It was not our decision: Sports Minister Grant Robertson called out after blaming officials for refusing SailGP MIQ space

A senior official called on Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson to correct a statement about why a major international sailing event was refused entry to managed isolation facilities (MIQ), after he suggested ministers were not involved in the decision.

Ministerial briefings show ministers were clearly briefed on the refusal to grant space to the series, prompting accusations that Robertson had thrown a “hospital pass” to MIQ officials.

In August SailGP, a global competition raced by international teams on foiling catamarans, announced that a planned event in Whakaraupō/Lyttelton Harbour near Christchurch scheduled for early 2022 had to be dropped from the series because more than 100 people associated with the event, including crews, organisers and officials, had been refused space in MIQ.

Amid calls to explain the decision, Robertson, as Sports Minister, issued a statement which appeared to claim that officials within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment had made the decision, independent of the Beehive.

“The decision was made by the Border Exemptions Officials Group not to progress the proposal for ministerial consideration,” Robertson said in a statement, reported by the Press.

“This was due to the request coming during a period of high demand for returning New Zealanders.”

The day the comments were published, Kara Isaac, general manager of MIQ policy within MBIE, emailed the Beehive that the statement that ministers were not involved in the decision was incorrect.

While a group of officials put forward proposals on which groups should get MIQ space to ministers, Isaac wrote, the proposals were based on what they believed ministers wanted and were subject to Beehive approval.

“It was not our decision,” Isaac wrote in email to Josh Hercus, a Beehive official in Covid-19 Recovery Minister Chris Hipkins office. The emails and other briefings were released under the Official Information Act.

“Ministers were clearly advised of the SailGP application in [multiple] briefings,” Isaac wrote. While Robertson was not one of the ministers meant to receive the briefings, he personally attended a meeting where ministers verbally confirmed the decision.

Isaac recommended that Robertson’s office “correct the record”.

A spokesman for Hipkins confirmed his office had discussed the complaint with Robertson but decided not to because ministers agreed with official’s recommendations.

While ministerial briefings from government departments frequently make recommendations – effectively second-guessing what they expect ministers to do – the MIQ documents make it clear they were seeking ministerial approval.

A spokeswoman for Robertson acknowledged that following the briefings ministers noted the decision to refuse SailGP space, but denied the story needed to be corrected.

Act leader David Seymour said Robertson should have taken responsibility for the decision rather than blame officials.

“It’s a really cowardly act for someone of Grant’s stature to give the bureaucracy such a hospital pass,” Seymour said, adding that the Government should have allowed private MIQ arrangements.

“When there’s a limited amount to go around, politics gets nasty, and that’s what we’ve seen from Grant here.”

The event, which was expected to draw several thousand spectators, was forecast to give New Zealand an economic boost of up to $28 million, $9m of which was set to go straight into Christchurch’s economy.

Top New Zealand sailor Peter Burling, who was set to sail in the event, said at the time the news was a “real shame”.

“We’d really love to bring an event down to New Zealand,” he said. “Being the sailors on the home team at that point would be something that would be pretty amazing.”

It was a second blow for event director Karl Budge, who was also the director of the twice-cancelled ASB tennis classic.

After the decision came through in August, Budge told Newstalk ZB that the sailing competition remained determined to have an event in New Zealand.

“Christchurch was a venue that we’re really excited about,” he said. “It was probably the venue that would give us the opportunity to live out our dream; what we wanted to provide as a spectator sport.

“The fans were going to be so up close to the boats and the actual course. It was going to provide something pretty special. We certainly remain incredibly keen to bring an event to Christchurch.”

The Herald understands discussions are continuing between the Government and SailGP organisers about funding to bring the event to Christchurch in early 2023.

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