By Eric Crampton 18/01/2021


RNZ reports on continued arbitrariness on decisions at the border. 

British comedian Russell Howard is about to tour New Zealand and other acts allowed in through managed isolation this summer include drag queen RuPaul and musicians at Northern Bass in Mangawhai and the Bay Dreams festival.

The vice-president of the Promoters Association, Gray Bartlett, said despite being an approved promoter with Immigration New Zealand, he was offered no explanation on why acts such as the Music of Cream and American speaker Michael Franzese were turned down.

No-one had spelt out what the criteria were for approval nor who was making the decisions.

“What I really don’t like is where governments begin to start with favouritism and choosing who they like, or getting people to choose who they like to come in. That’s not right. And and it can be done quite easily in our business because they can formulate reasons why someone may be important to have here. But in reality, it doesn’t stand the sniff test, I’m afraid. And we can prove that with some of our applications.”

One project he was involved with would be employing about a 100 local workers if their application was approved, but he said he did not want to put that at risk by talking about it.

“I don’t want to affect the lives of these Oscar winners and Grammy winners who want to come out here in a month or so’s time to give great enhancement to New Zealand as a country, but it’s all a game a favourites, it’s who you know in government, and this particular government is particularly poor at this particular task.”

It is an impossible task. Nobody in government can really know what is the most highly valued use for the small number of MIQ spaces held for non-residents’ entry. Is is an entertainer, or an engineer? If it’s an entertainer, which one? How can they decide?

An Immigration New Zealand spokesperson said all requests for a border exception for individuals in the arts and entertainment industry are assessed against the same ‘other critical worker’ criteria as any other request for a worker as set out in immigration instructions.

The criteria is based on whether the skills or experience the person has are readily obtainable in New Zealand or whether the worker is undertaking a time-critical role in specific areas, they said.

“INZ can confirm that since 18 June 2020, 66 requests have been received relating to the arts and entertainment industry, which includes all artists and festival performers but excludes film and television. Of those, 39 requests have been approved, 23 requests have been declined, and 4 requests are still being assessed.

“In regards to the request relating to Music of Cream, based on the information provided INZ was not satisfied that the performers met the criteria, particularly in regards to demonstrating that the role was time-critical to work which would bring significant benefit to the national or regional economy as there was limited information provided to demonstrate what the economic benefit would be. INZ has engaged with Mr Bartlett to advise him of his options following the decline in August, however INZ is yet to receive any new information or a request for reconsideration. Should Mr Bartlett request a reconsideration or make a new request, INZ would consider this.”

It would be surprising to me if a Cream cover band were the highest valued use of MIQ spaces, but how would I know? How would INZ know?

The government runs essential workers spaces generally on something like cost-recovery. But cost-recovery is nonsense in this kind of environment. The cost of the rooms isn’t whatever the government is spending on them. The cost rather is the value of the room in its highest-valued use – the opportunity cost of the room.

In normal scenarios, the numbers wind up being about the same thing. In competitive markets, the price is the cost is the opportunity cost and it all works out. MIQ rooms aren’t like that. There are far fewer of them available, at the administrative charge imposed for use, than there is demand for them.

The only way of really knowing the highest valued use for those rooms is to put them to auction – the same way that we find out who the highest valued user of a house is.

In July, we’d suggested what I still think would be a far better way of allocating MIQ spaces.

Allow MIQ facilities to charge inbound visitors directly. The government would charge the facilities for the services provided by government workers – nurses, security, and everyone else. Instead of allocating rooms to returning Kiwis free of charge, with those Kiwis then having incentive to make multiple bookings just in case, provide eligible returnees with a voucher that could be applied toward the cost of a stay in MIQ. The value of the voucher would be equivalent to the cost of a stay in a basic MIQ facility during an off-peak time. If returning Kiwis wanted to stay at a 5-star facility instead of a more basic one, they could pay the difference. And the government could impose a surcharge on stays by non-Kiwis to help fund the cost of the vouchers provided to returning Kiwis.

What’s changed since July? The virus has become far more contagious. The epidemiologists at Otago, like Nick Wilson, have been recommending pushing MIQ back to the source country. They’re right. Setting MIQ facilities overseas, and having visitors stay there before flying here, reduces the likelihood of cases making it here. If we do wind up with facilities set overseas, running the kind of set-up I’ve suggested would make it easier to allocate spaces and would help in funding the thing. Non-Kiwis coming in would wind up funding the MIQ stays of returning Kiwis. And it’s easier to scale that system abroad than it is to scale it here.

If we can ever get rapid PCR saliva tests available for MIQ staff and for returnees, ramping up to daily testing of MIQ staff and returnees could substantially reduce the risk inherent in the new variants of the virus. A more contagious variant is more likely to be transmitted to a border worker. If a border worker gets it, it’s more likely to be transmitted onwards to someone in the community. Daily testing would mean that it just couldn’t get very far. The test would be far more likely to catch cases before others were infected. Without either far more frequent testing of border workers, or MIQ being pushed back to the source countries, we’re taking an awful lot of risk.

Featured image: Eunice Stahl on Unsplash