28 Jul 2021

Wallabies' exemption a political decision, minister acknowledges

From Checkpoint, 5:05 pm on 28 July 2021

Acting Covid-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall has conceded it was a political decision to let the Australian men's rugby team come to New Zealand despite the trans-Tasman bubble pause. 

The Wallabies have been granted an economic exemption so they can play the All Blacks in Auckland in 10 days' time.

The government has said a single rugby test is worth between $17 million and $20m in spending for the host region.

However, previous Bledisloe Cup hosts report takings of between $1m and $10m. 

Verrall granted the Australian team an economic exemption to travel to New Zealand for the Bledisloe Cup, despite the freeze on quarantine-free travel with Australia.

The team, which has been operating in a bubble, will not have to isolate. They arrive in New Zealand by charter on Friday morning.

The decision has frustrated some exporters who are struggling to get in and out of the country to do business because of border restrictions and the squeeze on MIQ.

Dr Verrall defended the government's figures on Checkpoint.

"There is clearly an economic benefit to having the Bledisloe Cup played," she said.

"I think it was estimated at $20m, and in addition I'd note that the exemption is because these are not New Zealand citizens but they're not coming back on flights that New Zealanders would otherwise be on. They're on a charter flight."

Verrall said she had advice on the decision from officials, and the economic boost seemed like a plausible estimate.

However, figures from Auckland Council show a 2020 match between Australia and New Zealand in Auckland brought approximately $938,000 to the region. That game was also without Australian visiting fans, as the border was closed. 

Verrall said she could not explain the economic exemption criteria so other businesses could apply. 

"It is pretty tough to be able to provide criteria when a lot of these opportunities are time limited.

"It's not like I'm looking at a list of other businesses that may be able to bring people in, in exactly the same time. To be honest, we looked at that as an individual case."

When asked if it was a political decision, Verrall acknowledged it was. 

"But I want to be clear that I took into account the health criteria and potential health impacts of people coming into New Zealand by this arrangement. 

"If there are concerns, if members of the public think our estimates are incorrect I'd happily have another look at that, but we have granted the exemption for the Bledisloe Cup Match to go ahead." 

There was also no requirement that multiple test matches happen in New Zealand, Verrall said. 

"The other tests are to be determined."

She said the prime minister and sport minister supported the decision. 

"We are making efforts to make sure that other industries can have their needs met as well," she said. 

All Blacks yet to be vaccinated, mandatory for tour - NZR CEO

New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson was not able to clearly tell Checkpoint the case for giving the Wallabies an economic exemption either. 

"We've been in regular contact as a whole lot of other different organisations and sectors have been for some time now. So we simply were able to have a conversation about the fact of the importance of these games. Not only the economic importance but certainly the fact that live sport in our country is vitally important as well.

"So thankfully we've had the opportunity to bring the Australians in," he said.

Robinson said NZ Rugby and other organisations have been in regular dialogue with the government about various issues, one of which was the economic impact. 

He said there was a general acceptance of the benefits of live sport, but could not say where the estimated $17m to $20m economic boost quoted by the government had come from. 

NZ Rugby is working on the basis that New Zealand will be able to host another match with Australia, but it was not guaranteed. 

The All Blacks are scheduled to play a match in Washington DC in October, after playing in Australia. But Robinson could not give a clear answer on whether the squad would be in MIQ twice. 

No All Blacks players have been vaccinated yet for Covid-19, he said, but are due to be offered the vaccination by the end of July. 

"We've just been approved to have the early vaccination... that will happen in the next couple of days.

"It is our policy at NZ Rugby that [players] have to be vaccinated to travel and tour."