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America's Cup: Kiwi PM pours cold water on Cup border exemptions

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ 3 Jun 14:16 PDT 3 June 2020
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking at Emirates Team New Zealand AC75 launch on September 6, 2019 © Richard Gladwell /

As New Zealand prepares to move down another COVID-19 Alert level, the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made it very clear that under current criteria, America's Cup teams would not get a carte blanche to enter New Zealand.

Responding to questions at a media conference on Wednesday afternoon (NZT) Ms Ardern made it clear that the admission of over 50 people associated with the Avatar2 production was done on an individual basis, and not a blanket approval for anyone the production team wanted to bring into New Zealand.

Over the weekend it emerged, after a Facebook posting by Avatar producer Jon Landau on Sunday, that the group had arrived in Wellington and were entering a 14-day quarantine. Typically an America's Cup team, without partners and families who would normally relocate to the venue, are at least twice the size of the Avatar team that has been allowed into New Zealand.

The exemption to pass through a closed NZ border was "given for a group of individuals for Avatar. It was as though it was a carte blanche for the entire production. That is not the case," Ms Ardern said.

Asked specifically as to the status of the America's Cup applications, Ms Ardern explained that the applications from the America's Cup teams went initially to MBIE (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment).

They then make a judgement as to whether the case should go to the Minister for consideration.

"My recollection is that roughly 10% make it to that point", she explained.

Earlier reports have it that approximately 20,000 applications for exemption to pass through the closed NZ border have been lodged.

Of these, approximately 2,000 or 10% have been approved, and about 1,500 approvals have been on humanitarian grounds. Generally, they have been for people with strong connections with a New Zealand passport holder, to return with that individual to New Zealand.

Ms Ardern said that her understanding was that "no decision had been made with regards to the America's Cup".

Only a handful of criteria

The next questioner asked what the approval criteria were, as there did not appear to be any published.

Ms Ardern went on to explain that there was only a small amount of criteria "around the impact of an individual on infrastructure, for instance. Wider economic impacts through jobs, for instance. No longer being able to act as a catalyst for one person not being able to be here."

Ms Ardern said she could not recall how many criteria there were, but it was "only a handful." She suggested taking the matter up with Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford.

She gave as examples of applications that had been approved was for someone who could repair a chairlift, another for the repair of wastewater infrastructure - which was a specialised task requiring an "offshore technician".

"They were often specialist knowledge or skill that we could not access here [in NZ]. Or, if they are not here, possibly hundreds of thousands of jobs were affected."

Earlier when the news of the exemption for the individuals involved in the Avatar 2 production was disclosed, it was claimed in the media that they had got into New Zealand via a "loophole".

Last Tuesday (May 26) New Zealand Herald reported Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford revealed today there was a little-known category for border exemptions for foreigners deemed essential to a project of "significant economic value".

The criteria applicants have to meet include having a talent that can't be met by a Kiwi, involvement in a project which is time-critical and provides "significant economic value" or wider benefit to the economy, Twyford said.

"The bar is set very high."

Clinging to Avatar's coat-tails

Many had assumed that the America's Cup with an economic value, of $0.6-1 billion and creating 4,700 - 8,300 jobs (from an MBIE report in 2018) would follow through the same revolving immigration door as the Avatar and other similar projects.

However, it is clear from today's comments, that the America's Cup applications are being treated in a standard manner of immigration consideration - on the merits of each individual in the application - and they must satisfy at least one of the specific immigration criteria for approval - or the individual's application will be declined.

In simple terms it is a tick box exercise. You must be able to get a tick on at least one of the criteria - otherwise it is a decline.

It appears from the comments made today that not all the people nominated for the Avatar project were approved. It is also a standard NZ immigration practice is that an application will only be approved if there is not a suitably skilled, and currently jobless NZer (in the opinion of NZ Immigration) available for the position. Currently NZ has 40,000 unemployed.

In an America's Cup context, if a member of a challenger team were declined by NZ Immigration or MBIE, that would mean that the MBIE official, or the Minister, would effectively be selecting the Challenger team members. Such a practice is completely unacceptable in the context of the America's Cup. It is also a process from which the Defender is exempt by virtue of sailing in their home country/waters.

If a Challenger did have their team cherry-picked in this way, it is likely that an immediate application would be made to the America's Cup Arbitration Panel to obtain a binding ruling. The immigration criteria would have to be amended to accommodate the Arbitration Panel decision, if the Cup was to continue to be contested in Auckland.

With the America's Cup teams apparently the only ones covered by the Exemption Application process, it is difficult to see how any individuals such as superyacht owners, crews and guests, sponsors and their guests, media, officials, youth America's Cup entrants, or fans could gain entry to New Zealand.

That of course removes a significant part of the economic and jobs benefit from the 2020/21 America's Cup events - unless the particular America's Cup visitor holds a New Zealand passport or permanent residence.

Update: As of Wednesday at noon (June 4, NZT) Minister of Development Phil Twyford advised that the team applications, lodged late last week, had not yet reached his desk. MBIE officials have undertaken to deal with the applications in a timely manner. The issue was first raised publicly by the Challenger teams over two and a half weeks ago.

To listen to Sir Ben Ainslie of INEOS Team UK being interviewed on Radio NZ on Wednesday morning click here

For an update on the Hon. Judith Collins questioning of Minister for Economic Development, Phil Twyford at a Select Committee Hearing Wednesday morning click here.

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