New Zealand needs to reinvent its immigration system in light of Covid-19.
Many businesses will not make it through the January hiatus and tax grind. Economic pain will be widespread across society.
We need to make high-quality decisions about our national recovery strategy, and the place of border admissions within that.
We need systematic thinking about how that should happen. The old rules can no longer apply.
To achieve our recovery goals we will need skills, talent and technology; we can be a global magnet for all three, and given what's happening around the world, New Zealand is now a talent magnet for many desperate for some sanity and safety.
Perhaps for the first time in our history, New Zealand can effectively attract and select from the world's best and brightest who want to come here.
To do that we need secure borders, without compromise, and systems that prioritise those who will help us grow our areas of competitive advantage to build the high-value, high skill, low-carbon economy that will benefit all Kiwis.
Fortresses need strong walls
Border safety must come first. New Zealand's recent experience proves it is one thing to have a sound border quarantine policy – but quite another to make it happen. Ministers have been justifiably frustrated at lapses in the chain of command.
Effective border security means appropriate, secure quarantine facilities. It means rapid, at-scale contact tracing and pre-departure testing. It means sufficient numbers of well-trained personnel. It means rigorous testing systems. It means backup inspection and validation so that we know in real time that quarantine is robust.
That assurance cannot be compromised. The cost of that security should be shared by those needing to transit, especially businesses and those returning Kiwis who can afford to pay their share.
Fortresses need doors
Even the most secure castle has a drawbridge, otherwise "security" becomes a "siege".
So, for whom should we lower the drawbridge?
That issue was the focus of a business summit held by ATEED, Auckland's Tourism, Events and Economic Development Agency, just before the second wave hit.
The issue on private quarantine facilities was quickly despatched by the PM as inappropriate for a core function of the state in times of crisis.
The broader debate, despite being urgent, has been shallow. The threat is real but so is the opportunity. We should be smart enough to develop a clear decision framework to realise it.
Maximise the national interest
Aside from refugees and reunions, national interest should guide us at this time of crisis. Who comes in to New Zealand should largely be based on what is best for Aotearoa.
Who can add the most value when they get here, net of the cost of keeping us safe?
In the language of economics, find the marginal benefit and deduct the marginal cost. Move "up the curve" to the point where marginal benefit equals marginal cost, but no more.
Consider, for example, the debate about opening the border to international education and researchers.
• A foreign diploma student in a private training establishment might not be able to use their new ticket to do anything other than pump gas or stack shelves, to get a visa. But other Kiwis could do those jobs, so the net value add is low.
• An international PhD student at a local university pays higher fees and may add to our R&D capability. Their work creates more GDP than a shelf-stacker, and the spill-overs for innovation are positive.
• A highly skilled technician entering New Zealand to assist a business or lab with cutting-edge technology may create more value; they would not be seeking entry if there was not a high-value task to be done that other Kiwis could not do.
• A Nobel prize winner or a top tech entrepreneur with resources and experience to invest will very likely create even more value and more Kiwi jobs.
So how many PhDs, Nobel laureates and top technicians should we take? How wide should our drawbridge be when it is lowered?
We should assess the value the individual can create and balance that against the cost of keeping them and all of us safe.
In many cases the applicant would likely be happy to pay the full cost of quarantine. That's 'margin of error' stuff for the tech entrepreneur and 'cost of doing business' for businesses bringing in the skilled technician.
The trade-off between risk and return is not fixed. More efficient border testing and quarantine "shifts the curve" upward and allows higher levels of benefit for a given level of cost.
In summary, achieving the rebound we need from Covid-19 means "boxing smart". Every fortress needs good walls. But it also needs a way in.
Our drawbridge should be partially open, with strictly limited places allocated to those entrants who can demonstrate the most value to the future we want and can now create for New Zealand.
We need to re-invent immigration for a post-Covid age. So we can then use our talent magnet to boost our recovery and the wellbeing of all New Zealanders in ways we have previously only dreamt about.
David Cunliffe is a strategy consultant and former Minister of Immigration.