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Labour wins on immigration

Labour and New Zealand First have a lot of common ground when it comes to immigration. Shane Cowlishaw explores what’s been agreed to and what it might mean for the country.

Throughout the campaign, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters railed against immigration.

He wanted a massive reduction in net migration - from about 73,000 to 10,000 - to stem the tide of people escaping from their “hell hole” to Aotearoa.

“It's not a sign of our staggering success,” he said.

"It's a sign of the lax and loose policies we've employed that's allowed so many people to come here."

The problem was, whenever he was asked how he would make such drastic cuts, there was no detail.

Many business leaders warned that turning off the immigration tap would slow economic growth.

Perhaps because of this, New Zealand First’s leader appears satisfied with a far more moderate immigration policy.

Peters’ demurring to Labour’s more modest immigration policy was done with barely a murmur.

Prime Minister-designate Jacinda Ardern was firm last week in stating Labour would be sticking with its own immigration plan of reducing net migration by 20,000 to 30,000, and repeated it in the announcement of Labour's deal with New Zealand First.

“We had a conversation which demonstrated we shared the concern of exploitation, particularly in our export education sector, the need to strengthen those labour market tests, we’ve referenced that policy in the agreement, and of course that policy came with an estimate of the reduction of net migration would bring so that’s entirely consistent with our policy and nothing in that regard has changed.”

In a rare moment, Peters then accepted that he had not gotten exactly what he wanted, but was not too fussed.

“We’re happy to accept that resolution in the way the Labour party has framed it, and it just so happens there’s an enormous amount of public controversy about those two issues right now carried by you in the media and carried by experts, so maybe it will work out.”

Peters may not have got exactly what he wanted, but immigration numbers are still set to drop.

Labour’s plan

Labour’s pre-election immigration policy was an attempt to find the ‘Goldilocks’ space between New Zealand First’s dramatic cuts and National’s tweaking.

It aimed for a reduction of net migration by 20,000 to 30,000, largely accomplished through a tightening of rules around international students.

The crack-down on low-quality private training institutions that have plagued the industry will continue and visas only issued for courses below a bachelor’s degree which had been assessed as being of high quality.

Currently, students are able to work 20 hours a week while studying, but this would be restricted to those studying at bachelor-level or higher unless the work was an approved part of a course.

Work visas for those who have completed study would also be tougher to get, available only to those who have studied at bachelor level or higher in an attempt to reduce the amount of people using low-value study as a path to residency.

In April the National Government announced its own tweaks aimed at culling low-skilled migrants.

It introduced salary bands for both skilled migrants applying for residency and people applying for a temporary essential skills visa.

The lower band, set at the median income of $48,859, would see those earning less unable to claim points towards residency and only be eligible for a maximum three-year visa, followed by a stand-down of one year outside the country.

The higher threshold of $73,299 would mean anyone earning more was automatically classified as highly skilled.

Rules regarding lower-skilled families were also introduced, meaning partners and children would no longer be able to work and study in New Zealand.

Following strong feedback from industry lobby groups, the Government pumped the brake a few months later, the lower salary band was dropped to $41,538.

While there is room for change in the international education market, Labour is facing a huge task in building 100,000 homes under its KiwiBuild policy and will need workers to do so.

Alongside the usual construction work visas a new KiwiBuild visa will be introduced to allow a skilled tradesperson to be hired on a three-year work visa without meeting the labour market test, as long as an apprentice is hired alongside that worker.

An exception skills visa will also be introduced, allowing people with significant experience or qualifications to bring their families.

What impact will the changes have?

Professor Paul Spoonley of Massey University said the idea of reducing net migration to 10,000 was unworkable.

“I don’t think New Zealand First’s plan was ever explained in sufficient detail and second, I don’t think it would have been workable. It would have been too drastic a handbrake on the New Zealand economy," Spoonley said.

There was room to move in reducing net migration, however, and Labour’s estimate that the changes around international education would remove $250m from the economy was “about right”.

Spoonley said the 1500 KiwiBuild visas seemed light to build 100,000 homes, even when added to current immigration levels.

Local, skilled workers would be needed, but visas could not be created immediately.

“My question is whether 1500 construction workers is going to meet Auckland and Christchurch demand, quite apart from the country’s.”

While the tightening of rules will have some impact on the international education market in New Zealand and on some recruiters overseas, many in the industry were expecting the move.

Terry McGrath, acting-president of the International Education Association, said the National Government had already changed direction and begun focusing on quality over quantity.

Both the outgoing and incoming Education Ministers had signalled this at a recent conference, and weeding out private training institutions that were exploiting students was welcomed.

“It’s not so much a surprise. It’s more a collective sigh of relief that there’s nothing extreme being put forward,” McGrath said.

Many in the industry had become quite concerned about some of the low-level providers alongside the exploitation of students by workers, so it was also welcome to hear that the number of labour inspectors would be increased, he said.

Labour campaigned to double the number of labour inspectors to 110.

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