Lounge access. Dedicated check-in. Priority seating. And to the list of benefits for holders of China Southern Airline's Gold and Silver cards can now be added a benefit less ordinary: a "streamlined" visa process for your visit to New Zealand.

The fruit of quiet negotiations between Asia's biggest airline and the New Zealand government, the deal delivers a special visa leg-up to globetrotting Chinese nationals who carry that shiny plastic card. In the words of the immigration minister, Nathan Guy, members of this elite club, unlike their compatriots, "will not have to produce evidence of sufficient funds to support themselves".

And here's a neat irony: one of the many ways to gather the requisite points on China Southern is by spending up on your credit card - your China Southern Visa card, no less. Use Visa, streamline visa. Just think of the marketing potential.

Move along, said the minister, in response to typically rambunctious questions from Winston Peters, who lifted the lid on the deal in the house last week. Nothing to see here, he panted, as he scampered to issue a press release on the previously unannounced arrangement. This could be the "biggest beat-up of the year", chimed in one government supporter. But the real surprise is how little coverage the story attracted.


Strip out the tiresome Asian immigration dog-whistles from Peters, strip out any other hyperbole around the scale of advantage offered to frequent flyers, and still you're left with the stark, alarming fact: the New Zealand government has done a deal with an airline to provide unique advantage to members of their high-status air miles club in gaining a New Zealand visa, so that their customers might, in the words of a leaked memo "avoid the necessity to answer questions relating to financial backing and employment history and provide evidence of these".

It's not just the increased risk of "imported criminality" that the change entails, as Immigration New Zealand's national manager of intelligence and risk put it another leaked memo. It's also the, you know, principle.

Earlier this week, an op-ed on this subject was published in these pages. It sported the byline of Martin Snedden, the chief executive of the Tourism Industry Association of NZ, but read as if it had sprung from the Hekia Parata college of phrase-making. "In short," wrote the normally plain-speaking Snedden, "this decision was made within the context of a wider Government strategy designed to better optimise the opportunities presented by our fastest-growing visitor market."

His argument, in a nutshell, is this: Chinese tourists are really important to our industry; we need to make it easier for individuals to get holiday visas other than via the "shopping consortiums that have effectively gained control" over the group visa offering.

Authorities are taking steps to encourage Chinese visitors. Good. They want to tackle the domination of a select few tour group agents. Quite right. They're making the visa application process simpler. Excellent. But never does Snedden, nor the minister, seem to think it worth reflecting on the ethics of a government cutting a deal with a specific, foreign business to provide a specific category of their customers with a visa short-cut.

Because if this is the new modus operandi, why stop at perks for frequent flyers? We could streamline the process if you purchase a Porsche. Don't show us your bank balance, just flash the Rolex.

SkyCity have denied the accuracy of quotes attributed in a trade magazine to their head of international business about "working closely with China Southern Airlines to bring VIP gamblers into Auckland seamlessly". They dispute reports that he "confirmed the casino was in talks to make the visa process easier". But whatever the truth of any links between SkyCity and the China Southern deal, the provision of a marketing boon to an airline that is ramping up its flights to and from Auckland inevitably has echoes of that creepy pokies-for-convention-centre barter.

No doubt, negotiators regard such transactions as an economic fillip for New Zealand. And, very often, they may be right. "The Government discusses laws with commercial entities and large scale public entities all the time," rasped Bill English, swatting away questions last week. The nagging worry, however, is that the "New Zealand Inc" mindset beloved by so many of our business-like leaders today cultivates an idea of New Zealand as just another company, a quintessentially commercial enterprise in the world.


The pesky truth, however, is that a country, a nation state, is something altogether more complex and precious than that.