Iain Lees-Galloway and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Is Iain Lees-Galloway about to become the third Ardern minister to get the boot?

Jacinda Ardern has so far said Iain Lees-Galloway’s job is not under threat but pressure is growing for her to sack the immigration minister over the controversial decision to allow Karel Sroubek in New Zealand. Former long-serving minister Peter Dunne explains what will determine Lees-Galloway’s fate.

The one constant about the Karel Sroubek case is that every day seems to reveal more uncertainty. But while we are no closer to either a resolution of the case, or even a clear understanding of why Minister Lees-Galloway has acted the way he has, some things are a little clearer.

For a start, Lees-Galloway did not grant Sroubek permanent residence – that happened in 2008 (albeit under a false name), before Lees-Galloway was even in parliament, let alone minister of immigration. We also know, by deduction, that the decision to grant permanent residence must have been considered so straightforward by immigration officials at the time that it did not require reference to the then minister, because officials have now conceded the only minister they have ever discussed the case with is Lees-Galloway, after October 2017. And, somewhere along the way, presumably after Sroubek’s imprisonment in 2016, officials discovered the false identity and reissued the permanent residence in his correct name.

When Sroubek became eligible for release, officials raised the case with Lees-Galloway, seeking his confirmation that the standard deportation provisions should apply. Here is where the situation starts to get murky. It appears – for reasons which are not yet known – that Lees-Galloway declined to confirm Sroubek’s deportation, choosing instead to defer the requirement for five years, thus upholding Sroubek’s permanent residence and allowing him to stay here.

In the wake of the ensuing uproar, and the release of more information about Sroubek’s background that was apparently and curiously not known previously to officials, Lees-Galloway has ordered a reconsideration of the case. But that has only made things more difficult. Lees-Galloway is already under strong public and political pressure to just overturn Sroubek’s permanent residence immediately and send him on his way. That is the one thing he cannot do – for reasons of natural justice in the event of any subsequent push for a judicial review of his decision-making – so Lees-Galloway has to be seen to now have followed due process, which will be time consuming. And while this rolls on, he has to suffer the death of a thousand cuts on almost a daily basis.

This whole saga raises many questions of judgement, most of which come back to Lees-Galloway. While he cannot be held responsible for the original residency decision, which happened long before he became minister, he has to be held responsible for the decision to effectively confirm Sroubek’s residence by deferring the usually automatic deportation decision for up to five years. There have to be serious questions as to his reasons why. Moreover, his failure to offer anything approaching a credible explanation of his actions starts to bring his wider  judgment and suitability to hold ministerial office into question. His subsequent bizarre behaviour (hiding awkwardly behind pillars to avoid journalists and less than stellar defences of his position in the House) raises even more doubts.

No doubt officials will find compelling reasons over the next couple of weeks to enable Lees-Galloway to overturn his decision and Sroubek’s residency. But that will not excuse them for the original decision to grant residence to Sroubek, and not pick up until much later the false identity he was using.

With allegedly improved information sharing between relevant government agencies following the 2014 Smith/Trainor passport fraud case, there should have been no reason for not picking up Sroubek’s real identity much earlier. The discovery that Sroubek used a false identity to gain residence all those years ago was a sufficiently serious matter to have been to the attention of the minister of the day at that time. There needs to be some explanation for this, and steps taken to ensure future ministers are not subject to similar blindsides.

Probably the worst news for Lees-Galloway is that while the prime minister did not seem at first to know too much or even be all that interested in the Sroubek case, she is now engaged and becoming irritated and frustrated by what is being disclosed. He will also be well aware that two ministers have already fallen this year over performance and conduct issues, and will be increasingly concerned not to become the next one to go.

He will have realised that what officials disclose when they eventually report back will determine not only Sroubek’s fate, but also his own.

The latest comments from Lees-Galloway further fuel the fire. The fact that he took about an hour to consider the case is neither here nor there – a hour of a minister’s time on any issue is actually quite long. But what is far more concerning is his admission that he did not read all the file, and by implication appeared not to have had any concerns arising from his cursory consideration to discuss with officials, and also that his officials did not see anything to raise with him once he indicated his likely decision.

From my experience as a former Internal Affairs Minister dealing with passport issues, in similar situations, officials and my own relevant office staff went to extraordinary lengths to ensure I had all the relevant material before deciding on contentious cases. It is hard to believe that immigration does not have similar robust processes in place and therefore irresistible to escape the conclusion that Lees-Galloway was blind to the advice, or sadly, more likely, not up to assessing it properly

Originally published at Dunne Speaks


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