The full story of the citizenship granted to American high-tech billionaire celebrity Peter Thiel, reported by Matt Nippert in this paper today, is one that raises questions for New Zealand immigration policy.

Thiel offered this country the prospect of substantial investment in our own technology start-ups. He was an enthusiast for New Zealand, particularly for the freedom and vitality of our lightly regulated, market-led economy.

At a speech in Auckland about the time he was gaining citizenship, he recalled his first visit to New Zealand more than 10 years earlier when he took a Shotover jet boat ride, which he described as one of "the crazy things you can do in New Zealand that you can't do anywhere else".

Citizenship, of course, was another thing someone of his wealth could do in New Zealand more easily than possibly anywhere else.


With it, he was able to buy spectacular property on the southern lakes which remains more conspicuous than his investments in technology here. He bought into Xero, owning 7 per cent of it for a time and more than tripling his investment, but has since sold down.

He made his first fortune as a founder of Paypal but has not matched the subsequent flair of his co-founders. Elon Musk followed it up with Tesla and SpaceX, Reid Hoffman launched LinkedIn, Steve Chen founded YouTube. Thiel was an early investor in Facebook which catapulted his wealth into the billions and he remains one of its directors.

With that sort of pedigree he would be welcome to take a more visibly active role in New Zealand's technology industry and business generally but it seems he prefers not to be seen or heard here.

His citizenship was kept quiet until Nippert broke the story in the Herald a year ago. Since, he has been almost a recluse when he has been here at all. He ignored 10 approaches from the Herald until offering brief comment for today's story: "I believe in New Zealand, and I believe the future of New Zealand's technology industry is still underrated. I look forward to helping it succeed long-term."

It is easy to understand how ministers and officials were once charmed by statements like that. But Nippert today catalogues a spate of undertakings and investments in New Zealand during the year or so before the previous Government granted him citizenship in June, 2011.

It did this despite Thiel having been in the country for a total of just 12 days to that point. The usual requirement for investor's citizenship is at least 1350 days of residence in the preceding five years.

Thiel's citizenship was conferred at the New Zealand consulate in Santa Monica, California. Six months later, Nippert has discovered, a company Thiel had founded to "help grow New Zealand into a hub of technological progress" had the country's name removed from that website notice.

A proposed Auckland technology incubator never appeared. His commitment to a San Francisco "launch pad" for Kiwi companies ended after three years.


It is hard to see what Thiel intended to gain from the citizenship. He may enjoy coming here occasionally. His Queenstown home is used but he has done nothing with his spread on Lake Wanaka's shore.

If New Zealand is just a "bolt hole" for him he hardly needed citizenship and New Zealand should not have compromised the integrity of its rules to give it to him.

Of course, he could yet live up to our hopes and make it all worthwhile.