Something always allocates. When anything is relatively scarce, something has to decide how the scarce thing is used: who gets it, who doesn’t, and what might encourage more of the scarce thing to be provided.
For the past sixteen months, if you have needed to enter New Zealand, a scarce space in the Managed Isolation and Quarantine system has been needed – for entirely justifiable reasons. Without quarantine restrictions at the border, New Zealand would have joined the rest of the world in Covid misery.
But something has had to allocate those scarce MIQ spaces.
The surest way to a space in MIQ, for the past sixteen months, has been political influence. Those with political influence get spaces. Those without it are forced into a broken room booking system. Getting a room through that broken system seems to be a full-time job all on its own: some would-be travellers have even hired people to sit at a computer and hit the refresh button, all day long, on their behalf.
But for those with political pull, things are a bit easier.
Last August, in the leadup to an election, the Provincial Growth Fund considered horse racing tracks to be vitally important pieces of infrastructure. An all-weather track in Cambridge needed specialist workers from overseas.
Entry into MIQ was then relatively simple.
Minister Faafoi’s spokesperson assured everyone that officials made the decision without input or advocacy from politicians.
And he was surely right.
No such advocacy was needed.
Criteria for entry always prioritised workers essential to the continued operation or construction of critical infrastructure. As soon as a horse racing track was considered critical infrastructure, the system’s gears turned and spaces for those workers were available as priority.
Horse racing, before last year’s election, had political pull. So horse track workers could use the MIQ express lane.
The America’s Cup was also a government priority. The government had already provided a substantial subsidy for the boat race and did not want it to fail for want of spaces in MIQ.
Because the government made a boat race a priority, all officials then needed to do was follow the rules. Over seven hundred entry visas followed for the racing crews, technical support, family of the syndicates, and even a nutritionist for one of the teams.
International film projects have political pull. So even Kirsten Dunst’s nanny was deemed an essential worker.
The Wiggles’ fan base gave them political pull. When the normal channels did not lead to a space, the Prime Minister’s suggestion that a space should be found seemed to do the trick.
The rules make it harder to get into MIQ if you are not a New Zealand resident. Political pull can turn a stalled immigration process into a fast-track so you can travel abroad and be eligible for MIQ for your return.
And political pull meant some four hundred MIQ spots are being saved for bureaucrats, businesspeople, and performers heading to a trade expo in Dubai in October. In 2017, the National-led government had committed over fifty million dollars for a pavilion for that expo. The government has considered it a priority. Once it is a priority, there will be spaces. That is how the system works.
Families split by the border and a lack of MIQ spaces cannot compete with any of that. The rules ensure that those with political pull can find a way through. Longstanding insiders have political pull. More recent migrants who have not seen their families for a year and a half do not.
The system seems corrupt – but not in any bribe-taking sense. Instead, it is corrupt in what seems a particularly Kiwi sense of the term. No money changes hands. No officials or Ministers are bribed. None need to be. The corruption instead is baked into the rules of the system providing a fast-track for those with political pull.
Officials follow the rules of a game that was rigged from the outset.
Political influence determines who gets fast-tracked entry through MIQ, who is denied any access to the MIQ system, and who is relegated to a broken booking system where the rooms are officially free but come at terrible cost.
The cost of a free room is the time spent trying to secure a space – which can be weeks of dedicated effort. It also includes the terrible uncertainty faced by everyone who fears a sudden turn of events could require them to travel, but that that travel would prove impossible. If you do not have pull, there are currently no rooms available through November.
For many people desperate to rejoin their families, the real price of entry is infinite: there is simply no way they can enter, because they do not have the required political pull.
Something always allocates a scarce resource that is in high demand.
In other areas, prices help allocate scarce resources while encouraging more supply, and income redistribution helps those with less money to afford a spot.
The government could have auctioned its priority spaces to the highest bidder and used the proceeds to help to strengthen and expand the system for others.
Or the government could have let MIQ hotels manage their own bookings and set their own prices, while charging those facilities for the services the government provides in ensuring safety. Hotels have no small amount of experience in managing bookings systems and would surely provide a better booking experience. In that model, the government would have provided eligible returning Kiwis with a voucher for the cost of a stay at a mid-range MIQ facility, and hotels would have ensured rooms were not left empty.
It has been considered unfair for prices to have any role in allocating scarce MIQ spaces. But allocating spaces by political influence and a broken booking system has been worse. If MIQ will be required for at least some travellers even after the vaccine roll-out, the government needs to stop allocating scarce spaces through the aristocracy of pull.
Addendum: As this column went to print, the Government announced a C-130 Hercules transport plane would soon be on its way to Afghanistan in hope of collecting any Afghans who assisted NZ forces and who have not yet been killed by the Taliban. Hopefully survivors can be brought to New Zealand.
If no MIQ spaces would otherwise be available, then even quarantine on Matiu/Somes Island or at a military facility would be preferable to their having to remain in Afghanistan.
The Government needs to be able to accommodate this kind of emergency case, which in this instance would also include military emergency transport. But it should be the rare exception.