Peter Thiel and New Zealand citizenship

I offered a few initial thoughts the other day on the government’s decision in 2011 to grant citizenship to Peter Thiel.  The Department of Internal Affairs has now released large chunks of the material they hold on the Thiel case, although the minister at the time, Nathan Guy, remains unwilling to answer any serious questions on his exercise of discretion.  Unfortunately that refusal makes it look as though he has something to hide, which he probably doesn’t.

I remain uneasy about this specific exercise of the discretionary powers Parliament gave to the Minister, and perhaps more so about the provisions themselves and how they are being operated.  Having said that, it is far from the worst decision the current government has made in its time in office, and far from being the worst immigration/citizenship decision in recent times either –  the Labour Party’s continued refusal (as recently as on Morning Report this morning) to apologise for granting citizenship to Bill Liu, directly against the advice of officials counts as rather worse in my view.

I’d even grant Eric Crampton’s argument that of all the half-baked interventions governments like to do to help business, ones like this might be less costly than most.  But that isn’t really the point.  I think the issue should really turn on what it means to be a citizen.   Supporters of having granted citizenship to Thiel seem to see it as little more than a piece of paper –  cheap to issue, signifying little, and if a decent chap whom they like would like one of those pieces of paper, why not just give it to him.

But among the papers in the DIA release was material from Thiel’s lawyers that seemed to better capture what I think of when I think of citizenship.  I can’t now find the specific page again, but it was along the lines of Thiel recognising that “citizenship is irrevocable” [which it isn’t] and that it “signified a hallowed bond”.   The language was perhaps a little too sacramental even for me –  reminiscent of a liturgical description of a wedding ring –  but it seemed to capture something quite important.  Citizenship is expressive of a bond that has already formed, and  – when actively sought and assumed – of a commitment to continuing to foster and strengthen that bond.   We can’t easily look into the hearts and souls of men and women, and so our citizenship law relies largely on behavioural evidence, and particularly continued residence, and an affirmed attention to remain resident.

[UPDATE: I’ve now found the quote from the lawyers’ letter:   ‘Mr Thiel has advised that “citizenship is irrevocable.  It is the public recognition of a hallowed bond.  For that reason and others he is prepared to make this solemn allegiance and to thereby embrace and contribute to the life, history, and culture of New Zealand.”‘]

And yet we learn from the documents DIA released yesterday that Peter Thiel had been to New Zealand just four times prior to the grant of citizenship, had never lived here, and had no intention of living here.  He was apparently enamoured of various things about New Zealand –  some mix of landscape, character, government and business environment perhaps – and even declared that he had never found a country that accorded with his values etc as much as New Zealand did.

“I am happy to say categorically that I have found no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand,”

Perhaps, but the most serious evidence that all that was true might have been taking up residence here, or even expressing some serious intention of doing so in future.  But Thiel and his lawyers were quite upfront about that: there was no such intention.

What remains unclear is what Thiel thought was in it for him in seeking to become a citizen.  Regrettably, he has been unwilling to answer media questions on that, or other aspects of the citizenship grant.  Such reluctance to front up isn’t really the New Zealand –  or American –  way, but perhaps fronting up to explain his deep and abiding commitment to New Zealand and all it stands for might undermine his domestic political/diplomatic aspirations in the US?     The two most obvious advantages to New Zealand citizenship seem to be that New Zealand passports get one into many countries more easily than US passports do –  although it is hard to imagine that is a huge issue for Thiel (who presumably has staff to do the donkey work of applying for visas etc)  –  and the ability to purchase land in New Zealand without (overseas investment) restriction.   Since Thiel has subsequently bought land that would otherwise have been subject to those (daft) restrictions, there is at least a plausible case that that was a significant part of Thiel’s motive.    Then again, a government that would give him citizenship (on the quiet) might just as easily have granted approval to buy the land (although perhaps that wouldn’t have been so quiet).

It is disconcerting that the Department of Internal Affairs shows few signs of having probed motivation, even though it seems a fairly obvious angle to pursue in gaining a complete picture when someone is seeking to have a minister exercise discretion in their favour.   In the released documents, there are statements from Thiel and his lawyers along the lines that if he was granted citizenship he would feel better able or more confident in representing New Zealand interests on the international stage.

“to be able to say he is a Kiwi will let him feel greater ease and confidence in mobilising New Zealand’s talented entrepreneurs.  It will allow him to represent then and their companies on the international stage not only as an investor but also as a fellow countryman. It will highlight the fact that his belief in New Zealand is so strong that he has made the commitment to take up residency and citizenship…”

But in what sense is he “a Kiwi”?  And quite what commitment is involved in taking up (legal) residency and citizenship when (for example) doing so does not even involve living here?   And if in the subsequent six years very few people  –  here or in the US –  were even aware that Thiel was a New Zealand citizen one has to wonder quite what content this statement had even had.

Another line in the documents that caught my eye was Thiel’s argument for why residence shouldn’t be a factor to be considered in his case.

“I appreciate that I would not ordinarily qualify fo a grant of citizenship under such circumstances, but believe I am an exception in that my business travel and range of interests is international and in that regard I believe I am in a similar category to other New Zealanders –  Douglas Myers, Graeme Hart, Chris Liddell are names that come to mind.”

There is, of course, a rather important difference: those three are New Zealanders (probably by birth in each case).  Thiel was not.  No one has a problem with business people travelling.  But his case would have been much stronger –  reasonably compelling –  if he had indicated an intention to take up residence in New Zealand.  But he didn’t.  And why not?  Presumably because, among other factors, the centre of gravity of his business interests is in the United States –  which makes a lot of sense in the industries he is involved in.   There is no substantive sense in which he was, or was about to become, a New Zealander.  But he has a piece of paper.

And it isn’t clear from any of the documents, or any of the subsequent material, what Thiel has done in or for New Zealand interests that he would not have done otherwise.  His investments here are presumably on the basis of looking for a good deal, and bring to the table his own expertise in combination with the domestic ideas.  Plenty of people invest abroad –  and perhaps even sing the praises of those locations –  without becoming (even on the cheap) citizens of those countries.  And, on the other hand, a citizenship that costs nothing is unlikely to be much of a signifier to others in the home country to whom Thiel’s investments and arguments might otherwise provide a lead.  Costly actions can provide valuable signals.  Cheap ones don’t.

It isn’t the worst grant of citizenship ever, but it cheapens what it means to be a New Zealander.  For Thiel it seems to mean little but, possibly, a way around some (daft, but lawful) land purchase restrictions, and some vague association with his image of New Zealand.  There is no commitment.   And it simply shouldn’t be a sufficient basis to obtain citizenship.  If he’d wanted to move here, and stay here, I’d be happy to have him –  there would be more prospect of him adding value to New Zealanders than is the case for most of those who have obtained citizenship in the last 25 years – but citizenship, especially that sought and granted discretionarily, should mean something.  Otherwise, we come perilously close to selling passports, or giving them away to people who happen to take the fancy of the powerful.

It still isn’t clear how many of these extraordinary grants of citizenship there are.  Last week, government sources suggested 200 to 300 a year, but apparently the DIA released documents now say there were only 92 in the last five years.  That seems a more acceptable and understandable number, and allays some of my concerns.  But the process seems weak and insufficiently transparent.  And there is too much risks of future ministers offering citizenship as a bauble to people who take their fancy, or otherwise gain influence with them.   As I noted last week, if there are rare cases where discretionary grants of citizenship are appropriate, lets have it all done openly.   Make any applications a matter of public record, and leave them open for two months, allowing public submissions to be made, and requiring the minister to have regard to those submissions.  Perhaps if that model had been followed, there wouldn’t have been much objection to Peter Thiel –  plenty of people are in the thrall of some vision of a high tech future, and New Zealanders tend to be rather pragmatic, for good and ill.

In the process of looking again at quite how we grant citizenship, perhaps a few other aspects of the process/law might be worth looking at.  Flicking through the DIA website, I found this extraordinary line

You might not get citizenship if you have:

  • ….
  • ever been involved in terrorism
  • ever committed a war crime or crime against humanity.

Now I know the old line about one person’s terrorist being another person’s freedom fighter, but really……why are our ministers and officials ever even considering granting citizenship to anyone who has ever committed a war crime or crime against humanity?