Security Risks – Who Vetted Thompson?

By Gordon Campbell

The former head of the NZ Immigration Service – Mary-Anne Thompson
The question marks now hanging over the Ph.D of Immigration chief executive Mary-Anne Thompson – and the failure of the SIS security checks to detect anything wrong about her credentials during her decade long rise to the upper echelons of the public service – should place a double question mark over the Immigration Bill due back in the House on June 30.

Reason being, the Bill as currently drafted confers sweeping new powers on the chief executive of the Immigration Service, and on the other heads of government departments. For example : part one, clause 5 of the Bill allows the chief executives of government departments to decree certain information to be classified – and we’re not talking here simply about SIS information. It could be any information from WINZ, from the Police or the Immigration Service, or it could be spiteful letters from an ex-spouse. It becomes classified if the chief executive says it is.

Once a chief executive does say it is classified, this will therefore put the information beyond not only the reach of the people against whom the information is being levelled, but beyond most forms of meaningful review. For example : Part 7, Clause 215 of the Bill severely limits the ability of an appeal tribunal to seek information from chief executives. The Courts are placed in an even worse position. Section 289 of the Bill says flatly that when it comes befor the nominated judge, “ the classified information must be treated as accurate.” Truth is to be assumed. This could be a first for a New Zealand law. In essence, Parliament is being asked to confer something akin to papal infallibility upon the decrees of government department chiedf executives.

Pretty scary stuff, given that Thompson’s problems began, you recall, when she assisted relatives from Kiribati to successfully gain entry to New Zealand even though they fell outside the timeframe of normal applications, and during a time when the Kiribati quota was already full. Subsequently, a junior Immigration Service staff member was disciplined over these applications– with precious little sympathy being shown for the double bind they would clearly have been in. Were they supposed to follow the rules, or were they supposed do what it looked like the boss wanted?

No justification is offered in the Immigration Bill to justify the powers that it grants to its chief executive (and other departmental heads) to exempt information from scrutiny – and to explicitly deny direct access to it by the people whom it most affects.

As things currently stand, one of the things that Thompson alleged about herself – her doctorate from the London School of Economics – may not even exist. The SIS, who form the first line of defence in vetting the contenders for sensitive positions in the public service apparently failed to do the most basic check, of contacting the LSE to corroborate Thompson’s claim.

No-one in a democracy should be granted the power to hide behind classified information that the Immigration Bill aims to convey. The Thompson saga has shown very conclusively though that these powers should certainly not be entrusted to the Immigration Service chief executive – or to the perennially bumbling agents of the SIS.