DIA suggested tightening of the rules after Peter Thiel citizenship | Stuff.co.nz

More background on the advice involved and the way the government was played:

The Department of Internal Affairs suggested a tightening of the rules around ministerial grants of citizenship after the case of tech billionaire Peter Thiel came to light.

Then-minister Peter Dunne was interested in the proposed reforms, which included an open citizenship register, but did not manage to enact them before leaving Government.

It emerged in early 2017 that Thiel, a controversial backer of US President Donald Trump, had gained New Zealand citizenship despite spending only 12 days in the country as a resident. Potential citizens usually have to spend at least 1350 days in the country over a period of five years.

In 2011 then-Internal Affairs Minister Nathan Guy had granted him the citizenship using a special clause in the law giving ministers discretion to waive the rules in “exceptional circumstances” that were in the public interest.

Guy was advised to grant the citizenship under the clause as Thiel was a skilled and philanthropic investor.

Peter Dunne was receptive to the advice, saying ministers should be comfortable with their citizenship decisions making it to the front page of a newspaper.

Thiel had offered to assist with the establishment of an Auckland-based technology company and a “landing pad” in San Francisco to help New Zealand technology companies break into the US market. His lawyers pointed to his large investments in New Zealand technology companies and donation to the Canterbury earthquake recovery.

Guy said it had been in New Zealand’s economic interest to provide the citizenship and that Thiel had been a “great ambassador” for the country – despite Thiel keeping his citizenship secret for six years.

Soon after the citizenship came to light the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) briefed then-minister Dunne on steps he could take to tighten up the process and make it more transparent.

“There is an opportunity to make changes that will help address possible perceptions of undue influence, and better ensure public confidence in the citizenship process,” officials wrote to Dunne.

Suggested changes included an “open citizenship register,” a writing into law of which factors could be used when considering “exceptional circumstances,” and even setting out specific exception for activities such as vast financial investment.

Another option would be a periodic independent assessment of all of these decisions, which are relatively rare, by the Auditor General.

Speaking on Thursday, Dunne said he was interested in some of the changes but decided to wait until a planned review of citizenship laws after the election.

“The chances of getting any legislation prepared and passed before the election were practically zero,” Dunne said.

Asked if said changes would have gotten assent from the National Party, who led the Government, Dunne said he hadn’t gotten to the stage of asking them yet.

“I was certainly not opposed to it…the circumstances of the case do give us a wake up call be absolutely transparent and as upfront as we can be,” Dunne said.

“In the wake of the Thiel debacle a lot of stuff arose not so much about the exercise of ministerial discretion, but frankly how his case got so far advanced. This is someone who spent 12 days in the country.”

Dunne thought independent assessment of the decisions was a good idea but suggested the Ombudsman vet the decisions rather than the Auditor General. He also had concerns about the implications of an open citizenship register for those fleeing persecution.

He said any minister should be able to give reasons for their decision and should be comfortable with it possibly ending up on the front page of a newspaper.

New Internal Affairs minister Tracey Martin said she too was keen on tightening up the process and making sure it was transparent.

“I think there is a conversation that needs to be had around transparency. Particularly when the rules are so clearly altered by the minister or ignored by the minister,” Martin said.

She said public confidence in the system had been “rocked” by the Thiel case but she hoped the public would have confidence in her as a new minister.​

via DIA suggested tightening of the rules after Peter Thiel citizenship | Stuff.co.nz

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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