The case for open doors

Put aside the populism and look at what immigration really brings us and what choices we really face

I saw my first 2017 election pamphlet this past week.

Unfortunately we are having a snail problem in our mailbox at the moment so it was pretty munched up, but there was a local candidate promoting himself. Apart from that and with one exception there is minimal sign of the upcoming election. The one exception is immigration policy. The parties seem to be leaping all over themselves to announce tighter and tighter immigration targets. 

This all followed the release of figures showing a net inwards gain of more than seventy thousand in the past year. New Zealand First has long taken a hard line against immigration; the reaction there was expected. Surprising though was Andrew Little, who sounded like he was calling for a more restrictive policy than NZ First.

His initial statement made it sound like he was calling for a reduction by 50,000 a year, so we could move back to the long term average of twenty-odd thousand per year; technically that is what he said. But he quickly walked back from that position to a generalised ‘we will work much harder to get it down’ type target. 

Other parties chipped in, but it all felt much more like jumping on a populist bandwagon that has currency all over the world right now, than seriously trying to advance the best interests of New Zealand. Donald Trump made hay in America with a promise to build a ‘big, beautiful’ wall to keep those “bad” Mexicans out. Marine Le Pen took a similar ‘immigrants are very bad for France’ line in the French presidential election, and negative feelings about immigration were seen to be a powerful driver behind the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Anti-immigration feelings are easy to whip up. It would be nice to see more considered analysis.

Soon after the 70,000 net gain figure came out another report highlighting serious skill shortages appeared. And it was not the industries one automatically expected to be pretty desperate about finding more staff like construction and transport – it included shortages in care workers across the board. We need to have the people we need to make our economy work. 

To a considerable extent the inwards population gain reflects the particularly high growth rates we are currently experiencing in the New Zealand economy. The high rate of growth creates problems no doubt, and they have to be addressed, but they are quality problems and way preferable to the reverse; that is, the problems that come with low or no growth. Growth has lots of benefits. While our unemployment rate is already low by international standards, with more effective training more of those currently out of the workforce would find their way in because jobs are there. And a larger economy is able to pay for more and better health, education and the range of other government services.

We have a housing shortage; we all know that. But we also have a shortage of builders. We cannot train enough herecertainly in the short term. To speed up addressing the housing shortage we need to bring the skills we need in from overseas. Same with the Christchurch and Kaikoura rebuild. We need to address the workforce shortages to keep those rebuilds on track. The transport industry too is tight for staff. There really is no realistic way of cutting the numbers there. 

A lot of these numbers cannot be controlled. We are going through a spell when the New Zealand economy is performing relatively better than the Australian economy. That was the opposite way around a few years back when the Aussie mining boom was sucking large numbers of Kiwis over the Tasman. Politics was made then of stopping that outflow. The only effective way of turning that outflow around was to have New Zealand doing better than Australia so workers were attracted to move across the Tasman... but in this direction. That is much preferred. 

From an immigration numbers point of view however, more Kiwis moving back here is a net gain. I hope no-one wants to reverse that. Apart from the relative economic performance factor, there is no immigration policy tool that can control that number anyway. If they want to come they are New Zealanders, so they can come. Those numbers cannot be controlled.

In the global world in which we now live many young Kiwis travel and even live a while overseas. Inevitably a number will end up finding their partner in life in some other country. We could not possibly say to young New Zealanders that you cannot bring your husband, wife, partner – whatever – home. That is another number we cannot control.

In the larger sense I would argue that immigration enriches New Zealand. 

Our multi cultural society that immigration from many source countries has built makes us a more interesting, more vibrant, more stimulating country. Even if we could get the numbers coming in down by the thousands – and we cannot - it would be a shame to lose any cultural enrichment benefits.