MARK SAINSBURY: What is it worth to be a New Zealand citizen?

02/02/2017
What is it worth to be a new Zealand citizen? If you’ve ever gone to a citizenship ceremony, there's something intoxicating about the mood in the room, the sheer unmitigated joy new New Zealanders feel when they become part of us. Citizenship rightly should be prized and earned. It is not a commodity to be traded. Which brings us to the curious case of Peter Thiel. Curious in that the unanswered question remains 'why'? - not why did we grant him citizenship. That, it would seem, in the particular language of Internal Affairs, was down to “exceptional circumstances”.

So what exactly were they? Apparently the attraction for New Zealand to this billionaire's application was his skill as an entrepreneur and his philantropy. In other words, he’s a big wheel who gives away a lot of dough - and yes, it appears Mr. Thiel did kick in a million dollars to the Christchurch Earthquake fund, a donation facilitated by former NZX boss Mark Weldon, on behalf of the Prime Minister. So we have wealth connections and generosity. And an Internal Affairs Secretary who recommended it be given.

But the question still remains. Why? If Mr. Thiel could have conducted all his business, maintained a right to come and operate and live here with residency rather than citizenship, why did he want it so bad? And of course this was a strong desire to be a citizen of a country he hardly visited. Certainly not enough to qualify for an application in normal circumstances. But these weren’t normal circumstances - we had a billionaire of an entrepreneurial and philanthropic bent wanting in. So was it the fact that citizenship enabled him to bypass the Overseas Investment Offices scrutiny when he bought his Wanaka property? Well you’d have to say given all these amazing qualities that shouldn’t have been a problem anyway.

I listened to Xero boss Rod Drury, a strong supporter of Mr. Thiels application - not surprising given Thiel made a significant investment in Xero. Rod Drury accepted that many successful people like Peter Thiel want a bolt hole in case it all goes pear-shaped in the Northern hemisphere. And if you could afford it - why wouldn’t you.

But is that what it really comes down to. We are a convenience, a Hobbit-themed panic room for the super rich. So then call it for what it is. We are a haven for sale. The great irony, of course, is that any implosion in the Northern hemisphere could likely be triggered by another of his influential friends. The man he backed for the US presidency - Donald J Trump.