Hard News by Russell Brown


Every option has costs, every lever pulls on something else

Last week, in a futile search for a pair of cycling gloves at advertised clearance prices, I called three Kathmandu outlets. At two, my call was answered by a pleasant young Irish person. At the third number, the voicemail message was equally pleasant, and equally Irish. When I eventually went into a fourth branch, I was directed to the clearance gloves by a cheery English chap. They didn't have my size.

Things were similar at the cafe in Northland where we took brunch last weekend, which was staffed by a whole fleet of handsome young men from foreign lands. One – tall, tanned, tattooed and French – addressed my darling as "darling" when he delivered our eggs.

This is all one face of a trend illustrated in the New Zealand Herald's fascinating data feature on trends in migration and the granting of visas. While the number student visas granted in the past couple of years has declined slightly, the number of work visas continues to grow. More than 40,000 people entered New Zealand on work visas in the year to March, and the majority of those were working holiday visas.

It's not hard to see why hospitality and retail businesses, especially those serving tourists, might want to employ these young travellers. They're educated, often bilingual and they're not expecting a substantial wage. It's not very different from the kind of transient work generations of New Zealanders have regarded almost as a birthright in Britain. Most of them are also not from the places that come to mind when we talk about immigration. The UK is the largest source of work visa migrants, while China and India account for only a small proportion.

As the Herald feature notes, both the government and the Labour Opposition want to address record net migration by restraining work visa numbers. And in Labour's case, that should spare them from lingering accusations of racism.

Except it doesn't, because as Keith Ng points out in a withering column for The Spinoff, Labour and its leader have been so bad at having this conversation.

Intended or otherwise, Labour has created one hell of a vacuum. They’ve talked up immigration as a problem since last year, and last week they ramped it up to Very Serious Problem which requires cuts in the tens of thousands … but they don’t have any policy.

This isn’t a policy debate – this is a debate about whether an arbitrary number sounds aggressively-yet-responsibly big. Ten thousand? Not big enough! Fifty thousand? Too big!

To be fair, the Greens haven't exactly been champs here either. Last year, co-leader James Shaw announced as policy an odd, gimmicky migration ceiling of 1% of national population, which would have the effect of halving current migration levels. He didn't say how or where numbers would be cut. Winston Peters gleefully claimed to have been vindicated and the Greens now appear to be doing their best to forget Shaw ever said it in the first place.

One thing I like about Keith's column is what he doesn't do. He doesn't reflexively attack any concern about migration levels as racist per se. It was fair, he notes, of Andrew Little, to associate Auckland house prices with migration levels.

It's not only prices – and let's be real, Auckland's housing unaffordabilty has multiple causes – but supply. The numbers are striking. According to Statistcs NZ, Auckland's new-dwellings shortfall versus poulation growth is running at around 5000 a year. The cumulative shortfall from 2012 to 2016 was more than 20,000.

Who's going to suffer most from that? I'll give you a clue: it's not whitey here, sitting on a capital gain nest-egg in a central Auckland suburb. It's the people at the bottom and on the edge.

As Greg Niness pointed out last December, the entire profile of Auckland's population growth has altered in the past three years. For years, projections have shown most of Auckland's population growth coming from natural increase. Natural increase is tracking as expected, but quite suddenly, two thirds of Auckland's population growth is down to migration. At 36,000 in the year to March, net migration to Auckland is seven times higher than it was in 2013. It's very largely external migration. Net migration with the rest of the New Zealand has been negative in recent years.

It's not just housing. If you think traffic congestion  is getting worse in Auckland, you're right. Around 800 new vehicles are registered in Auckland every week and it's showing.

Is all this fixable? Of course. Other cities cope with far greater population density than Auckland. But the city is only beginning to address an infrastructure shortfall created over decades. There are no quick fixes for that. So maybe it does make sense to take the heat out of net migration growth for a while.

After all, governments have always made periodic adjustments to immigration policy. The current settings were introduced in 2012, in what was, in the words of Minister Nathan Guy, a bid to "maximise the economic value that immigration delivers to New Zealand", after a slight softening during the GFC. The pitch, as ever, was a focus on "higher-value" migrants.

One of the changes in 2012 aimed to expedite applications in the parent category. Then last year, National cut the cap in the parent category from 5500 to 2000 – a move the Dominion Post editorial column characterised as  both insignificant in the wider picture and carrying an "unpleasant tinge of xenophobia". (China makes up 50% of approvals in the parent category and India 20%.)

People here on student visas were given more flexibility in seeking work to support themselves in 2012, and the path-to-residency for students was eased. These are much bigger numbers than the parent category. But international education is a significant export earner for New Zealand. And if you're talking about high-value immigration, already-settled people with tertiary degrees would seem to fit that bill.

Immigration has been a principal driver of economic growth not only for this government, but for the Clark government before it. It makes governments look good, even if their voters grumble about it.

I think New Zealand could do with a larger population in the longer term and I love the more diverse place that Auckland has become. It makes no sense to blame individual migrants for taking jobs, houses or space on the motorways. It does make sense to regard new New Zealanders – and new Aucklanders in particular – as people who have to live with the same deepening infrastructure deficits as the rest of us.

I do think there's a strong case for at least temporarily taking the heat out of record net migration trends. Indeed, so do all Parliamentary parties with the exception of Act (so long as the leafy lanes of Epsom are left undisturbed, presumably) and possibly United Future. It's hugely incumbent on them in election year to do so by forming, as Keith noted, actual policies – and not via confusing statements about slashing numbers or empty headlines about arbitrary ceilings.

Every option has costs, every lever pulls on something else. And that includes doing nothing new at all. The more we can be honest and precise about that, the better we deprive racists and xenophobes of the initiative.

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