Kiwis will return from Australia - Key
Prime Minister John Key says Cantabrians who moved to Australia to flee the quakes will start returning when there is more optimism about Christchurch's rebuild.
A record 52,000 New Zealanders left for Australia in the year to January - partly driven by people fleeing earthquake-ravaged Christchurch - while 14,000 moved to New Zealand from Australia.
The difference of 38,000 is New Zealand's highest-ever recorded net loss to Australia, according to Statistics New Zealand.
The National Party campaigned on stopping New Zealanders moving to Australia in the 2008 election with slogans such as: "Wave good bye to higher taxes, not your loved ones."
However, National dropped that policy in last year's election after failing to make much impact on migration rates or the trans-Tasman income gap in its first term in office.
Key this morning said Christchurch had a big impact on migration figures.
"Some people have said 'well, my home is in disarray, my job is uncertain', they've picked themselves up from Christchurch and they've gone," he told TV3's Firstline programme.
People were attracted by Australia's booming mining sector.
"While it's great for New Zealand because it actually dominates quite a few businesses we have over here, it's taking a lot of medium skilled people across the Tasman, getting $150,000 a year to drive a truck."
However, unemployment in Australia was rising, New Zealanders were not eligible for welfare support there and outside the mining sector, areas such as retail, construction and housing were weakening.
In contrast, the New Zealand unemployment rate was falling and 63,000 new jobs had been created in the past few years.
Losing New Zealanders to Australia was a long-term problem build up over the past 40-odd years, Key said.
"I don't think you are going to turn it around in five minutes.
"We are starting to close that gap but it's a big job."
The prime minister said he was confident migration numbers would improve "over time" but there was only so much the Government could do.
"I can't take the passport off people.
"What you can do is try to build an economic environment that encourages people to believe they are going to have a job that they want and ultimately have the lifestyle that they want."
Despite the exodus, Key said New Zealand's net population was rising.
"So we are doing something right because people are coming to New Zealand and wanting to make their permanent home here."
CONSISTENT LOSSES SINCE FEBRUARY QUAKE
In January alone, New Zealand recorded a net loss of 600 migrants, and the country has consistently posted monthly net losses since the February 2011 quake, August being the only exception.
UBS senior economist Robin Clements said many Kiwis had been leaving for Australia for a long time and that would continue probably until the Christchurch rebuild began.
More people leaving meant an easing housing demand, which was counter-productive for the housing-led recovery the country was hoping for, he said.
The rebuild would be the catalyst for attracting people to the city, with an increasing demand for workers, he said.
Canterbury had the largest net loss of people in the year to January.
A total of 8200 people left Christchurch to live overseas, more than 40 per cent up on the number who left the city in the previous year.
That was only partly offset by the 5400 overseas people who came to Christchurch to live last year – a 20 per cent drop on the previous 12 months.
The net migration for Canterbury was 3700 people leaving, including 2800 leaving Christchurch, more than the 3100 net outflow for the country overall.
Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker said the figures were not surprising, given what the city's residents had been through since the earthquakes.
"As part of the nature of the events that people go through, there will be some people who, in the best interests of their family or their career, have to make that call."
He said the net loss was small compared with Christchurch's population and showed that many people were still committed to the city.
"It shows we've got a very stable and resilient population in the face of what have been some very overwhelming events," he said.
"We can take a degree of heart from that."
He believed Christchurch's population would increase over the next couple of years as workers moved to the city to take part in the rebuild.
REBUILD WILL ATTRACT
Canterbury Development Corporation workforce strategy manager Simon Worthington said the city's rebuild was a multibillion-dollar injection that would attract people to the city and provide jobs.
He said skilled Kiwis crossing the Tasman in record numbers meant fewer people in New Zealand who could be enticed to Christchurch for the rebuild.
"Absolutely, it's worrying, and from our perspective we'd like to see more skilled people moving here than leaving, so it's never a good sign, but you've got to look at what we've been through," he said.
"Over the next wee while, as the construction boom starts to manifest – and it's been a long time coming – we'll see that pendulum swing back."
Historically, in the aftermath of urban-centred natural disasters, there was a shift away from cities, sometimes by up to 20 per cent of the city's population, he said.
"Christchurch is way below that."
Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the pace of the rebuild was starting to increase, and he cited a survey released yesterday showing the value of building activity had increased 24 per cent in the last quarter of 2011.
The activity was "the thin end of a very large wedge" that would bring more people into the city, he said.
Auckland was the only region to post a net gain in migrants for the year to January, with 5600 more people arriving than leaving.