There's no doubt that Peter Thiel, billionaire citizen of New Zealand, makes for good copy, says Toby Manhire.

The Thiel archive overflows with killer ledes: the vengeance-sparked secret bankrolling of Hulk Hogan's lawsuit that bankrupted a website, the interest in injecting young people's blood, the fixation on fabricated libertarian utopias out in the ocean, the programme to pay students to drop out of college, and not least the vocal and financial support for Donald Trump.

Now a key adviser, Thiel has been suggested, among other things, as a potential candidate for Supreme Court nomination, for governor of California and US ambassador to Germany.

But while he is a theme park of headline possibility, the nub of the issue over his freshly revealed citizenship is straightforward: How'd he get it?


New Zealand offers a bunch of special visas for individuals who represent an economic win: investor visa, investor-plus, entrepreneur visa, and so on. Peter Thiel, as one of the most successful venture capitalists alive and a keen investor in New Zealand startups, would presumably satisfy these criteria without breaking a sweat.

But these, importantly, offer residency. That might mean, down the track, successful applicants can go for citizenship, but only after having been actually resident in the country - for just about everyone that means, as is laid out in the Citizenship Act, living here "for a minimum of 1350 days during the 5 years immediately preceding the date of the application; and for at least 240 days in each of those 5 years".

Notwithstanding the possibility that tech investor Thiel is developing a prototype device that allows him to be in two places at once, it's a fairly safe bet that he didn't come close to that.

There is an exception: where the minister responsible deems an individual warrants citizenship "in the public interest because of exceptional circumstances of a humanitarian or other nature relating to the applicant".

As confirmed yesterday by the prime minister, Thiel, who became a citizen in June 2011, won the coveted Kiwi imprimatur thanks to the exceptional circumstances rule.

Channelling perhaps the ever-relaxed sangfroid of his predecessor, Bill English told reporters that "a little bit of flexibility" was always a good idea in citizenship matters. But there was "no question about the correctness of the process".

He estimated about 200-300 people fell into the Thiel special category, and: "If people come here and invest and get into philanthropy and are supportive of New Zealand, then we're better off for their interest in our country."

Thiel, whose laudable contributions to New Zealand include a million-dollar donation to the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal, as announced in April 2011, had "demonstrated his commitment to New Zealand" since gaining official residency in 2006.


The trouble is that unlike those investor visas, where the conditions and criteria are laid out clearly, who can really say what "in the public interest because of exceptional circumstances" does or doesn't mean?

The Department of Internal Affairs offers some help, elaborating intriguingly on the wording of the act by advising that: "You need to give evidence that shows how New Zealand will benefit from your citizenship", and offering two examples, one being members of the NZ Defence Force who need citizenship to be deployed overseas, which doesn't seem awfully likely in the Thiel case.

The other: "You're a talented musician or sportsperson and want to represent New Zealand internationally." While it's true that Thiel was a high-school chess champ, it's probably not that.

Maybe the assessors had the plight of the media in mind, and judged that with interest in Kim Dotcom on the wane, we could use another colourful German-born internet tycoon to keep us busy.

Crucially, there is no mention in the act, nor in the Internal Affairs guidelines, of an exception that would explain the PM's reference to special citizen terms for people who "come here and invest and get into philanthropy". And if there is an exception on that basis, it really should be written down somewhere, publicly and transparently.

Remember, after all, the means by which the Herald's Matt Nippert came upon the story was an inquiry as to whether Thiel had Overseas Investment Office permission for a lakefront Wanaka property purchase. He didn't need it, because he was a citizen. While it's highly unlikely Thiel sought citizenship with a view to avoiding the requirements of the Overseas Investment Act, what's stopping others trying exactly that?


The first week

It's not yet a week since President Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th president of the United States and delivered a thundering "America First" inaugural address before a comparatively modest crowd - I beg your pardon, before a huge crowd, the hugest, most tremendous and ovationary crowd the world has ever seen - from the steps of the Capitol in Washington DC.

And already it feels like an age.

The ceaseless procession of scandals, leaks, recriminations and adjectival inflation seem frankly unsustainable: carry on like this, even at half the speed, and surely Trump will not still be in the White House by Christmas.

Or maybe he will. As Europe expert Anne Applebaum pointed out in response to suggestions that it couldn't possibly last: "Let me introduce you to other illiberalising democracies - Poland, Hungary, Turkey - where it just goes on and on."

It was North Korea, meanwhile, that was triggered in many minds by Trump's declaration, soon after becoming president, that his inauguration day should be forever remembered as a day of patriotism "I hereby proclaim Jan 20, 2017, as National Day of Patriotic Devotion", read the paperwork, really it did.

Others meanwhile, turned to George Orwell. Encouraged, presumably, by Trump's obsession with, and bare-faced lies about, the turnout on the National Day of Patriotic Devotion - which led to the newspeak coinage "alternative facts" from Trump propagandist Kellyanne Conway - 1984 sales have surged.


Among the novel's soothing passages is Winston's impression in Chapter 7 that Big Brother had "penetrated inside your skull ... persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses. In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it."