The Press

Kiwis now divided by border fee

- Luke Malpass

It is rare to get a policy so pointless, and so brazenly designed to appeal to people’s prejudices, as the Government’s quarantine and managed isolation charging policy.

The good news is that the Government has basically backed down on where it appeared to be heading and decided that charging most citizens for returning was illegal, unjustifie­d and unfair.

This is in contrast to the National Party, which says it will charge citizens $3000 each. That is also NZ First’s position.

Instead, the Government will introduce legislatio­n to charge New Zealanders who live overseas and come back to the country for less than 90 days a $3100 fee for their time in quarantine.

It will also charge people who live in New Zealand the same amount when they return to the country, if they leave after the legislatio­n is passed.

And how much of the total bill for quarantine will this meet? About $9 million of the $490 million estimated cost for this year, Minister Megan Woods said yesterday.

Take away from that the cost of Crown Law advice, bureaucrat hours and the opportunit­y cost of public servants’ time buzzing away at producing the new regulation­s to actually enforce this new regime, and that figure will probably be reduced even further.

And it will cause a lot of distress and uncertaint­y for a lot of people for a paltry amount of money. It is a policy with no objective, that does not solve a problem and still tramples on some Kiwis’ rights – albeit legally.

NZ First has the best critique: that is ‘‘a dreadful public policy response to the problem it seeks to address’’.

It is, of course, not all unjustifie­d. There is a case for charging people who leave New Zealand for a holiday in the current circumstan­ce, knowing that there will be quarantine in return. The same for business travel. If it’s worth travelling overseas in the first place – which would have to be pretty important given that you have to spend two weeks in quarantine on return – then it would be worth paying for quarantine.

But how many people will this affect? The Government did not know and had no figures. But not many people, Woods said. The Government apparently expects that number to grow, although there was no evidence produced to support this expectatio­n, either.

This piece of legislatio­n will set up two different classes of New Zealander: those who are allowed to come to the country free of charge, and those who are not.

Regardless of what the justificat­ion for that is – and Covid-19 is being used as the reason – that cannot, and should not, be a comfortabl­e position for any Government to be in.

The Government will charge a small number of people $3100 for their 14-day stay in managed isolation of quarantine.

Minister for Managed Isolation and Quarantine Megan Woods announced yesterday that the new rules would catch those who left New Zealand after the rules came into effect, or those on visits of less than 90 days. Some waivers for compassion­ate cases would exist.

The rules will come into effect at some point after a new law is passed next week.

The proposed charge would be $3100 per person in a room, with $950 for each additional adult and

$475 for each additional child sharing the room, although this charge will be set by Cabinet, not in the new law.

Temporary visa holders – who mostly aren’t allowed into New Zealand anyway – would generally be liable as well, but not if they were family members of citizens who weren’t liable, diplomats, or here for the Christchur­ch mosque trial.

The Government is not expecting this to significan­tly defray the half-billion-dollar bill for the scheme, with just $10 million or so expected to be raised.

The proposed law follows weeks of wrangling with the legal issues and between the governing parties, with the Greens pushing for a looser scheme and NZ First pushing for a more punitive one.

This differs dramatical­ly from the National Party’s proposed fee, which would apply to all returnees except a narrow set of compassion­ate exemptions for medical or financial reasons. That party’s charge would be $3000 for the first adult, $1000 for the second adult, and $500 for each child.

‘‘We are carefully balancing the rights of New Zealand citizens and residents to return home. and the charges structure will be designed to maintain this right. This solution balances the rights of New Zealanders to return home, while ensuring those who choose to holiday here, or holiday overseas before returning home, are contributi­ng to the considerab­le cost of managed isolation,’’ Woods said.

The managed isolation and quarantine scheme is expected to cost the Government around half a billion by the end of the year, or about $4000 per person, on average.

‘‘We want to share the costs in a way that fairly reflects the benefits to both the New Zealand public of having such a robust system, and those who leave and enter the country,’’ Woods said.

NZ First slams fee, Greens celebrate

The Greens have pushed back within the Government against a broad charge, saying those who left overseas without knowing that one would apply deserve the right to return home.

NZ First leader Winston Peters has expressed unhappines­s with how far the scheme goes, calling it ‘‘grossly unfair’’ to New Zealand taxpayers, and blamed both Labour and the Greens.

The Green Party celebrated the move, saying it had protected overseas Kiwis from the charge.

‘‘There is, of course, a balance, and for people choosing to leave New Zealand for overseas holidays or business trips from now on, it’s only fair they contribute to the cost of isolation when they return,’’ co-leader James Shaw said. ‘‘It is also fair that Kiwis who choose to come back for a short trip, but it is not for compassion­ate reasons and they have the money to contribute, should do so.’’

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern all but ruled out going to the National Party for help if she could not get the Greens over the line for a broader charge, saying the governing parties were close to a consensus.

National leader Judith Collins said if the fee was going to apply to such a small slice of people that the Government might as well not impose it. She said National would enact its broader plan for charges if elected.

Asked whether she thought charging Kiwis to use their rights as citizens to return to New Zealand was unfair, Collins responded saying that sometimes life was unfair.

She said there was growing discontent with overseas Kiwis from unemployed New Zealanders trapped at home.

‘‘We’ve got a whole lot of people now who are unemployed, and I can tell you that the sympathy in places like Papakura, my electorate, is very much with people who are unemployed and who need help,’’ Collins said.

The proposed law will need to be passed rapidly before the House rises next week.

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