Fran O'Sullivan: There's no dots to join up, just a lot of naivety

Ministers need to remember the rich don't get special treatment

John Key at the opening of the Boulevard Hotel in Newmarket.
John Key at the opening of the Boulevard Hotel in Newmarket.

The Immigration Ministers who have presided over a system which has seen New Zealand residency or citizenship granted to suspect foreign investors such as convicted fraudster Kim Dotcom, controversial businessman Bill Liu and alleged wife-beater Donghua Liu, have some fronting-up to do.

Most foreign investors who come to New Zealand bring capital and "know how" and make a great contribution to our young country.

Not so this dubious trio who each bought their way into New Zealand by chucking some spare cash into government bonds or fanciful investments. In the cases of Bill Liu and Donghua Liu, Cabinet ministers overrode official advice and approved their applications. In Dotcom's case, the investor threw a fireworks extravaganza as a grand "thank you" gesture; as well he might given the Hong Kong authorities convicted him on several relatively minor charges two months after our Immigration authorities approved his residency.

Somewhere - way down the track - these three investors who arguably should never have been allowed to buy their way into New Zealand in the first place also showed "their commitment to democracy" by stumping up with a magnanimous donation to their favourite politician or political party.

This frankly stinks.

If Cabinet ministers were outright pimping New Zealand citizenship to dubious foreign business people in return for party donations they would face criminal charges. Some of our politicians are far too supine and certainly lack judgment when it comes to approving applications by dubious investors to come here. But they are not venal.

So - despite the conspiracy mutterings on the blogs - National's political opponents who are now lining up to give the Key Government a solid bashing over the hapless Maurice Williamson's misjudgment are unlikely to "join the dots" or "follow the money" in that fashion.

That is because while our Cabinet ministers might seem unbelievably naive when it comes to making judgments over people like the two Lius, or Dotcom - there is no suggestion that investors are asked to stump up to party coffers in return for residencies or citizenship approvals at political levels.

Where it gets more complex is in what happens next.

There are unstated rules at the higher echelon of politics which all the players are careful to adhere too. The more cynical among us might label it as "form over substance". Investors see others welcomed at political party-hosted gatherings. They feel invited into the room. Expectations are created. Donations are made.

Some investors even get a bit crazy and overbid each other at auctions so they can win prizes to play golf with the Prime Minister, whose favourite charity happens to be his own party.

Is it really surprising that these rather questionable foreign investors read the political semaphore in the way they do?

So, Dotcom gets all hurt and vengeful when Act's minister-outside Cabinet John Banks doesn't deliver on the "anonymous" donations he made to the politician's earlier campaign to be mayor of Auckland. Dotcom believed he had made a transaction. He shopped Banks for welshing on the "deal". The courts will ultimately decide whether Banks did actively solicit for the two donations to be dressed up as anonymous to disguise their source.

Former Labour Immigration Minister Shane Jones was stood down by his leader while the Auditor-General was investigating how Bill Liu's immigration application was treated. The report certainly raised issues over Jones' judgment. His reputation was seriously damaged. There are still unanswered questions over Liu's donations to political parties. It was unseemly.

Now it's Williamson who is the latest politician to be caught pacifying the "Great God of Foreign Investment" at the expense of his own judgment.

It is notable that former Labour Immigration Minister Damien O'Connor was the first to override officials by approving Donghua Liu's residency. Williamson and Banks then successfully lobbied National Immigration Minister Nathan Guy to again override advice and grant Liu citizenship, which Williamson confirmed at a ceremony in his electorate office the next day.

A year later Liu made a $22,000 donation to National.

The Prime Minister was among the political cast who turned up for the launch of Liu's Boulevard hotel investment.

This is commonplace on both sides of Parliament.

What is not common is for a minister like Williamson to pick up the phone to the police on Liu's behalf after the latter was arrested on domestic violence charges.

Williamson has a tendency to indulge in operatic fluster when in a crisis.

Sure he didn't come out and brazenly tell the police to back off.

But the semaphore in his message was clear: "Not that I'm trying to interfere - but this is an important investor."

It doesn't cut it. Not as a minister either in or outside Cabinet.

Williamson - like too many of our senior politicians including Justice Minister Judith Collins with her pandering to Oravida's principals while she was supposed be in China carrying out her Justice portfolio duties - have been beguiled by relationships with "important foreign investors".

They should come down to earth.

The investors - like Liu and Stone Shi who has arguably had more ministerial attention than other NZ investors in the wake of the botulism scare - should not be treated differently to ordinary New Zealand citizens.

New Zealand's reputation will be damaged if they don't wake up soon.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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