Labour MP and former Associate Immigration Minister Shane Jones' political career has been saved by an Auditor-General's report that found no evidence of improper motive, collusion or political interference in his decision to grant citizenship to Bill Liu. But the report makes it clear that if there was no evidence of corruption in this instance, the possibility for it certainly exists.
"This case has exposed potential weaknesses in the way that submissions to the minister are handled - particularly where the applicant is supported by individuals who may have, or be seen to have, the ability to influence the minister's decision," it says. The report seeks, therefore, to manage the risk as far as possible. Unfortunately, it does not go far enough.
The report advocates, in effect, a continuation of the same decision-making process but with more safeguards. The Department of Internal Affairs is urged to improve its system for identifying high-risk citizenship application files, ensure those files are managed by senior officials, and ensure the minister fully understands the issues and risks.
It also recommends that ministers making citizenship decisions against the advice of officials, as was the case with Mr Jones, should explain their decisions. This would give officials the chance to respond before the decision was finalised.
That is reasonable as far as it goes, but it does not address the whole principle of investing such decisions in a minister. Potential problems are, as the report notes, usually averted to some degree by ministers confining themselves to matters of broad direction and policy, leaving officials to make decisions that affect individual rights and interests. But that, it adds quite correctly, is not always possible or appropriate. "Decisions about citizenship are so closely related to core aspects of sovereignty that the law has always given ministers the power to decide who can become a New Zealander."
Decision-making should, indeed, not always be left to departmental officials. There should be scope for considered variations of the regulations set for immigration. People and their circumstances differ considerably, and it would be wrong to enforce rules so tightly that officials decided each case. Generally, ministers have exercised their authority and judgment well. But they also have political interests, not least in satisfying popular opinion. They may also fall under a particular influence and make a decision not in the country's best long-term interests.
For that reason, contentious immigration applications should be decided by an independent panel. This principle should apply in all areas where politicians could be seen to be trying to interfere in officials' decisions in an unusual or inappropriate manner. In pursuit of that end, expert independent agencies have been given an occasional outing, as in the case of telecommunications commissioners and electricity regulators. Sadly, their experience has confirmed the unwillingness of ministers to cede a high degree of control.
The Auditor-General's report provides another example of the folly of leaving matters to ministers. It points to a "combination of unusual circumstances and decisions" associated with Mr Liu's case. But it also says "it was not surprising that questions started to be asked". In the public sector, it notes, decisions not only have to be right, they have to be seen to be right. That was never likely to be so in the granting of citizenship - against the advice of officials - to a Chinese millionaire who had been red-flagged by Interpol and was a donor to the Labour Party. The Auditor-General's report and Mr Jones' subsequent reinstatement to Labour's front bench may, as the Prime Minister suggests, be a matter for Labour's leadership. But it raises issues that John Key should be prepared to address.