Disturbing questions in Jones report

TRACY WATKINS
Last updated 12:15 13/03/2013

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OPINION: In characteristically theatrical fashion, Labour MP Shane Jones laid himself bare. An inquiry into an immigration case that landed on his desk in 2008 had been a "big smack in the chops".

He was taking the auditor-general's criticisms "on the chin". It had been, he grimaced, a "wretched nine months".

Nine months? How about a wretched couple of years. In the soap opera that is Parliament, Mr Jones is the comeback king.

Through a combination of charm and self- deprecating wit, he has mastered the art of the mea culpa. Why else do you think Labour wants him back on its front bench? He is Labour's flawed gem.

Yesterday's auditor-general's report clears Mr Jones of any wrongdoing and corruption. It blames perceptions of special treatment over Mr Jones' fast-tracking of Chinese millionaire and Labour Party donor Bill Liu's citizenship application on "an unfortunate combination of circumstances".

But buried within the report are questions which lead to deep disquiet. And those questions go to the heart of a system which allows politicians to overturn decisions by officials with apparently few checks or balances.

The report reveals the pressure put on ministers by MPs in support of Mr Liu, including three letters from former Labour MP Dover Samuels, escalating the matter into one of extreme urgency.

It refers to decisions by senior Internal Affairs management that created an "unfortunate" impression Mr Liu was not subject to the normal process of scrutiny that would apply to citizenship applications.

And it accepts those decisions only fed suspicions within Immigration that they were made "as a reaction to pressure being applied to or felt by officials in Wellington to give Mr Liu's file special treatment" due to his political connections.

More alarmingly, the inquiry reveals that unnamed officials within Immigration were sufficiently concerned about similar cases that they supplied files to the auditor-general suggesting favouritism within the system.

Concerns included not just the decisions that were reached, but the fact that ministers were being lobbied directly by the applicants, or more often their agents or advocates.

The concerns were sufficiently serious for the auditor-general to launch a broader probe of files between 2006 and 2010. The office concluded that there was nothing to suggest decisions were made as a result of improper influence.

But it also acknowledged that a detailed investigation of the files was beyond the scope of its inquiries. That falls a long way short of offering the public an assurance that the system is above being rorted.

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