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Coalition partners stand their ground on partnership visas

Jane Patterson, Political Editor

Power Play - The weekly Cabinet meeting might be a touch awkward on Monday with a serious split between senior Labour and New Zealand First ministers over the volatile issue of immigration.

Early days: Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at media conference after signing their coalition agreement in 2017. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

On one side is Labour - pinning responsibility on immigration officials for a tougher approach to partnership visas and denying any ministerial directive while at the same time trying to manage a backlash from the Indian community, frustrated by their recent inability to access those visas, and the response of Labour's political leadership.

On the other is New Zealand First - fanning any flames of resentment, with ministers assertively arguing against a relaxation of the partnership visa rules, and taking credit for a recent cut in numbers.

As Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern is responsible for all ministers; the post-election arrangements mean though she basically has to negotiate any disciplinary action for non-Labour Cabinet ministers through the respective party leaders, a nicety John Key never really had to worry about.

She has been criticised for giving New Zealand First too much of a free rein, but on this issue Ms Ardern has asserted her authority.

By ordering a reset of the partnership visa rules - basically back to the status quo - she has gone against her Deputy Prime Minister and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters who believed the rules were being flouted by officials using their discretion too often.

In doing so she's lined herself up alongside her Labour colleague, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, who's taken on Mr Peters in a bid to make it clear he's in charge of the portfolio.

Mr Peters and his senior MP and fellow Cabinet Minister, Shane Jones, have been loudly and proudly denouncing any liberal interpretation of immigration rules, with Mr Peters taking personal responsibility for a clampdown.

Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

But Mr Lees-Galloway has been pushing back, denying any official directive and suggesting Mr Peters may have got things a bit mixed up. "I know we've been making a lot of immigration decisions at Cabinet in the last few months," he said.

Asked if Mr Peters got confused, he said: "That's a good question to ask the Deputy Prime Minister". Mr Lees-Galloway said he was "not aware that there was any specific Cabinet directive; it didn't come from me, it didn't come from Cabinet and I've not heard from any immigration officials that they received a directive from any member of the government".

Ms Ardern also said "carte blanche off their own backs [officials] made changes - our expectation is that we return to the way we were operating prior to the changes that were made''. "They did not do that under the authority of Cabinet, my expectation is that we will reverse back to the status quo and the way it was operating before,'' she said.

The message is if there had been any political direction to officials it had been done via a back alley, not through the mandated process of Cabinet, and not endorsed by other ministers.

While Mr Lees-Galloway is suggesting Mr Peters may have been confused about visa categories, in an interview with RNZ last month he was specifically talking about partnership visas. "It's clear as daylight, they are not partners, full stop... that the rule says, "you've got to be a partner - if you're not a partner how can you construct them as a partner when they're not", said Mr Peters.

Asked if there had been a specific directive from New Zealand First to INZ about the way they administered this visa, Mr Peters said if the question was "had New Zealand First had an influence on trying to tidy up the information on which Immigration New Zealand relies? The answer's profoundly yes".

When asked if it was "slightly alarming" he and the Deputy Prime Minister had two such different stories, Mr Lees-Galloway said it was important he "sort out this particular issue". People would see "the minister, a Labour MP was stepping in to sort this issue out", he told reporters, "they will see Labour takes this issue seriously and is dealing with it".

Two strategies are at play: to differentiate Labour from New Zealand First, and the second to cast doubt on Mr Peters' recollection of what happened.

It's an example of coalition relations playing second fiddle to individual positions of power and any electoral risks at the ballot box."I think Mr Jones knows my view on this situation", Mr Lees-Galloway replied tersely when asked if the two had spoken.

They will all have to speak about it on Monday and in the interim there may be an interesting response from Mr Peters, who will take any suggestion he may have erred as a personal slight.

Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Coalition deal agreement vague on immigration

Looking back to a potential source of the tensions is New Zealand First's coalition deal with Labour - surprisingly vague on immigration policy given its past campaigns.

Labour toyed with a reduction target in opposition but opted in the end for a general aim to cut numbers.

The only stated area of common ground in the coalition agreement was about work visas and migrant exploitation. New Zealand First is obviously chafing under the limitations of the coalition and has chosen to assert its views in a very public and challenging way.

Blatant attempts to separate itself off from Labour will only intensify as the election campaign draws nearer.

Labour and the prime minister will not want to appear weak and will want to send a message it's willing to act in the interests of the Indian community, and more generally for other ethnic or minority groups. It will not want to alienate blocs of voters, but nor cannot it afford a relationship breakdown with its coalition partner.

On the diplomatic front, India is also an important neighbour with trade in particular at a sensitive point; New Zealand will not want to cause any undue offence. But the more pressing risk for Ms Ardern is closer to home, how to mend the split with influential New Zealand First Cabinet ministers over immigration without anyone losing face.

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