Our cruel yeah-nah migration ‘policy’
New Zealand's effective policy of tempting guest workers here with the chance of permanent residency and then quietly withdrawing that chance has become a damaging and politically convenient economic addiction that is mean, abusive and fraudulent, Bernard Hickey argues
Is this who we are now? Do we really love cheap Uber Eats and high house prices more than being honest with our guests and treating them fairly?
Unfortunately, the current political and economic mess around migration, housing, infrastructure and temporary worker exploitation says that's exactly who we are. We tolerate it because these guests have no say or power, and because we don't like talking about difficult things that force us to make sacrifices now. We hope no one looks too closely and we don't have to take the hard decisions of either spending properly on infrastructure, or have a tough conversation about reducing our reliance on exploiting guest workers and limiting our population growth.
Some may be wondering what this is all about, given few others are saying publicly New Zealand has a major problem. Politicians of all sides all play charades on the issues of temporary workers, migrant exploitation, infrastructure and population planning. National wants lots of temporary migration, but cut its permanent residency quota in the hopes it can keep both small businesses and the wider electorate happy. Labour has done exactly the same, but just with bigger numbers and no public rhetoric about tightening permanent residency rules. New Zealand First has talked a big game about limiting both temporary migration and permanent residency, but has done nothing in Government because limiting temporary workers angers the same small business and horticultural employer base that National and Labour want to keep happy.
At odds with our view of ourselves
New Zealand sees itself as a kind and open country that now revels in a multi-cultural diversity it could only dream of forty years ago, before the liberalisation of our economy and migration system. We believe in our bones that we are welcoming and good hosts. We love the idea that our Prime Minister might pick up a visitor from the airport and show them around town, or that we would happily give directions to a lost tourist or disoriented foreign student.
We were rightly proud when Jacinda Ardern literally embraced our new Muslim migrants at a time of unspeakable grief and sadness last year. She represented a view of ourselves as the compassionate country. We see ourselves as the 'nice' country, and so much better than those 'nasty' Australians with their racist attitudes and mean-spirited approach to locking up refugees in remote prisons until they kill themselves in despair.
We ask people on the way in from the airport: 'what do you think of New Zealand?,' and we expect them to say nice things. 'Such lovely hosts. So friendly. So welcoming.' That's what we think they think, and it makes us feel good about our lucky country.
But the reality is much uglier, and we are refusing to both acknowledge what we're doing and debate whether or how we could change it. The brutal truth is we love the low wages, the cheap Ubers, the even cheaper Uber Eats, the well-picked vines and trees, the ever-rising house prices and rents, the colourful festivals and the exotic foods. But we don't want to see or talk about the very real human and economic costs of our 'policy' or how to fix it. We look the other way or bury the story at the bottom of the page when we hear about the stranded and indebted students who end up working as sex workers, the exploited indentured labourers who pay their bosses to stay in the country in the hope of a nice letter to Immigration New Zealand begging for permanence, and the outright slavery and beating of workers.
A proper debate would see us realising we are kidding ourselves and stealing the goodwill and labour of hundreds of thousands of people who live in our country with us, pay taxes and want to be a part of us. We would realise they don't have the same rights, we are allowing or participating in their exploitation and we are making ourselves poorer in the process. But we would also be forced to realise that breaking our addiction would force us to give up hundreds of billions of dollars worth of unearned and untaxed capital gains. It would force us to invest tens of billions in taxes to build the infrastructure we didn't build before we invited them in. It would force us to give up the easy and cheap way of expanding our economy, and instead to do the hard and expensive work of retraining and strengthening our own workforce, along with investing in new technologies and ways of doing things that we're not used to.
How we got here
It wasn't always like this and no one planned or wanted us to become the ugly country that uses cheap guest workers and then spits them out when we're done with them. This migration 'policy' has effectively been agreed by all parties through a series of decisions, accidents and politically convenient fudges. It is far from compassionate or honest, and it is not just one party or group in society that has allowed this to happen.
We have essentially become addicted to cheap guest workers and the tax-free gains on housing created by record high population growth that we hadn't planned or paid for up front. We didn't build it then they came. They came and we carried on with thirty years of under-investment in taxpayer and ratepayer funded infrastructure needed for housing, transport, health and education.
We are suggesting they could stay, but are quietly closing the door and wedging it shut.
All our Parliamentary parties and New Zealand Inc have invited 300,000 guest workers here temporarily with the implied or outright promise of a pathway to residence. It underpins both our international education and horticultural industries. Yet we've quietly reduced the number of permanent spots available and may be about to cut it even more. See the full story in Dileepa Fonseka's piece on Newsroom Pro first last week.
Now over 100,000 people are in limbo here, working, paying taxes, waiting and hoping New Zealand will allow them to stay and put down roots that grow into families and communities. They're increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and mystified as to why such an apparently welcoming and compassionate nation has led them on and is hanging them out to dry.
Is this who we are now?
Readers may ask if all this is actually true, given few others are writing or talking about it.
Here's the numbers and the detail of what's happening in and around the Cabinet and Immigration NZ.
Labour and New Zealand First are considering whether to abandon a 20-year-old practice of limiting total residency approvals at between 37,000 and 47,000 a year. National and Labour have both cut it in the last five years. The Coalition could either quietly cut it, quietly raise it, or not have anything formal and hope no one notices. Both Labour and New Zealand First do not want to debate this in public for fear of telling their respective voter bases they misled them on the campaign trail in 2017.
The New Zealand Residence Programme (NZRP) Planning Range is the official Government policy on how many residents should be let in. It expired at the end of last year and was not replaced. The political awkwardness of it has repeatedly delayed a decision.
Immigration industry players had expected an announcement around Christmas, and Galloway's office had said New Zealand First and Labour were in negotiations for a decision in December or January. The issue is potentially divisive within the coalition, given New Zealand First campaigned in the 2017 to cut net migration to 10,000, but was unable to get Labour to agree to that in their coalition-forming agreement.
Will the total residency planning range rise, fall or stay the same?
New Zealand First Cabinet minister Shane Jones has indicated his party would campaign later this year to limit population growth through migration. An effective increase in the planning range would clash with New Zealand First's migration reduction rhetoric. Labour talked tough against temporary worker migration in the 2017 campaign, but has approved many more work visas in Government. It has issued an average of 28,584 temporary work and student visas per month since it was elected, which is 25 percent more than National's average of 22,942 per month from 2009 to late 2017.
Labour campaigned with a policy set by previous leader Andrew Little to reduce student and temporary visa numbers by between 20,000 to 30,000 per year, but has in reality increased approvals of visas with temporary work rights by around 68,000 a year, as this chart shows.
The only area the Labour-New Zealand First coalition has tightened migration settings is for residency visas, cutting approvals by around 15 percent to a monthly average of 3,103 from National's monthly average of 3,629, as this chart shows.
New Zealand has operated a 'planning range' of 45,000 to 50,000 residency approvals per year since the early 2000s, and this has often been expressed as a two-year range from 90,000 to 100,000. The previous National Government lowered the range to 85,000 to 95,000 for the two years to June 2018, which meant the annual allowance fell from 47,500 to 45,000. The current Labour-New Zealand First Coalition Government lowered that again to between 50,000 and 60,000 for the period from 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2019, effectively lowering the annual rate of 37,000 for the period that expired at the end of last year.
So, the number of work visas has grown while the number of potential residency visas has been cut. In 2008 there were a potential 125,000 applicants on work visas for 47,000 residency visas: a ratio of 2.65 to one. Today that ratio sits at 7.84 to one. It has meant the number of unprocessed residency applications has almost quadrupled to 30,000 in the last two years, as this previous article reports and this chart shows:
A hot potato for Cabinet
A new planning range requires a Cabinet vote, but Lees-Galloway said the Government does not want to replace the NZRP planning range with another planning range of the same ilk. He wants separate planning ranges for skilled migrants, humanitarian and family categories instead. A Cabinet paper from Immigration New Zealand even proposed options to leave certain categories uncapped.
Lees-Galloway has been vague about whether it will be lifted, lowered or left to hang in the breeze.
Lees-Galloway told Newsroom's Dileepa Fonseka: “I’m not going to rush it,” but “I’ll be looking for a decision from Cabinet before we go to the election."
“I want to make sure that we take the time to do the policy work rather than rush towards an arbitrary date knowing that in the meantime things just carry on, if there was some pressing negative impact on people then I’d want to push it,” he said.
Pressing negative impact?
How about the 14,000 people now on the social housing register because they can't find or afford housing?
How about the nearly $3b forecast to be spent on accommodation supplements and other state housing support because of sharply rising rents and housing shortages?
How about the sharp increase in climate emissions because of the population growth driven by migration?
How about the effects on migrants who are here, often working as indentured labour, working in the sex industry to repay debts and then being kicked out when the policy changes quietly?
We need to have an honest debate about how much we want to spend on infrastructure to cope with the fastest population growth in over 100 years, we need to seriously address migrant abuse, we need to debate what population growth we're willing to pay for, and we have to be honest with our guests and ourselves.
Mostly, we have to revisit the economic model that is all about fuelling GDP growth by increasing the population and increasing the personal wealth of property owners through tax-free capital gains without the higher rates and taxes needed to pay for infrastructure.
True compassion requires honesty and substantial action. The truest kind involves sacrifice.
Are the nation's small businesses, property owners, ratepayers and taxpayers willing to sacrifice their tax-free capital gains, low rates increases, low taxes and low Government debt?
So far, the answer is no, and mainly because few are calling out the hypocrisy and dissembling. All political parties need to be put on the spot, and this election would be a good time.
Help us create a sustainable future for independent local journalism
As New Zealand moves from crisis to recovery mode the need to support local industry has been brought into sharp relief.
As our journalists work to ask the hard questions about our recovery, we also look to you, our readers for support. Reader donations are critical to what we do. If you can help us, please click the button to ensure we can continue to provide quality independent journalism you can trust.