Fran O'Sullivan: Key has medicine for the Trump malaise

Migration, housing moves aim to ease fears that the system is rigged.
John Key knows it's easy to sell the Trump-style message: that things are broken. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Key knows it's easy to sell the Trump-style message: that things are broken. Photo / Greg Bowker

John Key is out to inoculate National against any eruption of the "Trump factor" at next year's election.

That was the subtext behind his moves to finally tighten up on immigration and plough some more Government cash into building houses.

It's obvious that win or - increasingly likely - lose, Donald Trump will go down as a game-changer.

Not just in the United States, where the Republican candidate has put issues affecting the "common man" on the table and punctured the comfort of elites.

But also in New Zealand.

New Zealand is in a better place economically than the US.

But the Government's private polling - and other informal snapshots like the Herald's CEO Survey - reveal widespread discomfort over the plight of young Kiwis who cannot get onto the Auckland housing ladder without taking on massive debt.

There is a growing sense that the system is unfairly rigged against the young and those without the means to get ahead in metropolitan areas like Auckland.

As indeed it is.

It is politically convenient to clamp down on the number of immigrants who have been coming to New Zealand under family reunification schemes.

The fact that some elderly immigrants have been free-riding on the NZ taxpayer is not new. It has been around for some time. But the Government has not wanted to offend various ethnicities - particularly Chinese - by implying that some of them are not living up to their end of the bargain when they invite their parents to join them in New Zealand.

By linking the two issues, the Government gives the impression it is "taking action". It won't solve the housing deficit, but it is at the very least a belated recognition by Government that the housing problems are not simply down to supply.

At a tactical level, Key is punting that by making a token gesture to tighten settings, it will stop immigration erupting into a major election issue.

In the US, Trump's core message is that there will be no "amnesty" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in America.

Unlike the US - where much of the illegal immigration is from Mexico - New Zealand does not have porous borders.

In the US, Trump's core message is that there will be no "amnesty" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in America. Photo / AP
In the US, Trump's core message is that there will be no "amnesty" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in America. Photo / AP

The Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean act as this country's moat.

It's difficult to overstate the illegal immigration issue in the US - 11 million immigrants make up around 3.45 per cent of the total American population.

That would be equal to about 154,000 illegal immigrants here.

But it is still a political itch that Winston Peters - for one - has found it profitable to scratch.

The balancing act that Key has to apply is how he gets across the fact that New Zealand is dependent on immigration and ensures the doors to skilled people remain open.

At the EY Entrepreneur of the Year event this week, the Prime Minister noted the rhetoric coming from Trump and Hillary Clinton.

Key is punting that by making a token gesture to tighten settings, it will stop immigration erupting into a major election issue.

"They are putting up the protectionist barriers and walking away from what really made America great," he said. "Which was because it was the home of migrants coming from around the world, capital pouring in, entrepreneurship developing and flourishing."

His point was that New Zealand was going in the other direction. "Now I know it is not the kind of trendy thing that you hear in Parliament any more, but actually New Zealand is really very well placed when it welcomes migrants from around the world who bring great ideas and bring energy and connections."

This is a refrain that Key will increasingly be using.

His contention is that New Zealand is in for a "pretty stellar next 10-20 years".

But that future is predicated on keeping an open economy where foreign capital is attracted to fund NZ ventures and where New Zealanders back themselves to succeed.

The difficulty he faces is getting that message across in an environment where the Trump-style narrative - that things are broken - is increasingly getting purchase.

Expect more policy inoculations.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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