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Perhaps John Le Carré’s super-spook George Smiley could explain exactly what’s going on? Photo/Alamy.

How vulnerable is our democracy to foreign interference?

Spooky warnings.

For anyone who just can’t wait for the release of the new James Bond movie next year, New Zealand’s very own spy boss recently provided a real-life whiff of drama and mystery from the intelligence world.

In case you missed it at the time, here’s a movie trailer-style precis, though you’ll need to imagine for yourself the narrator’s portentous baritone, and a suitably strident soundtrack:

Spymasters are worried...

About shadowy figures working for foreign states...

Right here. Now. Across the political sphere.

In the seat of our democracy, the alarm has been raised…

What are we going to do about it?

Okay, it might be lacking in exploding cars and villains with stainless-steel teeth, but the warning is chilling enough, isn’t it?

Especially when the figure sounding it is as cautious and buttoned-down a civil servant as Security Intelligence Service director-general Rebecca Kitteridge, who appeared before Parliament’s Justice Select Committee in late August, with Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) head Andrew Hampton sitting alongside her.

“We’ve seen relationship-building and donation activity by state actors and their proxies that concern us,” she told the committee. “This activity spans the political spectrum and occurs at a central and local government level.”

And it wasn’t even the first time Kitteridge has brought the subject up. Back in April, after briefing the same committee about foreign interference in elections, she said the SIS knew of efforts by other countries to covertly monitor or obtain influence over expatriate communities, and that there had been concerning activities aimed at influencing politics here. “What we do see is foreign interference activity in New Zealand from a range of actors, and that is through a range of vectors, including some concerns we’ve had about political donations being made by state actors where the origin of those donations has been unclear.”

She wouldn’t name countries that might be involved, and in August refused again to give any specific examples of what she was talking about, though she did expand briefly on SIS concerns about any attempt to obscure the foreign origin of a political donation. “One of the main reasons we become concerned about these activities is because as relationships of influence, or a sense of reciprocity, are established, they may be used as leverage to facilitate future interference or espionage activity.”

Actors. Vectors. Proxies. Espionage?

Rather than James Bond, we might need to get in Le Carré’s George Smiley to wearily lower himself into a chintz armchair, absentmindedly polish his glasses on the end of his tie, and explain to us what’s going on here.

Related articles: Facing up to China’s undiplomatic diplomacy  | Can NZ avoid populist leaders’ divisive sloganeering? 

Foreign influence in politics is a hot topic internationally, in particular with regard to revelations of Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum in the same year.

In the US, Russians hacked the Clinton campaign and spread online propaganda to boost the chances of Donald Trump.

In one example of Russia’s Brexit tactics, on the very day of the referendum it mobilised an army of Twitter trolls: fake accounts that tweeted posts with the hashtag #ReasonsToLeaveEU. Iran was also found to have used Twitter in an attempt to influence British politics.

Judging by Kitteridge’s remarks, however, it would seem New Zealanders – for the time being, at least – need to be more concerned about “relationships of influence” and political donations than externally directed bot armies infecting our political discourse.

As Kitteridge gave her latest warning, renewed scrutiny had coincidentally fallen on a $150,000 donation to the National Party from a New Zealand-registered company owned by Chinese billionaire Lang Lin. Electoral law forbids donations of more than $1500 from foreign nationals, but classes New Zealand-registered companies as local, even if their control or ownership is foreign.

Although the donation from the Inner Mongolia Rider Horse Industry (NZ) was therefore entirely legal, and duly declared in 2017, the NZ Herald used information from former National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross to detail the involvement of then trade minister Todd McLay in “facilitating” it. (In one colourful detail that could almost have been lifted from a Bond novel, Lang is known as “Mr Wolf”, apparently due to his name sounding like wolf in Chinese. His favourite pets are said to be two wolves and a falcon.)

Ross, who was closely involved in party fundraising while a National MP, has been a mine of information on this stuff. Last October, he accused National leader Simon Bridges of “unlawful activity”, later claiming a $100,000 donation from Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun had been artificially split up at Bridges’ request. The Serious Fraud Office is looking into the claims, which are strongly denied by Bridges and party officials.

Wherever that probe leads, both cases have fed into concern about laws governing political donations. The Green Party and veteran National MP Nick Smith are among those who have called for an outright ban on foreign donations to political parties.

Kitteridge, however, told the select committee a blanket ban would not effectively curb potential foreign influence. “You can see how a foreign actor could easily use a New Zealand-based proxy to work around such a ban.”

Better disclosure requirements would improve the SIS’s ability to trace donations, she said, apparently not touching on whether the rest of us would also appreciate being kept in the loop on who might be pouring cash into our political parties.

The politician best placed to push through some meaningful changes ahead of next year’s election is Justice Minister (and Minister Responsible for the SIS and GCSB) Andrew Little, who told Parliament he would prefer to wait for the select committee to complete its report on the 2017 election before proposing changes, while suggesting he would act in advance if necessary. Given Kitteridge’s warnings, that seems only sensible.

Through all of this, there’s a giant panda in the room. Our politicians are wary of offending a certain superpower. Little, however, was perfectly country-specific when he let slip a fragment of security craft in a stand-up interview at Parliament, revealing he had used a “burner” phone in China, because of a risk the Chinese Government could be listening in.

In a liberal democracy, where politicians will at least pay lip service to the desirability of transparency, our spy agencies are a necessary anomaly. The secrecy of much of their work encourages speculation, much of it based on the fictional archetypes mentioned above.

For some New Zealanders, a reflex antipathy lingers from the Muldoon era, when information from the SIS was used to undermine trade unionists and anti-Springbok tour activists. The spooks were also seen as bungling figures of fun, due in no small part to one operative inadvertently leaving his briefcase – famously containing a Penthouse magazine and three meat pies – on a Wellington journalist’s fence.

Right now, they face much more serious scrutiny over their failure to identify the threat posed by the alleged gunman in the Christchurch mosque attacks.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the attacks will in its December report make findings on what state agencies knew about the accused attacker, what they did with that knowledge, whether they could have done more to prevent the massacre, and what they should do to prevent anything like it in future. Big questions, and the answers are bound to have major consequences.

Compared with all that, the grey areas of political-donation law and its exploitation by “state actors and their proxies” might seem small beer.

To her credit, and in spite of what else she might have on her plate this year, Kitteridge seems to recognise the issue’s importance. Measures to help ensure our politicians work solely in our interests and are not somehow drawn into serving those of other countries, deserve urgent attention.

And if the weaknesses in our donations regime aren’t fixed, and a donations story one day expands to encompass clear-cut interference or even espionage? Don’t say we weren’t warned.+

This article was first published in the October 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.