John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Attack on migrants thin on the facts

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Winston Peters. Photo / APN
Winston Peters. Photo / APN

So much for the theory that Winston Peters was mellowing into Parliament's version of everyone's favourite, if somewhat cranky and irascible, uncle.

It was a more familiar Peters who delivered the leader's address at New Zealand First's annual convention last Sunday.

The speech was not so much a dog whistle as a wolf howl for attention. There was certainly no coded language to decipher.

His pinging of Chinese immigrants for allegedly sponging off New Zealanders by picking up state-funded super payments and other entitlements without paying any income tax was unquestionably populist - so much so that he was almost parodying himself.

Peters cited a young couple from China being able to "bring in four elderly parents who don't have to work here in the 10 years before they turn 65, yet they will all receive full New Zealand Super".

He was unable to offer any evidence bar hearsay of his claim that 22,000 immigrants nationwide are allegedly collecting super without having paid any direct tax.

He instead rationalised his accusation of freeloading by arguing that New Zealanders needed to know all the facts about superannuation rather than being manipulated by the savings and insurance industry into believing there was a "crisis" which required an end to universality in the payment of the state-funded pension.

It all added up to a lame excuse for an attack on a segment of immigrants who are always an easy target because they are reluctant to fight back.

It actually did not add up at all. Peters is the one choosing not to put all the facts on the table, especially major Government policy changes affecting those applying for residency under Immigration New Zealand's family and parent categories.

While Peters rails against Chinese immigrants supposedly gobbling up the super - but then refuses to say what he would do about it - the National-led Government has quietly stolen a march on him.

His line about a migrant couple bringing four parents to New Zealand is carefully worded. It is technically correct in referring, if only obliquely, to the requirement that to be eligible for superannuation, immigrants must have lived in NZ for at least 10 years, five of those since turning 50.

Peters' statement was instead designed to leave the impression that the elderly parents of immigrants can simply swan around waiting for the day they turn 65 and the money rolls in.

The reality is that there is no plonking mum and dad on the next flight out of Beijing once one of them turns 65.

They effectively have to arrive here before they turn 55 - an age when they would expect to be working and therefore paying tax.

If they cannot find work, their sponsoring son or daughter is responsible for at least five years in ensuring they do not become a burden on the state. That obligation is scheduled to be extended to 10 years.

Furthermore, it has long been policy that parents do not get permanent entry into New Zealand if they have any adult children still living in China or they cannot prove the "centre of gravity" of their family is now in New Zealand.

Peters can take some succour from the fact that around 46 per cent of those parents approved for residency in the 2010/11 year were from China.

That figure is up from 31 per cent just two years earlier. But the actual number was less than 1900. Some will be at the younger end of the age spectrum which means those immigrants can hardly be classified as recent arrivals by the time they reach 65, while those around that age simply will not qualify for super for some time.

Seeking official advice on Peters' claim, the Prime Minister was told that just under 3500 Chinese immigrants qualify for the pension - less than 0.6 per cent of the total on super and a long way off 22,000.

What is clear is that imminent changes to immigration rules are going to screen out those unlikely to pay tax.

The parent stream is currently closed pending the introduction of a new two-tier category.

Those applicants earning more than $27,203 a year as singles or nearly $40,000 if they are a couple will be able to go into tier one. They will also have to bring with them at least $500,000 in "settlement funds".

Their sponsoring adult son or daughter will have to have an annual income of at least $65,000 and have been a New Zealand resident for at least three years.

Those who cannot meet these requirements will go into tier two where the only financial obligation is a lower benchmark of nearly $34,000 in income required of the sponsoring adult child .

Tier one applicants, not surprisingly, will get priority. As do a separate category of parents who can gain entry if they invest a minimum $1 million in New Zealand for at least four years.

With a two-year wait already for applications to be processed and a capped annual limit of 4000 on the number of parents approved for residency, those in tier two could be waiting years to get to the front of the queue.

With the sibling and adult child category being shut down, their only other option is to apply under the skilled migrant programme.

The policy changes are unashamedly designed to attract those with skills or money and who, crucial to this argument, will thus be in line to pay income tax.

If immigrants are the scapegoats, a Peters script also always demands a conspiracy theory.

The Financial Services Council, which lobbies on the behalf of the likes of AMP, Tower and Westpac, may be regretting releasing its report on retirement income security last Sunday.

Peters also used his convention speech that day to climb into the council for calling for the age of eligibility for super to be lifted to 67.

Claiming the council would be pushing for the privatisation of super, he also rounded on its chair, his old bete noire Jenny Shipley, who openly campaigned against Peters' proposed compulsory savings scheme while National was in coalition with New Zealand First in the late 1990s.

While the council says the age of eligibility will have to rise, it does not advocate income or asset testing super. Like NZ First, the council supports expanding KiwiSaver as a save-as-you-go scheme as a back-up to taxpayer-funded NZ Super, a pay-as-you-go scheme, so people can still retire at 65.

Probably to Peters' horror, the council and NZ First are actually not that far apart. But do not remind him. He may say he wants all the facts on the table. Not so it seems when they make a mockery of what he has to say.


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- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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