Newsroom Pro's 8 things: SIS warning on China; Twyford ends meth trace evictions; National high in poll; Robertson emphasises cost-cutting

Jian Yang interviewed by Chinese media on election night. Photo by Tim Murphy

In today's email we looked into China's "more muscular approach" on the world stage and what it might mean for New Zealand.

1. SIS warning on espionage

The debate over China's efforts to exercise soft power in New Zealand has taken another turn as it also ramps up across the Tasman.

The Security Intelligence Service has warned in its Briefing to the Incoming Minister that foreign states have tried to hack Government and corporate information and have unduly influenced expatriate communities in the last year.

The SIS appeared to be making a point by deciding not to redact the following section of its briefing, which was otherwise heavily redacted.

"New Zealand is not immune to the threat of espionage by foreign states, nor to foreign efforts to interfere with the normal functioning of government or the rights of New Zealand citizens," the SIS warned on page 10 of its briefing.

"Such activities in New Zealand over the past year have included attempts to access sensitive government and private sector information, and attempts to unduly influence expatriate communities," it said.

The SIS did not specifically mention China in the briefing, although the implication is there given recent events on both sides of the Tasman.

Newsroom was the first to report in September on National List MP Jian Yang's history training spies in China. Canterbury University academic Anne-Marie Brady has also raised the profile of the issue with a detailed paper titled Magic Weapons: China’s political influence activities under Xi Jinping.

The paper shows how China's Government has come to exercise control over the Chinese language media in New Zealand and the extent of political donations to both parties from the expatriate community.

The issue has flared in Australia after revelations about Labor Senator Sam Dastyari's connections to China, and his apparent efforts to lobby for Chinese interests within the Australian Government. See more on that this morning via SMH.

He was sacked from Labor's front benches 10 days ago and this and other incidents led to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's announcement last week of tougher laws to restrict foreign interference in local politics. This included creating a register for political donors with links to foreign governments. China criticised the move, saying it risked poisoning the bilateral relationship.

Last week Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern downplayed the risks of foreign interference here and said there was no need to reform political donation rules here.

"When it comes to some of the issues that have been raised in Australia, I haven't seen evidence of the kinds of issues they are talking about here in New Zealand," Ardern told the Herald last week. "That's not to say we should be complacent. We have to be vigilant and we are," she said then.

Ardern was again asked about the issue on RNZ's Morning Report. She said New Zealand's electoral laws set a high test for meddling.

RNZ's Mediawatch also ran a piece over the weekend on the influence of China on local chinese language media.

This photo above is of Jian Yang being interviewed by local channel Panda TV Channel 37 on election night at Sky City. The MP has not given an interview to English language media since Newsroom reported on September 13 that he had trained Chinese spies.

2. China's 'more muscular' approach

Anne Marie Brady is not the only academic warning about the risks of China of using its soft power here.

Newsroom's Foreign Affairs and Trade Editor Sam Sachdeva spoke to Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, on the rise of China last week.

Glaser said China’s increasingly muscular approach on the world stage was largely due to its growing capabilities.

While the country largely limited itself to domestic issues (such as building its economy) in the 1990s and 2000s - adhering to former leader Deng Xiaoping’s motto of “Hide your strength, bide your time” - under Xi Jinping it has been able to look out across the horizon.

“They now have the capabilities to protect their interests far more than they did in the past, and their interests have of course expanded dramatically - they’re not just along their borders but further out,” Glaser said.

As part of its increased influence, China has been pushing for what Glaser describes as “deference to Chinese interests, for all of their neighbours and maybe some countries further away to take China’s interests into account”.

That meant “punishing” those countries which take any decisions damaging to its national interests - although she says they have done so without transparency and with plausible deniability.

Sam's piece first published on Newsroom Pro on Friday goes into plenty of detail on the issues around China's projection of soft power and how to respond.

3. Cost pressures in HYEFU

Speaking on the eve of this Thursday's Half Yearly Economic and Fiscal Update (HYEFU), Finance Minister Grant Robertson has emphasised his direction to ministers to cut spending in unwanted areas to ensure the Government meets its fiscal responsibility rules.

Robertson told an Auckland Chamber of Commerce breakfast event at the Cordis (formerly Langham Hotel) this morning the Government could pay for its policies detailed in its 100 day plan and remain within its debt and surplus limits, but would have to be disciplined about removing costs in areas the Government did not see as a priority.

He mentioned the direction to ministers twice in the speech, reiterating the cost pressures facing the Government and impressing on a business audience the Government's aim to be fiscally disciplined.

"We can pay for the plans we have made and the policies in the agreements we have signed," Robertson said. "But there are still other cost pressures to meet and programmes to deliver," he said.

"I have asked my Ministerial colleagues to re-assess current programmes to ensure they match this Government’s priorities and are value for money. Any such re-prioritisations will be reinvested to meet the cost pressures we face."

See my full report from this morning on Newsroom Pro, including details about introducing BEPS legislation this week, directing Treasury to accelerate work on its living standards framework and the Government's plans for Auckland infrastructure.

4. New approach on traces of meth

Housing Minister Phil Twyford has detailed a new approach by Housing New Zealand Corp to the treatment of tenants after finding traces of methamphetamine.

Under the previous Government, many tenants were evicted without proof that they were smoking or manufacturing methamphetamine. Housing NZ was also criticised for viewing trace levels of methamphetamine as dangerous, when some researchers have said such levels were not dangerous to human health. See Baz Macdonald's piece on Newsroom from October 2.

Twyford told Checkpoint on Friday evening that hundreds of Housing NZ properties had been left empty and millions squandered on testing for meth.

He said Housing NZ would move to a more compassionate approach where tenants were offered support first, rather than being evicted.

"Some 900 properties have been left vacant in the middle of a housing crisis on the basis of a methamphetamine contamination standard that cannot distinguish between a place that is genuinely contaminated from the manufacture of methamphetamine, and would endanger the health of someone living in that house, and an infinitesimally small residue that would pose no risk," Twyford said, pointing to a kind of moral panic over methampetamine.

"I think that has been drummed up and exploited by a meth testing industry that saw an opportunity to make a dollar," he said.

Housing NZ had spent $75 million on testing and remediating properties over the last three years, he said.

5. National still high in first TV poll

TVNZ and Colmar Brunton released their first opinion poll done since the election over the weekend, showing Jacinda Ardern as increasingly popular, but with National as still the most popular party.

The poll results broadcast in the final edition of Q+A found support for National firm at 46 percent, which was above its final election result of 44.4 percent. Labour also rose from its election result of 36.9 percent to 39 percent in the poll, which was taken of just over 1,000 respondents from November 29 to December 5.

The Greens rose to 7.0 percent from 6.3 percent on election night, while New Zealand First fell to 5.0 percent from 7.2 percent.

The poll was the first closely watched poll since the election. The less-closely followed Roy Morgan poll conducted from October 30 to November 12 found support for National at 40.5 percent, Labour at 39.5 percent, New Zealand First at five percent and the Greens at 10 percent.

Ardern's support as preferred Prime Minister was 37 percent, ahead of Bill English on 28 percent. Winston Peters was on five percent.

Perhaps the more interesting feature of the Colmar Brunton poll was a shift to using 50 percent randomly generated mobile numbers and 50 percent randomly generated landline numbers. Previously the poll was landline-only. TVNZ political editor Corin Dann explained the change here.

TV3's Reid Research moved last year to getting 25 percent of its respondents from an online panel to help find younger voters, who now mostly cannot be reached by landline.

6. Coming up

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is set to release the details of Labour's families package and its legislation to target reductions in child poverty later this week, possibly on Thursday with the HYEFU.

Parliament is set to sit under urgency this week starting on Tuesday, with a risk it could extend into Saturday. She will chair a cabinet meeting later this morning and hold a news conference around 4 pm.

Statistics New Zealand is set to release debit and credit card transaction data on retail spending in November at 10.45 am today.

Statistics New Zealand is scheduled to release food price index data for November at 10.45 am on Wednesday.

Robertson is set to release the Half Yearly Economic and Financial Update (HYEFU) with a new Budget Policy Statement early on Thursday afternoon. It will reflect the new Government's policies in its 100 day plan and Treasury's latest economic forecasts.

The Press Gallery's Christmas Party is on Thursday evening, not Wednesday evening as I said in Friday's email. I mixed it up with the Press Gallery photo, which was shifted forward to avoid a clash with the HYEFU.

7. One fun thing

Just to show that I am an expert dad joker, here's one related to Australia's #BirdOfTheYear competition just won by the Magpie (the Kookaburra was third):

James Reinhardt: "It doesn't matter which bird wins #BirdOfTheYear The kookaburra will have the last laugh."

8. The morning's political links

These are available with the morning subscriber email