Prices differentiated by location

We drove back to Wellington from Ohope yesterday and, having been intrigued by some incredibly low petrol prices in Otaki as we had driven north, my trusty research assistant set out to jot down all the petrol prices (for 91) we saw as we drove home again.  She only fell asleep once, necessitating a momentary stop in Foxton so that I could take down the  –  rather low – price there

To the owner of the G.A.S. outlet at Lake Rotoma I can only offer the advice that if you want passing motorists to buy your petrol, it probably pays to make the price visible from the road.

This is what we saw:

Whakatane           178.7/9

Awakeri                 188.9

Rotorua                  162.7/9    (this was three stations on the road to the airport; one other a few kms away by Whakarewarewa was advertising 182.9)

Waiotapu                178.9

Taupo                       185.9 to 190.9

Te Rangiita             192.9 and 194.9

Turangi                    194.9

Waiouru                   197.9

Taihape                    195.9

Hunterville             195.9/196.9

Bulls                          191.9

Sanson                      192.9

Foxton                       179

Levin                          176.7 to 180.9

Otaki                          205.9

Waikanae                  191.9/193.9

Paraparaumu           193.9

Plimmerton              206.9 to 208.9

Central Wellington   208.9

Given that the retail price of petrol has a very large tax component, it is an extraordinary range of prices: 46.2 cents from low to high.   The AA website tells me that on each litre of petrol there is a fixed 67.284 cents per litre tax component, with the variable (in terms of cents per litre) GST on top of that.    That means the price of petrol excluding excise is around 50 per cent higher in Wellington (141.6 cents per litre) than in Rotorua (95.4 cents per litre).  Yes, there are some differences in transport costs –  but not much between Whakatane and Awakeri, or between Levin and Otaki.  The biggest difference –  and the rather obvious one –  is the state of competition in the respective markets.  Gull (and Waitomo in Foxton) seems to more or less have guaranteed low prices.  Absent that sort of competition and prospects aren’t good at all.  Sadly for Wellingtonians there is no such aggressive competition here.

I don’t have a policy point to make, but surely there must be a market opportunity here? Levin just isn’t that far from Wellington, and they seem to manage.

On another topic, what to make of the Peter Thiel citizenship story?

Had the man wished to settle here I’d have had no objection.  He seems to be of good character, unlikely to burden the New Zealand taxpayer, and there might even be some of the famed spillover benefits (the immigration advocates are always championing) to New Zealanders had he done so.

But, and while the facts seem to be emerging quite slowly, there is no sign that he had ever intended to settle here. And, one would have to ask, why would someone like him seriously think of doing so –  being fully engaged in the US political processs, and heavily involved in industries that are centred in the US?

Against that backdrop, it looks as though we (well, the government) have simply “sold” him citizenship.     The sort of thing they used to do in places like Tonga and Panama –  and still apparently do in some otherwise respectable countries.

I’m not sure what advantages there are to a New Zealand passport for someone who doesn’t want to live here.  For some, perhaps it is the number of countries people can travel to visa-free.  For others perhaps, it is a way around the overseas investment restrictions on purchases of New Zealand land.  I think most of those restrictions should be abolished, but I don’t think our government should be offering sweetheart deals to wealthy foreigners to enable them to get around laws and restrictions that our Parliament has passed.

One of the newspapers today reports the government suggesting that up to 300 grants of citizenship are made each year under the “exceptional circumstances” provisions.  If so, that is extraordinary, and is being done with little or no transparency.  I’d have no problem with a very rare grant of citizenship to, say, an international human rights campaigner declared stateless (and passportless) by their own country –  which is the sort of circumstance a superficial reading of the statutory provision seems to suggest.

But citizenship is more than just a certificate of convenience.  It is about membership in a nation.  Mostly it comes by birth or descent.  For most others, it involves moving here, settling here, and intending to stay –  to become an ongoing part of the group of people who are New Zealand.    Sure, the boundaries can be fuzzy.    There are people who were born here, who no longer live here and have never paid New Zealand taxes, who are still New Zealand citizens.  But a relationship by birth/blood is different than one by administrative grant.

Thiel, it seems, has never lived here, and probably has no intention to do so.  By contrast, a typical migrant who moves here –  0r indeed someone who has citizenship by descent (including two of my children) but wishes to be a fully naturalised New Zealand – not only has to have lived here for a sustained period (typically five years) but must intend to keep living here.  As the Department of Internal Affairs website puts it

You have to plan to keep living in NZ. If you don’t, it has to be because you’ll be:

  • working overseas for the New Zealand government
  • working for an international organisation the NZ government is a member of (like the UN), or
  • employed by a person or organisation that’s based in NZ.

There is simply no sign that Peter Thiel would have met that test.   Again, perhaps there is a case for fast-tracking a grant of citizenship on rare occasions (eg to represent the country in an international event) but even then surely only for someone where there is an intention to stay living here.

It isn’t even clear what contribution Thiel has made that might have enabled the Minister to be satisfied that there were exceptional circumstances.  There are reports of a large donation to an earthquake charity in 2011 –  which looks uncomfortably like a “fee”, but with the benefit not even going to the public purse –  and talk of investment in some New Zealand companies, which seems mostly like private benefits all round (to the investor, and to the invested in).

At very least, if we are going to grant ministers of the Crown authority to make discretionary grants of citizenship, the public needs some more protections.    Perhaps in any case where the Minister proposes to exercise this discretionary power, the name of the person should be notified in the Gazette for, say, two months prior to the grant of citizenship? Ministers could be statutorily required to have regard to any submissions made on the proposed citizenship grants.

Granting citizenship to Thiel isn’t corruption in any direct sense –  no doubt it was done quite lawfully.  But the statutory provisions, when used in this way  –  even for an otherwise blameless individual – risk corrupting what it means to be a citizen, and gives too much discretionary power to ministers and their officials who can use the power of membership of this country to serve their own interests.  Citizenship is a privilege; one that should be secured by birth or prolonged residence (I’d probably favour a period longer than five years, but that is incidental).  And it should be a matter of entitlement once specific pre-specified detailed conditions are met.  Citizenship in a serious country shouldn’t be on offer to people with no familial connection to New Zealand, no evidence of having settled here and no plans to make New Zealand their primary location, and certainly not to people –  however able – who are willing to disburse money to favoured causes.

Finally, in a week when on the one hand “alternative facts” has entered the political lexicon, and on the other when the latest Demographia housing numbers are out, one is reminded that this citizenship grant occurred under a government led by a Prime Minister willing to assert, in defiance of all the facts, that high and rising house prices were simply a mark of how well New Zealand was doing, and how desirable New Zealand was as a place to live.  As distasteful as Trump’s are, alternative facts aren’t new.