We have long argued here that immigration applications should not be decided by a minister of the Crown. Just about all other issues between individuals and the state are resolved by courts or tribunals at arm's length from political power. Why should individual immigration applications be treated differently? The question needs to be asked yet again after the latest revelations about Kim Dotcom's admission to the country.
Documents declassified and released through the Official Information Act show the Security Intelligence Service tried to block Mr Dotcom's residency application. It described him as a "bad but wealthy man" who was being investigated by the FBI for alleged copyright crimes. However, the SIS dropped its objection 90 minutes after being told there was "political pressure" to let the Megaupload mogul into New Zealand.
The agency advised Immigration New Zealand to consult the police before processing Mr Dotcom's application. This was not done. Later, in response to an SIS inquiry about a meeting with the Immigration Minister, an email from Immigration NZ's intelligence chief, Theo Kuper, read: "My responsibility is to merely provide information and advice which hopefully will lead to the right decision being made. What I do know is that the Minister of Immigration is an interested party as the Investor Plus residence category (for applicants with $10 million or more) is a Government priority because of the economic benefit to NZ."
Jonathan Coleman, the minister in 2010, denies there was political pressure. His signature was absent when residency was granted. Approval for Mr Dotcom was delegated by "special direction" to two Immigration NZ officials. But pressure comes in many forms. It is no secret that the Government has been keen to attract high rollers. Indeed, advocates for a further relaxation of the immigration conditions placed on wealthy investors say they have received strong expressions of support from the Prime Minister. Equally, it is clear that Dr Coleman was extensively briefed on Mr Dotcom, his history and his application before residency was granted. Immigration NZ officials may not have had to be told explicitly what the SIS had earlier grasped.
Either way, politicians from across the spectrum have had good reason to rue the residency decision. Act leader John Banks has paid the heaviest price over mayoral campaign donations, but the Prime Minister was shown to be lax in his oversight of the Government Communications Security Bureau. Further, Greens co-leader Russel Norman and NZ First leader Winston Peters created fertile ground for insinuation with their visits to Mr Dotcom's Coatesville mansion. Now, Laila Harre, the leader of the Dotcom-funded Internet Party, has had to concede that she would not have been comfortable granting the tycoon residency if she had been the Minister of Immigration.
Those damaged by the Dotcom wrecking ball can at least take comfort in the latest revelations hardly being to his advantage. More importantly, they argue persuasively that ministers should not be in a position where they can make decisions on residency or citizenship against the advice of officials. There is too great a danger of them bowing to popular opinion or acting in a manner that is not in the country's best long-term interests.
Officials, in turn, should not be left to make such decisions. People and their circumstances vary, a feature that would be disregarded if rules had to be enforced rigidly. Additionally, officials are apt to read the political winds and anticipate their minister's preference.
An independent panel would be much more sensible.
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