Editorial: Ministers and immigration shouldn't mix

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National Party Minister Maurice Williamson. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Party Minister Maurice Williamson. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Some differences are evident in the granting of New Zealand citizenship to wealthy Chinese businessmen Bill Liu and Donghua Liu. The former, who benefited from Labour's former Associate Immigration Minister Shane Jones acting against the advice of officials, had been red-flagged by Interpol.

The latter, who received an identical good turn from National's Nathan Guy, has started to develop what is reputed to be a $70 million construction project in Newmarket.

But whatever their characters, credentials and subsequent activities, the similarities in the way they gained citizenship are far more important - and far more alarming. Their cases should lead to contentious citizenship decisions being taken out of the hands of ministers.

Department of Internal Affairs officials recommended that Donghua Liu's application should be declined because he did not spend enough time in New Zealand or meet English language criteria. One of his business partners then approached Maurice Williamson, the Minister of Building and Construction, and John Banks, then Mayor of Auckland, and they asked Mr Guy to go against that official advice.

He agreed, after considering "on balance, the potential benefits to New Zealand". Subsequently, a company of which Mr Liu is a director donated $22,000 to the National Party.

Bill Liu was also a donor, but to Labour and National. The granting of citizenship to him led to an inquiry by the Auditor-General. Internal Affairs staff had also raised the possibility of favouritism in several other cases, including that of Donghua Liu. The inquiry found no evidence of improper motive, collusion or political interference by Mr Jones or any of the other citizenship bids. But other conclusions have relevance to both Mr Lius.

The most pertinent was that there were potential weaknesses in the way submissions to the minister were handled, especially where the applicant was supported by people who may have, or be seen to have, the ability to influence the minister's decision. "Advocacy of this kind, in particular where the advocate is a fellow-MP or known to the minister, clearly presents risks to the integrity of the decision-making system and to the reputation of those involved."

The Auditor-General recommended several steps to reduce this threat. The logical conclusion was not drawn, however. This would see the final say on such applications being taken from the minister and decided by an independent panel. MPs would remain free to advocate on behalf of constituents in citizenship cases. There would, however, be no chance for the minister to interfere inappropriately, and possibly against this country's best interests, in a decision taken by officials.

One of Donghua Liu's supporters tried to justify the granting of citizenship to him by suggesting the amount of time he spends in this country and his grasp of English were irrelevant in the modern world. "A lot of active, global businessmen are never in one place for any length of time ... People who have global businesses are good citizens," said business consultant Roy Mottram. If so, why did Mr Liu go to such lengths to gain citizenship?

Equally, other people who are not wealthy businessmen would surely have been denied citizenship because of their lack of English skills.

The official recommendation on granting citizenship was ignored in just 61 of the 1011 cases between 2009 and 2011. That suggests ministers usually act as they should by confining themselves to policy matters, leaving officials to deal with individual cases. But usually is not sufficient, especially when subsequent donations to political parties are part of the picture. The possibility for favouritism clearly exists. One case involving a Mr Liu was enough. Two confirm that changes must be made.

- NZ Herald

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