Week in Politics: Residency decision under intense scrutiny

11:51 am on 2 November 2018

By Peter Wilson

Opinion - A week in politics really is a long time. In less than seven days the focus has swung from National's meltdown to demands for a ministerial resignation over a decision the government won't explain.

Iain Lees-Galloway, Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, ACC, and of Immigration.

Iain Lees-Galloway has faced intense questioning from the opposition in Parliament over the issue. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has granted residency to a convicted criminal who would otherwise face deportation after completing a sentence for drug smuggling.

That decision is now under review and the indications are that it will be reversed, but what a mess the minister and his department have made of it.

Karel Sroubek fled the Czech Republic in 2003 and came to New Zealand on a false passport under the name Jan Antolik.

In 2009 his true identity was discovered when Czech police issued an arrest warrant and he went on trial here for passport fraud.

He was discharged without conviction, reportedly after claiming he had fled his home country because corrupt police wanted him to lie about a murder he had witnessed.

In 2016, he was convicted of drug smuggling and jailed for five years and seven months, a sentence he is still serving.

Why he should be given permission to remain in New Zealand while others with no criminal record are denied that right must mystify and concern most people. Many probably find it outrageous, and no reason for the decision has been given.

Mr Lees-Galloway wouldn't reveal it and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would only say "read between the lines".

Presumably she meant it was because of his claim about being in danger if he was sent home.

At that point they were trying to ride it out using confidentiality as the reason why nothing could be disclosed, but it started to unravel.

Ms Ardern and Mr Lees-Galloway faced intense questioning in Parliament from National's leader Simon Bridges and immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse.

It wasn't going well - National seemed to know more about Sroubek than the immigration minister. Mr Bridges, confident he had public sentiment behind him, made his best speech since becoming party leader. Mr Woodhouse, a former immigration minister, knew how the system worked.

It was revealed Sroubek had visited Europe at least once since he arrived in New Zealand after a court gave him permission to travel to the Czech Republic.

He had been given court permission on the grounds that he had business dealings in his home country.

This, Mr Bridges said, made nonsense of the claim that it was too dangerous for him to go home.

Mr Lees-Galloway was scorned as a naïve minister incapable of sound judgement and Mr Bridges called on him to resign.

Media criticism escalated and Mr Lees-Galloway attempted to avoid reporters on his way to the debating chamber.

"Iain Lees-Galloway has had so much wool pulled over his eyes you could call him Shrek," commentator Mike Hosking said.

"I think we can fairly safely conclude that when you hide behind a pillar on your way into the House so you can avoid the media, you know you're not having a good day."

On Wednesday, again under fierce scrutiny in Parliament, he said he had just received information which contradicted that on which he had based his decision.

This new information would be evaluated, which could lead to his decision being reviewed.

The media sniffed a backdown and National suspected the government was looking for a way out of an embarrassing situation which had put it on the wrong side of public opinion.

Mr Lees-Galloway refused to say what the new information was, but Newstalk ZB claimed to know.

It reported Sroubek's former wife had initially supported his bid to remain in New Zealand but was now applying for a restraining order against him.

If the government is looking for a way out it could be used as a justification to reverse the residency decision.

Mr Lees-Galloway has emphasised throughout that he was acting on information and advice from officials. If that information was inaccurate or inadequate, it will be argued that he wasn't to blame for getting it wrong.

National won't buy that. The buck stops with the minister, it will say, and Mr Lees-Galloway clearly didn't do his job properly.

Did he know, for example, that Sroubek had visited Europe since coming to New Zealand? Did his department know, and if so did it tell him?

In Parliament, Justice Minister Andrew Little confirmed that Czech authorities indicated in 2005 they "had an interest" in Sroubek but did not file a formal extradition request.

Did the minister or his department know that?

As National has pointed out, the Czech Republic is a European Union country. Its justice system meets EU requirements and its authorities have a file on Sroubek.

Maybe Mr Lees-Galloway should ask them to share that file, if they haven't already done so, and should explain the reason for his decision.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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