The immigration debate: Please leave your logic at the border

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse imposed a "remuneration test" as a proxy for skills.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse imposed a "remuneration test" as a proxy for skills.

OPINION: Another month, another record immigration number.

Cue another round of political point-scoring.

It probably took Labour all the restraint it could muster to wait a full 90 minutes to react to the latest data, showing a net 71,900 had come into the country and a total of 129,500 "migrant arrivals" on these shores in the last 12 months.

Labour leader Andrew Little was quick out of the blocks to condemn latest immigration numbers.

Labour leader Andrew Little was quick out of the blocks to condemn latest immigration numbers.

Leader Andrew Little has reiterated Labour's plan to cut migration numbers by "tens of thousands" but refused to name a figure.

Labour would, he said, "better match migrants with the skills our industries need, accelerate investment in vital infrastructure and build the houses that a growing population needs".

* SMEs want tighter immigration policies: MYOB
* NZ immigration flows unlikely to slow despite Government's changes: ASB
* The dilemma of immigration: We need it, but we want it curbed as well
* Explainer: What do the Government's immigration changes mean?
* 'Callous attempt to hold power': Peters calls Government's immigration crackdown a con

The last two – infrastructure investment and house building – are necessary responses but not in themselves an immigration policy. Matching migrant skills to need is closer to the mark, but begs a number of questions. Which skills? How highly skilled? How many?

They are also the questions Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse partly tried to answer with his move to "remuneration levels" as a proxy for skills. But he too failed at the crucial hurdle, talking only airily about "control" of immigration without answering the key question: How many?

If you want to be kind to both you could argue that it varies. What is needed in a downturn will change when the economy is running hot. And the numbers can be radically biffed around, say, by Kiwis returning after an overseas terrorist attack.

But both men are guilty of familiar political crimes – keeping it vague or, as the old saying goes, using statistics much as a drunk uses a lamppost; for support rather than illumination.

Ad Feedback

While Opposition politicians – yes, Winston, you too – toss around the big numbers on record migrant flows and the highly variable "net migration" numbers, they are not the figures that are easily in their power to affect (though they do signal the level of pressure on school, hospitals, housing and roads).

The ebb and flow of New Zealanders, and others with the right to come here, is out of politicians' control.

Where they can have an impact is in the flow of work visas and student visas.

At the border they show up as dominant in the statistics: 43,700 work visas and 23,900 student visas in the latest data, with a total "non-New Zealand citizen" inflow of 73,200.

If politicians want to look somewhere for a solution, they should start there.

In 2005 some 9650 student visa holders came in. In 2008 that rose to 13,139 and it hit 23,861 in the latest March year – actually 3800 lower than the February figure.

In the work visas category the growth is equally stark. The number was 17,056 in 2005, 21,883 in 2008 and 43,725 this March.

Over the same period numbers of those coming in on a "residence" visa have barely moved; from 14,943 in 2005 and 17,772 in 2006 to just 16,763 in the latest 12-month period.

Unless there has been a sudden slump in the skill level of the Kiwi workforce, there is clearly something else going on here.

And unless there has been a fundamental change in the New Zealand economy over the last decade, there seems considerable room for New Zealand to allow "tens of thousands" fewer visas, if not the same cut in migrant numbers that Little has talked about, though he has made a dog's breakfast of explaining it.

But even the big jump in work visa numbers at the border paints only part of the picture.

Statistics NZ's data is largely based on "stated intention" by migrants as they arrive.

Yet according to the number crunchers, the vast majority of work visas is approved onshore, so they do not necessarily show up in the information collected at the border.

And once someone is here, there can also be changes in how long they stay and in the types of visas they move on to.

Again, Woodhouse's "remuneration tests" are a step in the right direction. As has been pointed out, they might help distinguish between a chip-fryer at your local takeaway and a top flight Michelin Star chef but they are only tangential ways to affect overall numbers.

If the Government or Opposition want to "control" immigration they need to look at the number and skill levels of those granted a visa both inside the country and out, not waffle around or indulge in "dog-whistling" about the country being swamped by migrants.

The whole debate crackles with emotion and is electric with false leads and half truths.

Take one example: that the boom in migrant numbers is being driven by returning New Zealanders.

In comparative terms – how many are coming back and leaving compared with the days of a "Westpac Stadium-sized" exodus – there has been a big shift.

However, as Statistics NZ itself pointed out, more New Zealand citizens are still leaving the country each year than return as migrants. There was a net loss of 1300 citizens in the year to the end of March 2017.

The net migration of non-New Zealand citizens was actually 73,200; higher than the total "net migration" figure of 71,900 because of the net outflow of Kiwis.

As Westpac economist Satish Ranchod has pointed out, arrivals only account for half of the strong pick-up in net migration since 2012.

Don't hold your breath for a change of tack ahead of September 23, though.

Sadly it is too potent an election issue for the Opposition to grant the Government a free pass in return for a spot of "tinkering" around visa requirements.

After all, the international debate about migration, and tensions in Europe and the US, did not get where it is today by a rational analysis of the options.

 - Stuff

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback