Is this the sound of a Government changing gears?

We've had another tweak in immigration policy today - the second in less than a year - yesterday we saw a major settlement on pay equity for care workers.

Prime Minister Bill English has hinted there may be more social policy to come.

It's not hard to be cynical and note that this is election year.


But, to be fair, this does seem to be a Government that feels it has choices it didn't have when it came to power in the wake of the global financial crisis nearly nine years ago.
In other words, having done some hard yards we have more room for socially generous policy.

That's been Health Minister Jonathan Coleman's narrative on the reasoning behind a change of heart on pay equity.

And it can be applied to policy decisions like the tightening of immigration.

Generous immigration policies - in tandem with higher rates of kiwis returning home and choosing to stay home - have lifted the population and the employment rate and top line GDP growth.

In effect immigration has done some of the heavy lifting for the Government in what has been a tough time for most developed economies around the world.

Globally though we have seen a swing towards populist anti-immigration policies.

In places like the US with the election Donald Trump, the UK with the Brexit and even Australia - which toughened its work visa policy yesterday we've seen a political back-lash.

In New Zealand immigration has become a hot political topic as pressure has gone on house prices and other key infrastructure.


But you don't have to talk to someone like Finance Minister Steven Joyce for long to get a sense that there is no desire on National's part to go down that populist path.

Joyce says the Government remains committed to a balanced policy and he doesn't think these moves will necessarily dampen economic growth.

"If we do it just right then it's more of series of moderate adjustments rather than a big change," he says. "If we were too restrictive on skilled migrants coming in then there is no doubt that our companies would not be able to grow at the rate they have been."

He does accept that we've reached a point where the rate of immigration can't grow much further. But he argues we are now in a position to be more choosey on immigration than we could afford to be eight years ago.

In the end, whether it's a cynical move or not, this will play well politically.

It has been done in consultation with business and the major lobby groups have applauded it.


Winston Peters has predictably denounced it as far too mild - which keeps the policy well distanced from the kind of populist stuff that many New Zealanders are fearful of.

But the Government still gets a headline saying it has toughened immigration policy - something that it knows won't do it any harm at the polls.