PM's Xmas gift - an immigration portfolio to someone else

8:50 am on 30 November 2018

By Brigitte Morten*

Opinion - The investigation into the handling of the Karel Sroubek immigration case was meant to provide clarity on what led Immigration Minister Iain Less-Galloway to making the decision to grant him residency.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway makes an announcement about the case of Czech drug-smuggler Karel Sroubek.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway makes an announcement about the case of Czech drug-smuggler Karel Sroubek. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Unfortunately, following the release of the review I, like most people, am even more confused. And even less confident in the minister's actions.

The minister has claimed that in making the original decision to grant Sroubek New Zealand residency he did not have all the information he has now - namely other grounds for deportation.

However, what grounds these are is unclear. Any mention of what exactly this information is, appears to have been in the file that the minister received. Or was easily found by the Opposition or the media.

The lack of robustness of the original file and the minister's treatment of it goes to the heart of the issue. There are few powers granted to ministers so unfettered as those under the Immigration Act. Mr Lees-Galloway, in exercising his power to provide essentially the last chance for many who want to stay in NZ, gets to do so without any obligation to disclose his reasons.

And for the most part, the community don't ask for these reasons because we trust that the minister has made a sound decision.

Nobody is alleging malice in Mr Lees-Galloway's decision. Nobody believes that the minister wanted to put a convicted criminal in to the NZ community. However, what has been alleged and is difficult to disprove - is that the minister failed to diligently exercise the trust we had given him.

There are many Kiwis that believe that Sroubek has no rights in this case - you have to face the consequences of the crime. However, few of us are ever in the position to actually have to enforce that. Ministers may literally hold the life of an individual in their hands when signing off on a file and the burden of this decision should not be over-simplified.

However, if the minister's mind was overwhelmed with the consequences of a decision to grant residency or allow deportation, it is difficult to see evidence of this in the minister's actions. He has admitted that he spent little time reviewing the file, didn't read all the information, and didn't push the officials for more information even though he had some doubts.

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Photo: Carmen Bird Photography

For the public this case provides wider grounds for concern. Anyone with their decision in the minister's hands will worry that they are being treated more harshly because of the scrutiny Mr Lees-Galloway feels he has to apply. The wider community will worry that there are other cases where this has happened - who else has been given the right to live here?

The public won't agree with every decision a minister makes but should be able to be confident that the minister has all the information, has probed the information and has made a decision on the basis of this.

Regardless of the reviews that are underway, and the minister's learnings from this case, Mr Lees-Galloway will not be able to provide regain the public's confidence in judgement on immigration cases.

For the PM, this means she has to make a decision. It is clear that this issue is going to drag on. Sroubek's lawyers have said he is going to appeal the case through the immigration tribunal, and may also take it to judicial review. Sroubek is fast becoming the new Kim Dotcom case.

Ministers have been demoted for lesser things - Clare Curran was demoted for failing to declare meetings with stakeholders.

Thankfully, there is an opportunity for the prime minister to take advantage of. She hasn't significantly changed her cabinet following the demotions of Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri, and a pre-Christmas reshuffle has become almost traditional for prime ministers.

Jacinda Ardern may wish to welcome in the festive season by giving the present of the immigration portfolio to someone else.

* Brigitte Morten is a senior consultant for Silvereye. Prior to that she was a senior ministerial adviser to the Minister of Education in the previous National-led government, and an adviser and campaign director for Australia's Liberal Party.

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