Opinion: Immigration - here we go again

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by Professor Paul Spoonley

Immigration is shaping up to be a key debating point this election year. Whether it will be the incendiary issue it was in 1996 remains to be seen. What is disappointing is the shift by all the major political parties to appeal to populist anti-immigration sentiments.

Just to remind voters, the results of the 1996 election meant a reset in immigration policy. But it rapidly became clear in the years following the election that reducing the number of immigrants, especially from Asia, had negative effects on New Zealand. The restrictions that were implemented – including more severe English language requirements, combined with a downturn in Asia economies – saw a major decline in the numbers of immigrants arriving. It also meant that the restrictions of the mid-1990s were defined as racist in Asian source countries.

Interestingly, the New Zealand public quickly saw the decline as having a number of negative implications and by 2000, both media and public opinion had swung dramatically in favour of increased numbers of immigrants.  Many now saw immigration as having positive impacts, economically and socially. The 1999 Labour–led government quickly implemented changes (33 of them) and the number of arrivals again increased.

As the Asia New Zealand Foundation annual surveys showed, it coincided with a significant improvement in attitudes towards immigrants and their impacts on New Zealand. Compared to most other countries, including Australia, the majority of New Zealanders tend to see immigration in positive terms.

Now it seems we are back in a pre-1996 environment. Both the Government and the Labour opposition have announced measures designed to significantly curb the numbers arriving.

This populist anti-immigration positioning echoes the shift in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, apparently to appeal to the growing anxieties of some at immigration, and what it means for economies, access to work, wage levels, and the stress put on infrastructure. We should debate policy settings and targets but surely this can be done in a way that avoids the xenophobia and simplistic causality that has been obvious overseas?

The Government’s plan to set income thresholds seems a crude move that invites those seeking a workforce (employers) and those seeking permanent residence to rort the system, to require more bureaucracy and to send a message to some source countries that ‘we are not that keen on you’.

Equally, the Labour response seems to mollify union concerns but reinforces a sense that they want to appeal to anti-immigration sentiments. Yes, immigrants do add to the pressure for additional infrastructure, including housing in Auckland, but significant cuts will put pressure on a major income earner – international education, as well as on the skilled labour supply, and will undermine the country’s reputation for tolerance towards diversity.

There is a case for revising aspects of the recruitment and approval of immigrants. The low value courses and qualifications offered by some educational providers puts New Zealand’s reputation at risk and does not add much to the onshore talent pool that has become increasingly important for selecting permanent residents and workers.

So what is missing from the current debate and policy modifications? Here are a few suggestions:

  • A more proactive regional focus. Both Canada and Australia allow regions to set their own targets and to recruit the skilled immigrants needed locally – without undermining local workers or wages. Up to a third of the points required for approval for permanent residence can be granted by regions.
  • There has not been enough attention paid to social cohesion. Positive settlement outcomes for both immigrants and host communities would benefit from a greater investment in helping transition immigrants to life in New Zealand – more generous provisions for English language acquisition, for example, would help. Equally, encouraging host communities and institutions to understand and engage with diversity in various ways is also important. It is not simply an “immigrant problem”.
  • Let’s have a debate about population – its growth and distribution – as a context for decisions about immigration. And lets not see immigration as a single causal factor or as a simple solution.

On a positive note, New Zealand has yet to adopt the misleading view (in my assessment) that you can test values and an immigrant’s willingness to “integrate”. Canada, Australia and the US all make such tests a condition of citizenship and it is naïve to believe that a citizenship test can either assess or encourage particular values.

Is it too much to hope that we will have a balanced and evidence-based debate in this election year, especially compared to 1996? Yes, immigration rates have been high but immigration is simply one of many causal factors when it comes to major challenges such as housing affordability, labour market engagement and wages (of immigrants or locals) and productivity.

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, Massey University, is a lead researcher in the Capturing Diversity Dividend of Aotearoa New Zealand (2014-2020) programme.  

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