It looks like immigration is going to be a big election issue.

That's a shame. Not because we shouldn't be able to debate policy, but because of the way the debate has played out in the US, UK, France and even Australia in the past year or so.

The immigration issue is fraught because of the way populist politicians use it to stoke fear and racism.

In doing so they embolden and engage a disaffected part of the population that might not even otherwise vote - and it can lead them to power.


New Zealand has unusually high levels of net migration. Last week it hit a new record for the year to March.

There have been a series of record highs for about a year. The numbers exceed even the great colonial influx into New Zealand in the 19th century.

On a per capita basis they exceed what the UK was experiencing pre-Brexit.

So we are vulnerable to populist political hijack.

Immigration policy of the past decade is not sustainable. Our infrastructure is under pressure and we are woefully behind in building to catch up. That's not the fault of immigrants, of course. It is the fault of politicians and voters.

In other words, it's our fault. We have been trying to have our cake and eat it too. One thing lost in the immigration debate at the moment is how successful the policies have been for New Zealand.

Economically, we have outshone our international peers. We have skipped the economic pain that most of the world felt after the global financial crisis.

That's not all down to immigration but it has played a big part. When you crunch the numbers on per capita GDP growth it has been far less flash.


Culturally, too, New Zealand has grabbed global attention in a way unimaginable a generation ago.

This country used to be largely unknown outside the Commonwealth, where we were acknowledged as a backward British colony that was good at sport and had lots of sheep.

Does anyone remember Dame Edna's tragic Kiwi bridesmaid Madge Allsop? She summed up our image pretty well.

Against all odds, New Zealand became cool. Our place in the world has changed and that warrants debate about the immigration policy settings we have in place.

The Government has belatedly started to recognised that with policy tweaks that have not yet had time to show results.

We could go further and look at more fundamental changes - such as how we set the criteria for residency.

But it would be a terrible thing for the debate to play out here the way it has in other parts of the world.

Alternatively, and optimistically, New Zealand is in a position to lead the world on the immigration debate. We could do this right.

We could pay close attention to the data, we could look at economic impact studies and we could have a frank and open discussion about the kind of country we want to build.

We could be true to our own national ideal of standing up to racism.

And we could be respectful of individuals, recognising when we discuss immigration policy we are talking issues that have an enormous impact on families with hopes and aspirations and rights.

Can we quantify how much value immigrants add to the economy? How does the added value compare with the economic cost of new infrastructure that we need to cope with increased population?

This should be a point of national pride.

Not acknowledging the impact immigration has on infrastructure and housing risks generating a larger, more aggressive, backlash.

The Government has risked this most of its term. Now it appears to be adjusting policy in an attempt to head populists off at the pass.

The debate also requires leadership from the major opposition parties.

It is difficult for Labour because the politics are polarising. Labour wants power, it sees a rich vein of discontent but in the current topsy-turvy political environment, it has to make careful choices.

Retaining a traditional, optimistic liberal view leans towards free and open borders. That now puts them on the side of the neo-liberal globalists - not a fashionable place for the centre-left these days.

But campaigning to radically slash immigrant numbers by unspecified amounts puts them in the camp of angry nationalists like Winston Peters, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.

That's not a somewhere Labour voters who stood against South African apartheid and nuclear ship visits are likely to feel comfortable.

We can't let the politics become emotive. This is fundamentally about economics. It should be boring.

Can we quantify how much value immigrants add to the economy?

How does the added value compare with the economic cost of new infrastructure that we need to cope with increased population?

The harder question is trying to understand how the value and costs are distributed.

Some established citizens will be bigger beneficiaries than others. There are different geographic impacts.

Given we've had an immigration policy that favours wealthy immigrants it is self-fulfilling that our policies have increased wealth in this country.

But they may also have exacerbated inequality. After nine years of economic growth, those at the bottom may actually be better off. But they might not feel like it.

You can make a strong case for supply side solutions: we just need to build more houses and roads and schools.

The Government is still running that line, along with a narrative about having had to do the hard yards first.

In other words, it says: now the economy is humming and we have the money in the tank, it's time for some big social investments

But it's a long-term fix and voters are getting impatient.

Let's be wary of cynical politicians who look to exploit that.