Bill English defends citizenship rules over Peter Thiel decision
Prime Minister Bill English has defended a decision to grant citizenship to American tech billionaire Peter Thiel, saying "a little bit of flexibility" is useful when it comes to citizenship laws.
The revelation that Thiel, the founder of PayPal and a high-profile Donald Trump supporter, was granted New Zealand citizenship more than five years ago has placed pressure on the Government to explain the decision.
A spokesman for the Department of Internal Affairs confirmed Thiel became a citizen on June 30, 2011, after the Overseas Investment Office revealed his citizenship status was why his company's purchase of a $13.5 million lifestyle block in Wanaka did not require extra scrutiny.
Speaking to media in Christchurch, English said there was "no question about the correctness of the process", with citizenship under exceptional circumstances available for those who did not meet residency rules.
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"There's 200 to 300 cases a year where they don't quite fit the criteria or there's some overriding public interest, and the minister acts on the advice of officials as to whether it generally is appropriate for that person to become a citizen."
Thiel had "demonstrated his commitment to New Zealand" over the last 11 years, after becoming a resident in 2006.
Immigration New Zealand area manager Darren Calder confirmed that Thiel was granted residence in 2006 under the investor category, and became a permanent resident "after satisfying the conditions of his visa".
English said Thiel had also made a number of high-profile contributions to the country, including a $1 million donation to the Christchurch earthquake appeal fund and a number of investments in Kiwi companies.
There needed to be a balance between giving everyone a fair chance of citizenship, and encouraging those who would make a positive difference to New Zealand.
"If people come here and invest and get into philanthropy and are supportive of New Zealand, then we're better off for their interest in our country, and as a small country at the end of the world, that's not a bad thing.
"It's not a case of whether wealthy people can jump the queue, it's whether people have particular skills, particular contributions that don't quite meet the criteria."
NZ First leader Winston Peters' suggestion that the Government was selling citizenship was "ridiculous", English said.
"If you have a system that is completely bound by the rules, then we could miss out on people where it is in New Zealand's interests to have them here, so a little bit of flexibility I think works as long as you don't get too carried away or create too much uncertainty."
Asked whether he had ever met Thiel, English replied: "I think I might have met him once in my office a number of years ago, I haven't been aware of his status as a resident or a citizen, but look he's got a bit of profile not just in New Zealand but in the US, so I've certainly heard of him."
Nathan Guy, the internal affairs minister at the time Thiel became a citizen, said he did not recall the specific application but followed official advice.
"As minister I tended to follow the advice of DIA officials on these issues; I'm advised officials recommended granting citizenship in this particular case."