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Strange lessons of 2018: What goes on when we're not looking


National list MP Jian Yang, a former employee of the Chinese intelligence services and member of the Chinese Communist Party, has refused to speak to the English-language media.

We’ve learned interesting things about farmers, the Catholic church and Chinese influence this year. As well as what our politicians and media get up to when we’re not looking. 

Some of the lessons 2018 has brought have been firmly in the “Who would have thought?” category. Others are more of the “You’re kidding me, right?” variety.

We discovered that farmers — who only last year were calling Jacinda Ardern a “pretty communist” while vocally resisting a water tax — are apparently happy to allow the state to take most of the financial responsibility for the cattle disease Mycoplasma bovis that looked as if it might decimate their livelihoods.

In May, the Government announced it would pay 68 per cent of the estimated $870 million the eradication effort would cost. The balance will be split — after much wrangling — between dairy and beef farmers. 

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In October, DairyNZ chairman Jim van der Poel thanked the public and government for their support in the eradication effort — as he should. His organisation can be grateful no one was impolite enough to ask the rugged, self-reliant individualists of the land why they have not campaigned publicly to be allowed to foot the entire bill themselves.

In fact, who could have guessed there would so many communists down on the farm with their hands out for taxpayers’ money? Especially given that dealing with the crisis has been complicated by many farmers not having complied with the animal tracing scheme, which raises questions of “personal responsibility” dear to conservatives.

Speaking of communists, we’ve learned much more this year about the Chinese Communist Party’s shadowy work in New Zealand through its United Front operations than our political elites can deal with. As our politicians — including Jacinda Ardern — bend over backwards to avoid directly criticising China on almost any topic, we are still waiting on information from the police or the PM on the strange case of the burgled professor, who may also have had her car sabotaged.

Canterbury academic Anne-Marie Brady, an outspoken critic of Chinese influence in New Zealand, has been waiting all year for results from the investigation into the break-ins of her office last December and of her house in February.

It’s looking more and more likely that the government simply doesn’t want to tell us that it was the work of Chinese operatives, as Professor Brady suspects.

Anne-Marie Brady. Photo/University of Canterbury

Brady published her influential paper Magic Weapons in 2017 but it took Jami-Lee Ross’s recorded conversations with National Party leader Simon Bridges — that included a discussion about donations from Chinese constituents — to prompt the media to give the professor the attention she so richly deserves.

Between the evidence from Brady’s scholarship and Ross’s allegations in October, it appears that our universities, the local Chinese-language press and perhaps even the nomination of National Party parliamentary candidates may be indirectly susceptible to CCP influence. Who knew?

The real doozy, of course, is the continuing presence in our Parliament of a former employee of the Chinese intelligence services and member of the CCP, who admits he gave incorrect information on his immigration/citizen application because the Chinese government told him to. 

We have also never been told why Dr Jian Yang was removed from the foreign affairs, defence and trade select committee in 2016.

Journalists periodically try to interview the National list MP but he refuses to speak to the English-language media. When TVNZ’s John Campbell went to his office in November with a camera crew, he was told Dr Yang wouldn’t be coming out to talk to him. 

Campbell has been trying to interview him for more than a year. Other journalists have also tried and failed to organise a chat with the elusive MP.

You might think that a parliamentary representative refusing to speak to the media is remarkable to the point of being outrageous. You might also think — whether in amazement or despair — “Only in New Zealand!”

Another shadowy organisation that has wielded more power this year than you might have guessed is the Catholic Church. Any moral authority it might have once claimed has been seriously eroded by its shameful record in sex abuse scandals worldwide so it has kept a low profile in the assisted dying/euthanasia debate — while being very energetic behind the scenes.

It has covered its tracks pretty well, not least by recommending its congregations make submissions against David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill — but without mentioning religion.

In January 2018, the church more or less commanded the faithful to write a submission to the Justice select committee. A letter, sent out and signed by six Catholic bishops, put the hard word on parishioners:

“We are hesitant about ‘tacking on’ activities to Mass, but from time to time a particular initiative is given permission because its focus is so important that in effect it finds its full meaning within the context of the Mass. As we gather to be nourished by God’s Word (teaching and law) and by His Body and Blood, which makes possible the fullness of life, it is appropriate that something which so gravely threatens the gift of life is addressed within the context of our Sunday worship.” 

“Each of you,” the bishops wrote, “are called to make a difference.”

They offered five reasons for parishioners to use in their submissions on why legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide would be dangerous.

The model arguments cited only secular concerns, including that assisted dying will “undermine suicide prevention” and “devalue the disabled”. None mentioned Jesus, God or the church’s teachings — and nowhere referred to the pivotal Catholic doctrine that only God can interfere with a person’s natural lifespan, which is also the basis for the church’s objection to abortion.

It’s impossible to exactly calculate the extent of its influence through its nationwide network of 300 churches but a remarkable thing happened — 92 per cent of the 36,000 submissions were in opposition. 

Jessica Young, of Otago University, has been investigating New Zealanders’ attitudes over the past 20 years to euthanasia and assisted dying and presented her research group’s results in November. On average, across all surveys in that time, 68.3 per cent of people supported assisted dying and 14.9 per cent opposed legislation, while 15.7 per cent were neutral or unsure. 

Yet, despite this evidence, we are asked by the likes of religious organisations such as the Care Alliance and Right to Life to believe that only a small minority of New Zealanders support a law change.

Their position would be more credible, of course, if they were in favour of a referendum on the topic — but they aren’t because they know they would be defeated decisively.

This year we also learned that dissidents and malcontents who are routinely derided in their lifetimes are nevertheless eligible to be canonised immediately after their deaths. Auckland’s long-time crusader against council corruption and secrecy Penny Bright, who died in October, was widely feted only when she could no longer cause any trouble (although, true to form, she was still protesting on her deathbed).

Once again, we have been reminded that the spirit of Rob Muldoon — who famously dismissed dissenters and critics as “nitpickers”, “ratbags” and “stirrers” — has never left our politics.

Jami-Lee Ross. Photo/Getty

The most prominent stirrer of the year has been Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross. But despite the fact he has given us valuable insights into how Chinese money may be corrupting our politics and how political donations can be disguised to hide their source, he is never referred to by the media as a whistleblower. Journalists prefer to label him as a “rogue MP”, or even as a “feral MP”.

Some journalists, of course, may have their own reasons to be wary of him. After Paula Bennett publicly accused him of behaviour “inappropriate to a married Member of Parliament” and Newsroom published an article in which four women accused him of bullying behaviour, Ross warned journalists that if it was now acceptable to lift the “bed sheets” around Parliament, he would be willing to expose their own indiscretions with MPs, as well as those occurring between MPs.

He sounds as if he knows what he’s talking about. Two of the women who claimed to have been bullied also admitted to having had a sexual relationship with him. One, he says, was a married National MP; the other is believed to be a journalist.

Ross also said: “There’s a lot of bed-hopping that goes on down in that Parliament... and the public don’t know about it.” In fact, he estimated that as many as “one out of three, maybe one out of two MPs…” have been involved in similar behaviour

So, as the year ends and the holidays approach, we need to remember that some of our employees in Parliament and some of the journalists who report on them may thoroughly deserve all the rest they can get.

This year, we have learned that they may have been a lot busier than we ever imagined.

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