Editorial: Time to open NZ migration doors wider

We have chance to boost population and prosperity

Auckland's relaxed reception for an ethnic change is a credit to all its residents. Photo / NZ Herald
Auckland's relaxed reception for an ethnic change is a credit to all its residents. Photo / NZ Herald

It has been a long wait for a clear measure of New Zealand's population. The five-yearly Census was ready to be taken in 2011 when the Christchurch earthquake struck. The postponed headcount taken this year produced its figure this week, giving us a population of 4.24 million. It ought to have been more.

The population has grown less in the seven years since the last Census than it did in the five years to 2006. We should be concerned about that; population growth is normally better in periods when the economy is doing well by comparison to other advanced economies, which has been the case since 2008.

New Zealand, Australia and Canada weathered the global financial crisis better than Britain, Europe and the United States. For the past few years, since the slowdown in China halted the Australian mineral boom, New Zealand has looked in better shape than Australia too. So why have not more Kiwis come home?

Were it not for immigration, particularly from Asia, the population would barely be growing. Asians comprise the largest number of foreign-born residents in the latest Census, exceeding those born in Britain or the Pacific Islands. The number of Asian residents has doubled since 1981, comprising one in eight of the population now. Seven years ago the ratio was one in 11.

Nearly two-thirds of the country's Asian population lives in the Auckland region, where they now number nearly a quarter of the residents. The city's relaxed reception for an ethnic change of this magnitude is a credit to all its residents, reflecting an awareness, perhaps, that this country would be a poorer place if its door was not open to diversity.

The Maori population has grown only slightly more than the rate overall to stand at just under 600,000, still about 14 per cent of the total. The Census has found a remarkable increase in the number of Maori with a university degree - 50 per cent more than in 2006. Women, too, are doing well in tertiary education, exceeding the proportion of men with a degree, though their qualifications do not translate into higher paid jobs, where the Census finds twice as many men have incomes above $70,000 a year.

But like all developed places, New Zealand is steadily ageing. The median age of the population is 38, up two years since the previous Census and 10 years since 1981. While the numbers aged 50-70 are increasing, we have fewer children under 15 than we had seven years ago. This is not a recipe for maintaining even the latest modest population increase.

New Zealanders value their limited numbers for the wide open spaces it leaves on their landscape. But 4.24 million is a very sparse population for a country of this size. If we were to open the door to more immigration, the wide open spaces would remain. Most migrants come to Auckland and other northern centres. The South Island would retain its scenic expanse.

But it is not simply a case of opening the door. Migrants need to see business opportunities and jobs here. Faster population growth is needed to attract them, slow growth runs the risk that steadily fewer will come. Of those that do not stay, the larger markets and incomes of Australia still beckon, despite the social benefits denied New Zealand citizens who have lived and worked there since 2001.

Australia, Britain and the United States have been such magnets for migrants that all now are taking steps to curb the flow. Yet history shows Britain and the United States prospered most when their attitude was more liberal. This could be New Zealand's opportunity.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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