Immigration’s Pacific ‘Fiefdom’ Facing Chop

Immigration's Pacific 'fiefdom' facing chop

By Claire Trevett
New Zealand Herald
4:00AM Friday Mar 06, 2009

The Minister of Immigration has ordered Immigration's Pacific division to be dismantled after a stinging report found a wide range of problems – from poorly trained staff and long backlogs to sloppy use of company credit cards and a “fiefdom” approach.

The report by Ernst and Young had recommended that the Pacific division be retained, but said its current budget would not be enough to cover changes needed to rectify its problems.

However, Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman said the report was “damning” and the list of problems too long to consider rehabilitating the division.

To restore confidence in Immigration NZ, it would be dismantled and its functions merged into the wider Immigration Service.

He also indicated a further shake-up of Immigration NZ lay ahead.

An Auditor-General's report into the wider Immigration Service is to be released soon, which Dr Coleman said could result in further action.

Yesterday's report also noted the Auditor-General's report was due and warned that the rot that afflicted the Pacific division could have spread wider. During the review, staff and managers had expressed concern about “successive years of under-investment in the wider Immigration Service”.

The Ernst and Young report said that since being set up in 2005 to deal with applications from people in Pacific nations and fill the Pacific quota, the division had had no clear picture of its duties and had lacked strong leadership.

It had become isolated from the rest of the Immigration Service as its leadership created an “us and them” approach.

Most criticism was directed at the leadership, rather than the workers, who were “hardworking, passionate and committed”.

An attitude prevailed among staff that its leadership was “untouchable” and answerable only to Mary Anne Thompson when she was head of Immigration. She set up the division and selected its leadership.

The report said while there was positive feedback about the division and its work, this was overshadowed by negative feedback.

Staff were not properly trained or resourced, resulting in backlogs and slow processing of applications, especially in the island branches. The review team was told of up to 100 people waiting outside the Suva branch in a “queue of shame”.

There were problems with inconsistent decision-making and difficult decisions were sometimes put in the “too hard basket”.

As well, staff morale problems included grievances over pay and conditions.

Some of the criticisms are historic – division leader Mai Malaulau no longer works there; her contract expired last year.

Labour Immigration spokesman Pete Hodgson said Dr Coleman's decision was short-sighted and based on political grounds because Labour had created the division.

The review was ordered by new chief executive Chris Blake soon after he took over in 2007. It followed an inquiry into whether Ms Thompson had influenced decisions to allow her Kiribati relatives to enter New Zealand and gain residency.

The report cleared Ms Thompson of directly trying to influence the decision, but staff in the Pacific division raised concerns about being ordered by their bosses to make decisions that were outside normal rules.

Ms Thompson resigned in mid-2008.