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Immigration Minister in a precarious position

The Immigration Minister is at risk of falling into an information void, but the alternative is potentially more dangerous. Laura Walters asks whether he can hang on for three weeks.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway will be stuck between a rock and a hard place for as long as three weeks, as questions hang over his decision to grant residency to a convicted drug smuggler and gangster.

Lees-Galloway has spent the past week trying to explain his discretionary decision to grant Karel Sroubek residency – but without actually divulging any of the details of the case.

This has left him stuck in a politically precarious position where, upon legal advice, he is refusing to answer any substantive questions on the controversial issue. But the risk of making a further mess of things by spilling his secrets is much greater.

Understandably the Opposition and the wider public have been critical of Lees-Galloway’s decision – Sroubek is a man who came to New Zealand under a fake name, using fake documents, who was convicted for smuggling MDMA into the country, then granted residency as he feared for his life should he be deported to the Czech Republic.

The criticism of Lees-Galloway’s decision to cancel Sroubek’s deportation liability, coupled with the Minister saying as good as nothing about the particulars of the case, has left an information vacuum.

In politics, those vacuums are always filled.

It took only a couple of days for reports to surface which seem to contradict the information the minister relied upon to make his decision.

The old adage is that a Minister is only as good as the advice they receive, but at the end of the day, the buck stops with him.

And while Lees-Galloway hasn’t blamed his officials for the potential screw up in so many words, he has repeatedly said he relied upon the information presented to him by his immigration officials. He admits he did not ask for further information like all court judgments - he says that's not the conventional process.

The Minister is now caught in a spot where he has to try and continue to defend the decision he made at the time, while investigating whether there is new information, and figuring why he didn’t have the correct information at the start – if that is indeed the case.

He must do all this while continuing to not say anything about the details of the case. He’s under strict legal advice to keep his mouth shut.

Initially the call to stay mum was based on conventions used to preserve privacy and safety of the person involved, as well as the process under which the Minister makes discretionary decisions on individual cases. Now his silence is due to the risk of prejudicing an investigation.

All the while he is being hounded by media and by the Opposition – as he should be.

This has resulted in a Minister who, at best, looks like he’s struggling.

When he takes long pauses in press conferences, and dances around questions in the House, it doesn’t inspire confidence in him or the process – the exact thing he says he’s trying to preserve.

In these moments his discomfort is almost palpable.

During question time on Thursday, Lees-Galloway refused to answer multiple direct questions, saying it was in the public interest for him not to divulge any information that may jeopardise an investigation.

On more than one occasion he had to pause for the raucous protestations across the House.

Then it was the Speaker’s turn; Trevor Mallard as good as told the Minister off for not answering questions, making a pointed statements that the test of what was in the public interest should be a very high threshold – possibly higher than the test the Minister was applying.

But Lees-Galloway stuck to his advice to keep his mouth closed, despite knowing how poorly it would play from a public perception point of view.

Surely he’s dying to use the information he has to defend himself, before he falls into the information void.

But this case is already a mess, and any misstep, or deviation from legal advice or proper process could be his undoing – National is already calling for his resignation.

Immigration New Zealand has asked for three weeks to carry out an investigation to find whether any further or contradictory information (which can be fully verified) exists which was not in front of the minister when he made his initial decision on the Sroubek case.

It’s clear Lees-Galloway desperately wants this tied up before then. The three weeks is a maximum allowance, not a target, he says.

But Government departments aren’t known for their haste, and that three weeks could feel like an eternity if he continues to get hammered as he has done this week.

No doubt he’ll be thanking his lucky stars for the two-week Parliamentary recess, which kicks in from the end of next week.

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