Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Point of Order: Buzz from the Beehive - 26/3/24

The PM baulks at cyber grilling but Collins is not so shy – and McCully is given a job by the Minister he mentored

China has loomed large in Beehive considerations over the past 24 hours, largely because of that country’s mischief-making in the cyber espionage department.

Two media statements emerged on that subject hard on the heels of the PM baulking at questions put to him on RNZ’s Morning Report – he would not even confirm that ministerial statements were in the offing.

One of those two affirmed that New Zealand’s Parliamentary network had been breached.

Another statement announced the provision of assistance for the Solomon Islands, a country which last year signed an agreement to boost cooperation with China on “law enforcement and security matters”. That agreement has raised concerns in this country, Australia and the United States about the implications for security in the Pacific.

Then there was news of Murray McCully – a former Minister of Foreign Affairs – landing a new job.

The link with China? Well, he has visited that country and in March 2017 he signed two arrangements with China aimed at strengthening cooperation in the areas of fisheries and international development, particularly in the Pacific region.

But his new job has nothing to do with China or foreign affairs – at least, not as far as Point of Order’s analysts can determine.

Rather, he was given the job by Education Minister Erica Stanford – and it so happens she once worked for him.

But let’s start by noting the PM is capable of stubbornly saying nothing when questioned on Morning Report.

His attention was drawn to the US and UK calling out China for cyber-espionage.

Has China been doing that sort of thing in NZ as well?

The PM stonewalled: “I’m not going to comment on that at this stage. If we do you will actually see that through a formal statement. But unfortunately at this stage I can’t make any further comment publicly about that.”

Next question: had the PM been in contact with the UK and US on this issue?

Again, he would not comment.

“If we do it will be through a formal statement.”

Did this mean he was signalling a statement was coming?

Nope – when he was asked that, he replied:

“Well, as I said, I’m not going to be able to get into that right now. I can’t comment on those intelligence matters right now. But if we do you will see that through a formal statement.”

As things turned out, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters was on the case.

He released a statement to confirm that New Zealand’s concerns over cyber activity had been conveyed to the Chinese Government.

“The Prime Minister and Minister Collins have expressed concerns today about malicious cyber activity, attributed to groups sponsored by the Chinese Government, targeting democratic institutions in both New Zealand and the United Kingdom,” Mr Peters says.

“It is important that these concerns also be conveyed directly to the Chinese Government. It is for that reason that I directed senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to speak today to the Chinese Ambassador, to lay out our position and express our concerns. That conversation has now taken place.”

Peters insisted foreign interference of this nature was unacceptable,

“…and we have urged China to refrain from such activity in future. New Zealand will continue to speak out – consistently and predictably – where we see concerning behaviours like this.”

Peters then mentioned that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had visited New Zealand last week and

“… our two countries have a significant and complex relationship. We cooperate with China in some areas for mutual benefit. At the same time, we have also been consistent and clear that we will speak out on issues of concern.”

In a statement as Minister Responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau, Judith Collins had more to say.

This statement brought cyber espionage close to home.

New Zealand stood with the United Kingdom in its condemnation of People’s Republic of China (PRC) state-backed malicious cyber activity impacting its Electoral Commission and targeting Members of the UK Parliament, Collins said.

“The use of cyber-enabled espionage operations to interfere with democratic institutions and processes anywhere is unacceptable,” Minister Responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) Judith Collins says.

The GCSB has also established links between “a state-sponsored actor linked to PRC” and malicious cyber activity targeting Parliamentary entities in New Zealand.

“The GCSB’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) completed a robust technical assessment following a compromise of the Parliamentary Counsel Office and the Parliamentary Service in 2021, and has attributed this activity to a PRC state-sponsored group known as APT40,” Ms Collins says.

“Fortunately, in this instance, the NCSC worked with the impacted organisations to contain the activity and remove the actor shortly after they were able to access the network.

“We commend the impacted organisations for acting decisively to mitigate the impact, and for the measures they have taken since the incident to harden their cyber defences and strengthen the resilience of their networks.

“These networks contain important information that enables the effective operation of the New Zealand government. It is critical that we protect this information from all malicious cyber threats.”

Many of New Zealand’s international partners today shared their experiences with malicious cyber activity impacting global democratic processes and institutions, Collins said.

“This collective response from the international community serves as a timely reminder to all organisations and individuals to have strong cyber security measures in place.”

Winston Peters and Judith Collins teamed up for another statement, to announce NZ will provide support for the Solomon Islands election.

Some of this is logistics support.

“We’re sending a team of New Zealand Defence Force personnel and two NH90 helicopters to provide logistics support for the election on 17 April, at the request of Solomon Islands’ Electoral Commission,” Ms Collins says.

“They will help transport election officers and materials around Solomon Islands in what is an excellent opportunity for our personnel to work again with the Solomon Islands’ Government and alongside Australian counterparts in support of regional peace and security.”

Peters says the deployment is part of a NZD$10.8 million election support programme announced in January.

“In addition to the deployment, the programme includes funding towards the Commission’s election preparation and management, technical support from the New Zealand Electoral Commission, and an independent observer mission,” he says.

“New Zealand’s overall contribution will support the Commission to lead the delivery of a safe and successful election. It demonstrates New Zealand’s commitment to a resilient democracy in Solomon Islands and the wider Pacific region.”

HMNZS Canterbury would be leaving Auckland today to transport the helicopters and crew, command and maintenance personnel to Honiara.

The statement noted that New Zealand has a long history of supporting elections in the Pacific, including providing a similar level of logistics support during Solomon Islands 2019 election alongside the Australian Defence Force.

Former Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully travelled to the Solomon Islands in February 2017 for meetings with political leaders about partnerships, economic development and maintaining political stability.

But skills other than his diplomatic prowess presumably persuaded Education Minister Erica Stanford that McCully is just the bloke to lead an “independent” team of three reviewers who will conduct the Ministerial Inquiry into the Ministry of Education’s School Property Function.

The minister enthused:

“There is a clear need to review the school property system, and I am pleased to have someone of Murray’s calibre and expertise leading this work.”

McCully will be supported by Tracey Haszard and Mark Binns as independent reviewers, who have extensive experience in infrastructure and construction.

“These individuals have a combination of infrastructure, capital investment and delivery, commercial and government expertise. This will enable them to evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of current arrangements.”

Stanford reiterated that while the inquiry was underway school building projects would continue.

She said it was important to be clear that the Ministry of Education had paused some building projects while it reviewed their affordability, but it had not stopped all building work.

The Ministerial Inquiry is separate to that review and is focussed on how a situation of having around 350 projects in various stages, from design through to pre-construction, where expectations far exceeded what could be delivered was able to occur.

“Some were weeks away from starting, even though the funding available hadn’t been managed well enough to meet what schools understood had been approved,” Ms Stanford says.

The independent reviewers will deliver their final report and recommendations to the Government by the end of June 2024.

Wikipedia tells us something fascinating about this appointment:

In 2013, Stanford started working in the office of Murray McCully, the MP for East Coast Bays. She took the place of her sister who previously worked for McCully.[7] She joined the National Party at the same time.

When she started in the office, she worked there two days a week as one of three jobs while also having two children.[6][4] She later worked there full time,[4] and prior to running for parliament, she held the role of Senior MP Support.[8] Stanford describes McCully as her mentor,[6] calling him “a political master.”[4]

McCully retired from Parliament in 2017, and the National Party selected Stanford as his replacement for East Coast Bays.[8] Stanford had not previously stood for parliament or other office.

Jobs for the boys who have provided jobs for the girls, eh?

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New Zealand stands with the United Kingdom in its condemnation of People’s Republic of China (PRC) state-backed malicious cyber activity impacting its Electoral Commission and targeting Members of the UK Parliament.

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Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton

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