OPINION:

In mid-2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and then Opposition Leader Todd Muller reached an agreement that Labour MP Raymond Huo and National MP Jian Yang should leave Parliament, with a minimum of fuss.

Ardern and Muller’s deal was based on briefings from the New Zealand intelligence agencies expressing concern about the two MPs’ relationships with the Chinese Government.

National went first, with Yang announcing he would not stand for re-election on July 10, a Friday, and also nicely overshadowed by the scandal involving Michelle Boag and Hamish Walker leaking private Covid-19 patient information.

Labour kept its silence about yet another National MP apparently throwing in the towel, although then Foreign Minister and NZ First Leader Winston Peters couldn’t resist having a bit of a crow.

Eleven days later, on July 21, Labour announced Huo would not stand for re-election, again overshadowed by a National Party scandal, this time involving Andrew Falloon. National said nothing.

The story was broken this morning in the Politik newsletter, written by one of New Zealand’s longest-serving and consequently best-connected journalists, Richard Harman. Nobody has better sources within the most senior levels of the Wellington bureaucracy, or what might be called our Deep State.

Huo and Yang had both previously been the subject of speculation about the nature of their links to the Chinese Government.

In 2017, Huo stood down as chair of the Justice Select Committee while its members considered the issue of foreign interference, due to a perceived conflict of interest. He said at the time this was his “personal decision”. It came after it was revealed the Labour MPs on the committee had block-voted to try to stop testimony from an academic strongly critical of China’s influence in New Zealand, the University of Canterbury’s Anne-Marie Brady.

Whatever links Huo may have with the Chinese Government, Yang’s have received more publicity. These were so well known he was jokingly nicknamed “the spy” in National Party circles. Based on repeated speculation in the media, including the Financial Times, that he might indeed be some kind of spy, Yang revealed he taught English to “cadets” at a language school run by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It also turned out he had failed to reveal his links to the PLA in his 1997 New Zealand residency application. He denies he was ever a spy and says he resigned from the CCP when he came to New Zealand.

Nevertheless, his connections to China were found to be useful to National, in government and Opposition. Even though only a backbencher, he accompanied then prime minister John Key on trips to China. He also arranged very high-level access to the CCP and PLA leadership for then opposition Leader Simon Bridges on his trip to China in 2019.

This was despite him having been removed in 2016 from Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Parliamentary Select Committee, which receives classified security material and briefings, for reasons that neither Key nor his successor as prime minister, Bill English, would ever explain.

Both prime ministers maintained the line of not commenting on security matters. Ardern sticks to the same line, including with respect to whatever concerns were expressed to her by the intelligence agencies about Huo.

Whether or not those agencies and Ardern and Muller were justified in being concerned about the two MPs, it doesn’t seem out of the question that foreign intelligence agencies might try to place spies in our two main parties, our thus our Parliament, sensitive Select Committees and one day even Cabinet.

We are a Five Eyes partner, but the smallest and most vulnerable. Unlike the US, UK, Canada and Australia, we have a small, unicameral Parliament of only 120 MPs, one in six of which are in Cabinet, usually from only Labour or National. Selection procedures in both main parties are well known to be lax, as evidenced by the quality of MPs we attract.

Both main parties are keen for Chinese-born MPs, both for the votes from new immigrants they might bring, and also because of their fundraising abilities and political and commercial connections with New Zealand’s biggest export market. National Party President Peter Goodfellow, for example, is very proud of his fundraising abilities from the Chinese community.

You don’t need to have watched too much James Bond or Jason Bourne to think a real-life M or Pamela Landy might come up with a cunning plan to place a couple of assets in our two main parties, and hope they rise up the ranks. It seems an obvious and easy way to place people in high levels of a Five Eyes Government.

Whatever the specific nature of the concerns about Huo and Yang, Ardern and Muller dealt with them. But all sorts of questions remain.

Was the intelligence information on Huo and Yang that was provided to Ardern and leader Muller new? Either way, had it or something like it been previously provided to Ardern, as Prime Minister? If so, had she or the intelligence agencies previously provided such information to Bridges or English, when they were leaders of the opposition? Was any such information about either of the two MPs provided by the intelligence agencies to English or Key when they were prime ministers? Did they share it with David Cunliffe, Andrew Little or Ardern when they were leaders of the opposition during the 2014-2017 Parliament?

These questions have been put to the Labour Government and the National Opposition this morning. They both say they don’t comment on what security and intelligence briefings have or haven’t been received, or comment on the content of any briefing. Which means New Zealanders may never know if our political system has indeed been compromised by a foreign power, or for how long.

• Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant. He was speechwriter for former National Leader Todd Muller who he regards as a friend of more than 30 years.

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