On 30 May 2012, I announced that my Office would carry out an inquiry into the decision by the former Associate Minister of Immigration, Hon Shane Jones, to grant citizenship to Mr Yang Liu (also known as Yong Ming Yan). I appointed Francis Cooke QC to lead the inquiry on my behalf.
Although this inquiry arose because of concerns about the way an individual application had been handled, those concerns raised questions about whether aspects of the system for considering applications for citizenship were strong enough. Put bluntly, the underlying question was whether the system included enough protection against the risk of corruption.
That risk always exists when an individual decision-maker has a broad discretion to make decisions affecting individual rights and interests. Supporting administrative systems should be designed to minimise that risk but cannot remove it entirely. All those involved, whether they are advisers, decision-makers, or advocates, carry personal responsibility for ensuring that the system operates with integrity.
Protecting decisions against challenge
In the public sector, decisions not only have to be right but have to be seen to be so. In this type of decision-making environment, the systems and papers also need to able to rebut allegations of improper decision-making. Simple steps that can be taken include:
- ensuring that all interactions with applicants or their advocates are recorded in file notes;
- having a standard practice of the Minister having another person present if they meet with an applicant; and
- designing the standard form for briefings and decisions to make it easy for the Minister to record the statutory basis and reasons for the decision.
In our view, there is scope to strengthen the current procedures to provide more active support for Ministers making individual citizenship decisions. We have made several recommendations to help the Department strengthen the systems operating within the Department and relevant ministerial offices.
Ministers and their staff also need to recognise the need for care when making decisions of this kind. Procedural developments of the kind we have proposed are not designed to encroach on the right of Ministers to make judgements, but to help them defend the judgements they have made if the judgements are challenged. In our experience, accusations of wrongdoing flourish when there is a lack of information about what actually happened.