When deflection and distraction are easier

Winston Peters has yet again used an obvious and absurd anti-migrant diversion to distract from his failure to achieve his core promise of reducing migration, Bernard Hickey argues.

Winston Peters is a cheeky and canny bugger.

He's a master opportunist who knows Clayton Mitchell's 'Respecting New Zealand Values' bill is not going anywhere.

The draft private members' bill cannot even get out of New Zealand First's caucus and into the Parliamentary biscuit tin, let alone win the support of Labour and Green MPs to get into law. The idea of codifying 'New Zealand values' into law is as absurd as thinking such a law would not itself break our existing laws on Human Rights and discrimination.

But the New Zealand First leader of 25 years also knows an opportunity to come across as tough on migrants when he sees it, along with a way to obscure his party's repeated failure to achieve its core promise of actually reducing historically high migration. It also distracts from his coalition Government's closely aligned failure to deal with the stress on New Zealand's infrastructure, housing affordability and social services caused by a 10 percent increase in our population in five years.

How this started

Mitchell's remit from the floor of the party's anniversary conference quickly became the focus of public debate, if only because it pressed all the usual buttons and generated the same old dry and pointless debate. It's now a type of kabuki theatre of extreme and stylised views that mean little in the real world.

Elderly provincial and suburban voters complained about dairy owners who can't speak English properly. Younger inner-city dwellers railed against racists wanting to take New Zealand back to the 'good old days' of the 1950s. 

Peters quickly rose to the occasion to stoke the debate, pointing backwards in time and over the seas to the nub of his argument.

"We've spent the last 150 plus years as a country trying to develop New Zealand values. It hasn't been a total success but it hasn't been a total failure either," he told RNZ this week.

"The moment you take them away, you begin to realise what a hell hole we would be," he said.

"If you don't like those things, then perhaps maybe you should go to some other country."

Doing nothing and saying nothing

None of these things will happen, but Peters has yet again raised his profile above the political parapet and polished his brand of anti-migration and return-to-the-50s policies.

If only the delivery matched the brand.

Despite winning an election on the promise of reducing migration, the Labour-New Zealand First Government has not only done nothing to reduce migration, they have actually relaxed the rules.

Under intense pressure from the international education industry and employers unable to wean themselves off cheap (and often below-minimum wage) temporary workers, Labour has watered down or abandoned most of its policy.

Iain Lees-Galloway quietly announced in June a major softening of the Government's promised migration changes. Labour promised before last year's election to remove general work rights for sub-degree level international students, both while they were studying and afterwards. It also said it would limit work rights for degree level students after their studies, although it was vague about how that would be done.

Instead, the Immigration Minister announced both sub-degree level and degree level students could keep working during their studies and after their studies. They would also not have to have a job offer tied to an employer anymore. This will make it easier for students to stay on and work after their studies. A one-year work visa will be granted to sub-degree level graduates after two years of study, and a three year work visa will be granted to degree level graduates. Both will continue to be able to work for 20 hours a week during study.

What happened to tighter rules?

Labour estimated before the election that its removal and restriction of work rights for students would reduce net migration by up to 22,000. The actual policy will significantly reduce or even completely remove this reduction. The news reassured employers relying on those students and bolstered confidence in the international education sector. It disappointed unions and others who hoped for a reduction in international students working during and after study here.

I wrote at the time it created a potential clash point with New Zealand First. I over-estimated Peters commitment to his apparently tough anti-migration stance. We have not heard a peep out of him on it.

He has even cheered on Labour's increase of the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme for temporary migrant fruit pickers. One of the Government's unheralded actions in its first 100 days was to lift the RSE scheme quota by 600 to 11,100. It has also declared seasonal labour shortages in Bay of Plenty (kiwifruit), Marlborough (grapes) and Hawkes Bay over the last year, which means people here on holiday visas can work in those industries without having to get a work visa.

But isn't migration falling?

Net migration has eased back over the last six months, but only because of a slight turnaround in New Zealanders coming and going from Australia and the departure of temporary workers who arrived three years ago.

This coalition Government promised policies that could reduce migration by as much as 30,000, but has actually introduced policies that increased migration by over 1,000 in its first year.

Policy change has nothing to do with it. Net migration remains near record highs. New Zealand's net migration rate of over 13 per 1,000 is four times faster than net migration to America, which voted for Trump in part because of perceived high migration, four times faster than Britain, which in theory voted for Brexit because of perceived high migration.

Student visa arrivals have fallen just 3.2 percent or 773 over the last year to 23,394. New work visa arrivals have actually risen by 2.3 percent or 1,056 over the last year to 46,836. That's migration of over 70,000 students and temporary workers.

Labour also promised changes to temporary work visas that would reduce migration by up to 8,000. Nothing has been seen of that policy. It seems permanently stalled in the bowels of MBIE. The Government even devised a temporary Kiwibuild skills shortage list that could add another 1,500 workers to the temporary workers list.

Again, not a peep from New Zealand First.

This coalition Government promised policies that could reduce migration by as much as 30,000, but has actually introduced policies that increased migration by over 1,000 in its first year.

And what about the infrastructure?

Peters has also been more lion than lamb when it comes to dealing with the massive infrastructure shortages caused by the 10 percent population shock in five years.

He has gone along with the Labour-Green commitment to a 20 percent debt limit that has hamstrung the Government's response.

That's despite a clear case for the Government to use the exemption clauses in its Budget Responsibility Rules to borrow cheaply (currently at an interest rate of around 2.6 percent) to invest in the roads, railways, hospitals, schools and housing needed to deal with this population shock.

Peters has successfully used the diversion of the 'New Zealand Values' debate to distract voters from a failure to deliver on its core promise.

All over again.

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