The dilemma of immigration: We need it, but we want it curbed as well

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse's immigration changes; More sizzle than sausage?
Dasha Kuprienko / Fairfax NZ

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse's immigration changes; More sizzle than sausage?

OPINION: Immigration. We can't do without it, but at times we struggle to live with it.

That's the dilemma facing a Government squeezed between the rock of public opinion and the hard word put on politicians by businesses wanting to import workers while the unemployed top 120,000.

Prime Minister Bill English, and John Key before him, have blamed the coincidence of high unemployment and skills shortages on the drug-addled and the unready.

NZ First leader Winston Peters has been heckling for decades about immigration levels.

NZ First leader Winston Peters has been heckling for decades about immigration levels.

That can play well with the crowd always ready to blame the feckless and lazy. But equally politicians are aware, especially when migration is running at record levels, of the question that will not go away. "Why are we bringing in so many foreigners when there are so many out of work here?"

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And then there is the broader political problem associated with high immigration; an ugly casserole of prejudice, resentment, economic envy and xenophobia from which New Zealand is not exempt.

The anti-immigrant feeling is yet to swamp Europe, but the tide has been rising. There is a sense in recent and upcoming elections that moderate and sensible politicians ignore it at their peril as they try to beat off the appeal of politicians on the right flank.

On the home front we have our own dilute version in the decades-long heckling from Winston Peters and more recently the call to curb immigration – for practical reasons such as the pressure on infrastructure and housing, of course – from Labour.

It has always been a hard issue for Labour to grapple with. Its internationalist instincts (and key elements of its voter base) embrace diversity and immigration. Hence the internal brow-beating over its use of "Chinese-sounding names" to highlight the impact of foreign buyers on the Auckland housing market.

But its industrial wing (and Andrew Little was long a fully paid-up member) has always been more equivocal when it weighs the impact of high immigration on jobs and wages.

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When my father was planning to emigrate in the early 1960s it was the New Zealand-based printers' union, to which he wrote for advice, that sent him the strongest letter advising against it. Food prices were rising, jobs were difficult to get and the "land of milk and honey" had been oversold.

For the record, we stopped off at Whitcombe & Tombs en route from the ship to our house and he was handed a job on the spot.

But with a tight election looming, National is clearly awake to the danger of the growing trend in wealthier nations – emphasised by a tightening by Australia only this week. 

But it still struggles with appearing to tighten the screws while not choking off the supply of workers businesses say they need.

Late last year Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse cut the target range for the number of people gaining residence from 90,000-100,000 to 85,000-95,000.

At the same time he raised the number of points required for residence from 140 to 160 under the Skilled Migrant Category and cut the number of places available for those who wanted to join family members here.

The numbers under the capped family categories were sliced from 5500 a year down to 2000 and the Parent Category was closed – temporarily – to new applications.

But he also referenced efforts to develop "a skilled and safer workforce" to promote investment in skills, maximise employment for adult Kiwis and "use immigration settings to attract the best people to fill skill shortages across different sectors and regions".

But the dilemma, and the political calculation around it, has not gone away. 

Hence his newest "tweak" to immigration settings announced on Wednesday – more of that in a moment

But to be fair to him, it is not just a simple political equation.

There are also economic pressures, identified by Treasury advisers last year even when they tipped net migration to peak at 70,700 before diving to the long-run average of 12,000 by 2019.

They warned that alongside housing pressures, high migration was seeing more and more heading into low-skilled jobs where they could displace existing workers and depress wages.

Some of Woodhouse's latest measures are a nod in the direction of Treasury's concerns.

The most striking are those that award "points" for the amount of pay potential migrants receive, which will act as a partial proxy for "skill".

Those paid less than $49,000 a year will not get any points, even if their job was previously considered skilled. Those paid more than $73,300 get points even if the job was previously not classed as "skilled" while the well paid – earning more than $97,700 a year – get bonus points.

If you are looking for a practical example of why that is useful, Oliver Hartwich at the New Zealand Initiative said it best.

"One of the challenges for the immigration system is telling two applicants apart. On paper a fry chef looks exactly the same as a chef with two Michelin stars, but in reality the economic value of these applicants are quite different." 

In its advice to ministers last year Treasury also warned about the fraught "political economy" of migration policy.

It said this country had a relatively calm public debate about it, "but there is always latent risk of this turning on a dime." 

Whether or not Woodhouse and English took note, the changes they have made look to be more sizzle than sausage.

On Tuesday English foreshadowed them as an attempt to "control" immigration. Yet he would not forecast their likely impact.

In the case of one key element that Woodhouse can control – the so-called "selection point" for migrants – Immigration New Zealand's website says there is no information at present on where it will be set when the adjusted rules are in place in August.

It also notes that there are winners and losers – some in low-paid employment may be shut out, the door will open to others in highly paid jobs.

While the Government's political objective may have been met by headlines suggesting it is "controlling" or "stemming" migration, the reality so far falls a fair way short of that.

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 - Stuff

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