Most of the scrutiny of the National Party's immigration policy will fall on what might be termed the four-year clauses. Under a National-led government, immigrants would not be able to claim a benefit for four years, and would have to serve a four-year probation period before getting permanent residency. The latter, in particular, will be criticised, with some justification, for sending the wrong signal to a market in which New Zealand competes to entice its share of enterprising and energetic migrants. It should not, however, detract unduly from the positives that pepper this policy.
Most significantly, National would dilute two of the extreme acts of a Government intent on spiking Winston Peters' guns. The first is the unreasonably high English language requirement imposed in late 2002. The second is the dictate delivered in June that investor migrants must surrender funds to the Government for five years for investment in infrastructure projects, with interest payable only at the inflation rate. The predictable outcome has been a whitening immigration trend, and a sharp decline in investor migrants from China and Korea. Millions of dollars have been lost to the likes of Australia.
National has responded quite sensibly. Business and investor migrants would have to possess English language skills appropriate to the nature of their experience and proposed business. It should, however, have gone further. The Government's language prescription means this country is also missing out on skilled migrants. It should be echoing Australia's realism and insisting only that such migrants possess English sufficient to allow them to take instruction and read safety manuals and such like.
This would underpin National's strategy of addressing the skills shortage by giving greater recognition to proven work experience. Too often, companies have complained of taking on migrants with formal qualifications, only to find their piece of paper did not mean they were experienced in a particular field.
National also says investor migrants would have to invest in New Zealand for only a minimum four years. That represents an obvious improvement, especially in dispensing with the laughable notion that such migrants would be prepared to invest a large sum in schemes that return only the rate of inflation. A National-led government would, however, have to find a way to ensure the investment was of genuine benefit to this country, and not a rort to acquire residency. The latter practice prompted the Government's overreaction.
These aspects of National's policy should be receiving the attention devoted to the four-year clauses, the more so because those clauses are not that contentious. According to the Prime Minister, the present law is stricter than the proposed four-year probation period, and immigrants who break the law are already being deported.
That being the case, it is difficult to portray National's approach as heavy-handed. At worst, it sends an unfortunate, and unnecessary, sign. Likewise, extending the benefit stand-down period from two to four years should matter little in practice. Immigrants with half an eye on a nation's benefit system are not the sort this country desires.
Stability and soundness are the key elements of a successful immigration policy. The Government, like many before it, has specialised in knee-jerk reaction and piecemeal change. It has been disdainful of immigration's contribution to the economic growth of the past decade. National's policy hints at better.