17 Aug 2014

Should politicians stay out of immigration?

From Insight, 8:12 am on 17 August 2014

"Fundamentally changing someone's life." That is how Associate Immigration Minister Nikki Kaye describes the decisions she has to make when considering individual immigration requests made to her office.

But as Insight has discovered, there are some who feel a politician isn't the right person to be making those decisions, and that greater transparency is needed.

The outside of Parliament

Parliament buildings Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

Figures from the minister of immigration's office show how involved MPs are in lobbying for ministerial intervention.

Details obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveal there was written advocacy from MPs in about a third of all cases considered at ministerial level in the past 2 years.

A ministerial request is one of the last options for those who want to permanently live in New Zealand.

Cases are generally heard by the associate immigration minister, and in the last two years MPs have lobbied Ms Kaye in writing in connection with 750 cases.

But the figures could be higher as the minister's office says they don't keep a record of all instances of interactions, such as phone calls or emails, where an MP is advocating over an immigration case.

Laila Harre.

Laila Harre. Photo: RNZ

Head of the Internet Party, Laila Harre, regards a system where a minister of the Crown is a final point for decision making as inherently politicised.

"I think the objection is to who is exercising the discretion, and the potential for pressure to be brought through political relationships on the outcome of the case," she says.

Ms Harre says the involvement of MPs starts at the constituency level and she constantly hears how much time is taken up with immigration cases. Labour's Immigration spokesperson, Trevor Mallard, says at times up to 50 percent of cases that are dealt with at his electorate office can involve immigration.

Green Party immigration spokesperson Jan Logie has worries about undue influence in a country as small as New Zealand and she wants greater transparency.

"We are seeing, at the moment, what is looking increasingly like two sets of rules, one for the wealthy, and on the other hand seeing people who are looking for safety and basic protection of their lives who are not getting the protections offered by New Zealand," she says.

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Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley

In Australia, a similar system known as a ministerial intervention also operates. But there are greater requirements for transparency built in to the system according to Sydney immigration lawyer, Laurette Chao.

"The minister's powers are non-reviewable, but he does publish guidelines as to the type of conditions they are prepared to consider. There are statistics published which say under which sections of the law the minister has considered requests for intervention," .

There were suggestions that even that system needed to be tightened. But the Australian government has rejected recommendations from a Senate select committee for an independent body to make recommendations to the minister - describing the suggestion as not appropriate.

However, it is high profile cases and allegations of political influence with individuals in this country such as Kim Dotcom, whose residency was approved by officials and that of Donghua Liu, whose residency was approved by the then associate immigration minister, Labour MP Damien O'Connor, that have prompted questions about undue influence.

It's a perception that is acknowledged by Ms Kaye, who says decisions made by successive governments have made some people think there is a special treatment being handed out. But she says people also don't realise anyone can request a ministerial intervention, not just MPs.

Labour Immigration spokesperson Trevor Mallard does not see any need for change and regards it as essential to have a someone with the discretion to make decisions in cases that fall outside of normal policy.

But he believes the individual making those final immigration decisions after an application to the minister has to have backbone.

Assoc Immigration Minister Nikki Kaye.

Assoc Immigration Minister Nikki Kaye. Photo: NATIONAL PARTY

"The Prime Minister must have faith in the person to make appropriate decisions, decisions which are fair and as consistent as they can be given the variety of facts in different cases," he says.

Ms Kaye also supports the system as it stands, even if people are opposed to political involvement. She can also see why some might favour change, but describes the current system as pretty robust.
 
" That doesn't mean there couldn't be future policy changes to make it more transparent, but I think people need to come up with them.,"

Ms Kaye says any suggestions about how the system might be improved would be considered.

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