Key: 'Nothing untoward' in citizenship waiver
Former Labour associate immigration minister Damien O'Connor approved residency for wealthy Chinese businessman Donghua Liu against officials' advice.
Liu is at the centre of fresh questions about National's links to rich donors after he was granted citizenship, against official advice, with the help of government ministers lobbying his case.
A year later, the Auckland-based property developer donated $22,000 to the National Party through one of his companies.
O'Connor said he had been alerted to the fact that he had given Liu residency.
"I have no recollection of it – quite likely though."
He said there were about 4500 cases a year and many were overriden.
"Most of the advice is that they shouldn't go through, otherwise they would have been approved, so it's pretty much standard advice from immigration to say this shouldn't go ahead."
That was why people sought ministerial discretion, he said.
He made decisions for the right reasons – humanitarianism or good business outcomes.
The same reasons may have been applied to Liu's citizenship. The question was around the timing of a payment to the National Party.
O'Connor was not aware of any payment from Liu to the Labour Party and was not sure when he approved the residency applicaiton, but 2005 sounded "about right".
After Liu gained citizenship, Prime Minister John Key and Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson attended the official opening of the first stage of Liu's $70 million construction project.
Official party donation returns show a significant donation by Roncon Pacific Hotel Management Holdings Ltd on October 24, 2012.
Company Office records show Liu to be a director of the company, along with lawyer Jeremy Goodwin, who supported Liu's bid for citizenship.
It is not the first case of citizenship to be granted in return for investment in New Zealand, but it reportedly sparked Department of Internal Affairs concerns that it showed favouritism.
The New Zealand Herald reported that Liu's citizenship was not supported because he had not spent enough time in New Zealand and did not have the appropriate English-language skills.
One of Liu's business partners approached Williamson and John Banks, who was Auckland's mayor at the time. They wrote to then internal affairs minister Nathan Guy asking him to grant citizenship against the official advice.
Guy said today that he had never met Liu and was unaware of any political donations made by him.
"As minister, I decided over 800 cases and it was quite common to receive correspondence from family and supporters of applicants," he said.
"In every citizenship case, I always carefully considered all of the evidence provided and advice from the Department of Internal Affairs.
"In this case, I considered at the time that on balance the potential benefits to New Zealand warranted the granting of citizenship.
"I've never met this individual and was unaware of any donation to any political party until today.
"The individual in this case was granted permanent residency in 2005."
Key said donations were recorded openly, and the media "could see shadows" if they wanted to, but there was nothing there.
"We live in a democracy and people are free to give donations to political parties that they want to support," he said.
"There's nothing in this particular case. This person actually received residency under a Labour government and citizenship under a National government.
"I'm not responsible for donations for the National Party. I don't engage myself in that.
"But the party, rightfully so, appropriately recorded that and made sure that was public. There was nothing the party was trying to hide."
Key said the donation was made a long time after Liu became a citizen.
"I just don't accept the proposition there's anything untoward there."
Key said a minister advocating a person for citizenship was "not at all unusual".
Liu was a substantial investor in New Zealand and "lots of people get ministerial waivers".
"The Government, very recently, gave a whole bunch of ministerial waivers to interpreters who came from Afghanistan," he said.
Key said there was no need for a law change to the rules allowing ministers to exercise discretion in citizenship cases.
"There are hundreds of examples between this government and the previous government and the ones before it where there's been an override. In fact, it's a very logical thing," he said.
"We have to set rules in a pretty strict place, but actually, if people come to New Zealand and want to become either a resident or citizen, they sometimes don't always perfectly fit the rules.
"We have language tests at a certain level and the amount of time people spend here is also a test, but actually, there are lots of people who are granted exceptions in that area."
A report from the auditor-general last year said that while it was not necessarily improper for a minister to lobby on behalf of an aspiring citizen, it did pose risks to the integrity of the system.
The report was looking into a similar case where Labour MP Shane Jones, when he was associate immigration minister, granted citizenship to William Liu, a Chinese national who was under the scrutiny of Interpol, despite an active police investigation being under way and the Department of Internal Affairs telling him not to.
The auditor-general found there was "nothing unlawful or improper in ministers considering representations and advocacy by or on behalf of applicants in the course of considering an application for citizenship".
"However, advocacy of this kind, in particular where the advocate is a fellow MP or known to the minister, clearly presents risks to the integrity of the decision-making system and to the reputations of those involved, including the minister," he said.