We Need to Talk about Immigration

Our Coalition Government was elected on a clear platform of reducing immigration, but so far changes have been minor. There seems to be little appetite to deliver the reforms they were elected on, or even to discuss the issue publicly. Racial issues are understandably incredibly sensitive at the moment, given the recent tragedy in Christchurch. Most New Zealanders are keen to help on this count. However this should not overshadow the need to continue to debate immigration in dispassionate, non-racial terms. To do so would mean ignoring many important issues and only push a valid discussion underground. 

Promises Promises

Labour claimed that its policies would reduce immigration to relieve the pressure on our ailing infrastructure. They were always vague on whether their target was a reduction in 20-30,000 per year or as a one off. Its coalition partner New Zealand First promised to slash numbers to as little as 10,000 per year. 

So far, immigration numbers have indeed fallen, but not by much. In fact, apart from student reforms, the drop in immigration seems largely due to the business cycle. 

The Labour/NZ First coalition has tightened some of the loopholes around student visas. This stopped the worst rorts of the system that were happening under National, which essentially saw dodgy training providers dangling the carrot of NZ residency to boost enrolments. Clearly this was not the way to run our education exports or our immigration policy and needed sorting out. 

Beyond that, reform has been slow to arrive and contradictory in its intentions. 

Confusion Over Government Policy

Economic commentator Michael Reddell points out that the Government seems to have been making policy changes with as little publicity as possible. Impending changes seem to hint at further reductions, but the devil is in the details on this issue and so far there is no detail. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson seems to have other ideas. He is downplaying the possibility of further reductions in immigration. He thinks Treasury’s predictions of falling net migration are overcooked, which seems to hint there will be no further substantial policy changes. Perhaps he realises that reducing immigration would slash growth in the tax take and the money available for future budgets. This is a bizarre incentive for governments to continue immigration regardless of whether it benefits the country long term. 

Even New Zealand First has tried to spin continued levels of immigration as a win for the regions. Apparently, the line is that the Government is still allowing immigration, but is working to ensure new migrants go where they are most needed. Sadly, overseas examples tend to show that such approaches fail – people eventually move to the cities regardless. 

The Opportunities Party position is clear - economic immigration (i.e. not including refugees and families) should only be allowed where it benefits the country as a whole. 

The Christchurch Tragedy is No Excuse for Silence

The public could be forgiven for being confused. What is the Coalition Government’s policy on immigration exactly? Whatever it is they should be open and transparent about it.

The Christchurch tragedy has rightly started a debate about racism in Aotearoa New Zealand. However, it should not prevent us from discussing immigration entirely. Immigration is a highly charged topic for many people. Some of the reasons for this passion are valid, and some are not. Racism for example should clearly not be a factor in the public debate. However, since Helen Clark came to power we have had the highest per capita planned inflow of permanent non-citizen migrants in the OECD, which has placed unprecedented pressure on our housing and infrastructure. That is one of many valid issues that should be up for debate. 

I am in no way blaming migrants themselves for the problem. The fault is ours as hosts. It’s a bit like inviting 8 people around for dinner and only cooking for 6. 

We simply haven’t invested in the roads, sewage and housing required to service the higher population. It is risky to invite more people into the country if we are still trying to catch up on the infrastructure deficit from the last influx, unless of course they can help us build that infrastructure. 

In coming blogs, we will set out which issues urgently need to be talked about. The important point for now is that this conversation must not be taboo. 

Image Credit: Shujenchang