice Committee last year called for submissions on the 2016 local body and 2017 general elections, as part of its triennial review of the electoral process. The committee agreed to hold the inquiry on 27 July 2018 and submissions closed on 21 September. Then in October Justice Minister Andrew Little wrote to the committee asking it to widen the scope of the inquiry to “look at the resilience of our electoral system against foreign interference risks”. As a result, the security agencies (SIS and GSCB) are scheduled to appear before the committee next month. It would seem that other submissions were neither called for nor welcomed when the scope was widened.

Joining the dots, it would appear that Anne-Marie Brady asked the committee if she could make a submission on the widened criteria. Huo’s excuse for Labour MPs not accepting her entreaty was that submissions had closed, yet Little’s request (and the relevance to Brady’s work) had come after the submissions date had passed.

Select Committees have the ability to do most things by majority vote and I’ve seen plenty of ‘outside the guidelines’ decisions made by committees because it was the right thing to do.  A vote on whether or not Professor Brady would be heard was clearly held last Thursday. The four Labour MPs out-voted the four National MPs (a majority is needed) on the committee. Votes of this kind are held “in committee”. Media and the public would not have been present. Brady herself found out about the decision of her exclusion when media contacted her for comment. It’s not hard to work out what happened here, but hard to say it wasn’t in the public interest.

Democracy means allowing participation of the whole population. To deny Professor Brady the opportunity to participate in a subject she is considered expert in is an affront to the democratic process. To deny the New Zealand public the ability to participate in this process is an abuse of the democratic process. The committee, it seems, invited the SIS and GCSB to present on foreign interference in our electoral processes and all others were excluded by omission. That decision has now been reversed and submissions from the public will now be called for – the right course of action at last.

There is one more troubling factor in this story. Newsroom’s Coughlan reported:

“Labour MP Raymond Huo, the chair of the justice committee, has featured in Brady’s research on Chinese 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.”

Raymond Huo had a conflict of interest when considering Professor Brady’s request for submission. He should have recused himself from his position of Chair of the Justice Committee last Thursday. Not only did Huo and his Labour colleagues act undemocratically, he failed to act appropriately in a conflicted situation. We should expect more of our politicians on both counts.  The question must be asked – did Huo act on his own initiative or by the direction of the Prime Minister’s Office or Leader of the House?

There are now several layers of embarrassment for the New Zealand – China relationship. Of more concern, however, should be the abuse of the democratic process we’ve seen in the last week. Thankfully, we have a fourth estate who can and do exert pressure when they should.

Raymond Huo should also recuse himself when Professor Brady finally makes her submission to the committee.

Update: 30 April 2019

Better late than never! Newsroom is today reporting that Raymond Huo is standing down while the Justice Select Committee is hearing submissions on foreign interference in NZ elections. It isn’t clear whether Anne-Marie Brady is presenting to the committee, but I hope she has not been put off by this fiasco – that would be a terrible failing of our democratic process.

This does highlight the fact that New Zealanders do seem to have some difficulty with the concept of appropriately declaring conflicts of interest. Perception can be as damaging as reality and an early declaration shows ethical awareness and transparency. Raymond Huo is not alone in coming late to this party.