Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone is a Herald columnist

Deborah Hill Cone: On immigration we're looking in the wrong queue

If you don't want to seem like a mean-spirited knob it is hard to have a conversation about immigration where you say anything other than la-la-la more the merrier, c'mon over, the welcome mat's out babes because you start sounding like a racist or a Brexiter or that toff in the Titanic lifeboat who pokes drowning people back into the icy water with your oar.

Maybe the reason there is an awkward who-just-farted aspect to talking about immigration, is because much as we'd rather not admit it, we all know getting born in New Zealand was just a spin of the genetic lottery wheel. It could just as well have been welcome to Aleppo. Acknowledging the randomness of life means risking falling down the rabbithole of existential angst: why does anything happen at all? What's the point Bertie? Also, most of us are immigrants of one sort or another so it seems a bit daggy to pull the ladder up behind us. My family moved here when I was eight.

The upshot of this is we end up with an all-or-nothing narrative around immigration in which there seem to be only two positions. Either dirty foreigners are to blame for our housing crisis, traffic crisis, education crisis and any other problem you'd like to name including the extinction of the dotterel. Oh, also, the crisis of needing a PhD if you have any hope of getting a job where you don't have to smile and say "enjoy". The other option: immigrants are our saviours and are bring only wealth and skills and good dumplings. You can now get samosas at the dairy in Opononi!

I find myself feeling a bit squiffy in either camp. Maybe immigrants are neither the scourge or the solution. Not such a sexy idea, I know.

But it is hard to ignore the glaring fact that we have been through a decades-long grand immigration experiment. Our economy seems to function largely through the import of people. This notion, that immigration is a valid instrument of growth, seems to have become so accepted that it doesn't even get questioned much.

So when Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said last week the new immigration policies announced are about "attracting migrants who bring the most economic benefits to New Zealand" no one bats an eyelid. It is a given. We are just bringing in a better quality commodity. Ahem, these are human beings, not merely an apparatus to use to boost our GDP.

Our immigration policy is supposed to lift productivity and material living standards of New Zealanders. But does it even work?

It seems far from clear that our immigration programme can be justified on economic grounds. Individual employers or sectors, such as tertiary education cash in, sure. But some economists posit that immigrants are actually a net-drain on society in economic terms. In the short term, high inward migration exacerbates overall labour shortages in the economy because immigrants also stimulate demand - they buy things, they are consumers too, not just job-fillers. We seem to forget, they are people.

And we are expecting them to do something they can't. Rapid population growth, without any other economic opportunities, does not boost what is known as the "tradeables" sector which is really what counts. Successfully making it in global markets is the only reliable path for a small country to get and stay rich. But the relative size of our export sector is shrinking.

I can't help wondering if the immigration issue has become a proxy for some of our most unseemly and shameful neuroses.

And some of the other reasoning to justify mass immigration is a bit bogus. It is hard to question the diversity industry - superdiversity is just super! - without looking crass and ungracious. The CEO of one of our biggest law firms recently said diversity was his number one priority. (Hooray that dude, although I'd have thought it would be providing sound legal advice). A report from consultants McKinsey found wonderful economic benefits from diversity. (Hmmm, McKinsey offers many "diversity" consulting products.) Diversity is laudable, but maybe not in and of itself a sound reason for wholesale immigration.

I can't help wondering if the immigration issue has become a proxy for some of our most unseemly and shameful neuroses. It is always tempting to project bad feelings onto the "other", rather than looking to our own flaws. So immigrants are frequently held responsible for the housing affordability crisis in Auckland. This despite a study by economists Bill Cochrane and Jacques Poot which found immigrants are more likely to rent property than buy it and that it was returning or remaining Kiwis that were driving up house prices.

Here is my comme ci comme ca conclusion; immigration is not the cause of our economic woes. It may even be a non-issue. We should be grateful. We don't have huddled masses of people arriving in sinking boats, we don't have disaffected cliques of extremists threatening us, we don't have huge crime problems caused by disaffected immigrants.

But immigrants are not the solution, either. Immigrants are people, like my family, who are would-be citizens, who want to make a life for themselves, human beings, not economic levers.

My family came here in the 1970s pretty much with nothing much to our name except a green Ford Cortina stationwagon named Georgie Girl and a good collection of Beatles records. Rather doubt we'd get in now.

- NZ Herald

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