17 July 2017: On 23 February 2017, the Auditor-General received a request from Denise Roche MP to look into the the decision to grant citizenship to Peter Thiel. This is our response.
Thank you for your letter dated 23 February 2017 requesting that the Auditor-General investigate the decision to grant citizenship to Peter Thiel.
We have carefully considered whether we can inquire into the decision to grant Mr Thiel citizenship. To help our consideration, we sought and obtained documents relating to Mr Thiel’s application from the Department of Internal Affairs. Based on that information, we have decided not to conduct an inquiry. This letter explains our reasons for this decision.
We do not have a role in individual citizenship decisions generally. A guide prepared by the government, Apply for NZ Citizenship (found at www.govt.nz), states that where citizenship applications are declined, the unsuccessful applicant can ask the courts to review the Minister’s decision or complain to the Office of the Ombudsman. These are the right avenues for addressing complaints about decisions in individual cases.
However, we have previously inquired into a citizenship case that raised potentially serious systemic issues. That inquiry focused on the decision by a former Associate Minister of Immigration, Hon Shane Jones, to grant citizenship to Mr Yang Liu in 2008.
We inquired into Mr Liu’s case because it raised significant questions about the strength and effectiveness of the system that supported Ministers’ decision-making on citizenship applications. Specific concerns had been raised about improper political interference in the decision-making process by several MPs and other associates who either knew Mr Liu or were connected to the citizenship decision in some way. These concerns were set against the fact that the Minister had approved Mr Liu’s application with urgency and against officials’ advice at a time when Mr Liu was being investigated by Immigration New Zealand for alleged identity fraud. As the then Auditor-General Lyn Provost stated in the overview of her report - “[p]ut bluntly, the underlying question was whether the system included enough protection against the risk of corruption”.
the Minister considered Mr Thiel’s application carefully, as he has said publicly that he did not recall the application.
Section 9(1)(c) of the Act provides the Minister with a broad discretion to grant citizenship in special cases. The Minister does not need to consider most of the normal requirements for citizenship, such as presence or intention to reside in New Zealand. The success of an application will turn on the Minister’s assessment of “public interest” and “exceptional circumstances” in the particular case. The section does not specify what these terms mean or how the Minister’s discretion should be exercised. This means the legislation allows for considerable flexibility on a case-by-case basis.
In Mr Thiel’s case, the Department of Internal Affairs considered the material supplied with the application, and sought and received additional information. The Department then provided the Minister with a written submission that recommended the application be granted using the Minister’s discretion under section 9(1)(c) of the Act. The Minister’s decision was consistent with this advice.
The issues in this case largely come down to policy questions (for example, whether the legislation strikes the right balance for citizenship decisions) or legal questions (for example, whether the Minister applied section 9(1)(c) correctly or gave weight to the right factors in Mr Thiel’s case). These are not questions that the Auditor-General generally has authority to answer. Unlike Mr Liu’s case, there are not the same types of systemic concerns that fall more easily within our mandate.
If any further information comes to light that raises material systemic concerns about the processes supporting decision-making on citizenship applications, we will consider the impact of that information on our decision not to inquire.
A copy of this letter is being sent to the Department of Internal Affairs. Given the recent publicity about this issue, we intend to publish this letter on our website.