COMMENT:

New Zealand has always been a nation of immigrants.The good news is that most of us understand that.

We haven't fallen victim to the populist political rhetoric we hear in the US, UK and Australia.

That's despite the fact that, per capita, we have been through a larger immigration boom than any of these countries.

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And we are still in the boom.

Net migration rates eased a bit through 2018, but the latest data shows numbers on the rise again.

Annual net migration to February was 61,600, just shy of the 64,000 peak it hit under John Key in July 2016.

Economists are taking those numbers with a grain of salt as new - ultimately more accurate - data from Stats NZ takes a while to bed down.

Regardless, under a new government, immigration remains at historic highs.

Where has public concern gone?

A good deal has been absorbed into support for a coalition of parties that previously led the debate.

In the 2017 election campaign both NZ First and Labour made capital out of the stress elevated immigration levels were putting on the economy.

Labour wanted numbers cut by 20–30,000 a year. NZ First targeted a net migration figure of just 10,000.

Despite what was said in the campaign the current Government is in no hurry to cut numbers preferring to talk about quality immigration and a better alignment with employment needs.

There are policy changes in the pipeline that toughen regulation for employers seeking immigrant labour and a new focus on regional needs, but nothing to suggest they'll greatly slash top-line rates.

More likely we'll see the natural cycle of immigration turn.

Things like the strength of the Australian economy relative to ours have a huge influence.

They underpin the bottom end of the net migration equation – how many of us are leaving.

However even if numbers ease it seems unlikely that we'll see a return to the migration outflows we regularly experienced through the past 100 years.

The New Zealand story in the 21st century is very different to the 20th.

For starters our economy is more robust. The peaks and troughs have mellowed.

There are concerns about the fairness of the economic changes made in the 1980s and 1990s but they created a more flexible economy that is less vulnerable to external shocks.

Our governments have become more fiscally responsible. This one is no exception.

Then there is New Zealand's cultural rise on the world stage.

We're still a minnow but we are visible and our international media stereotype is of a cool, progressive sort of place - rather than a backwater.

The internet and cheap air travel have removed the tyranny of distance. The immigration boom has turned our largest cities into more cosmopolitan places.

New Zealand has become a place that young people are in less of a hurry to leave, a place that those who do leave are more inclined to return to.

It is also a place that potential immigrants are more likely to be aware of.

It is a place those wanting to escape the madness of the wider world aspire to - whether they are Middle Eastern people fleeing war zones, or Brits and Americans seeking more progressive political landscapes.

In the wake of the terrible events in Christchurch in March it appears most New Zealanders want to show their support for migrants and for celebrating a diverse cultural mix.

Rather that deterring immigration and sparking division the perpetrator of the shootings has provoked greater acceptance.

In terms of his own mission statement, he failed utterly.

There is research that suggests New Zealanders are generally more tolerant of Asian immigration than similar countries like Canada and Australia.

When concern does flare up it is typically driven by specific issues in the headlines.

The hot buttons for anti-immigration sentiment in the past few years has been the housing market and a perception that immigrant demand was pushing up prices to lock young New Zealanders out of the market.

Now the Auckland market has cooled – it has been sliding slowly backwards for the past two years.

That trend predated foreign buyer bans and emerged even as net migration remains at elevated levels.

There now appears to be one less reason to point the finger at immigration for New Zealand's social woes.

That's just as well. New Zealand's population growth in the 21st century will be tied to immigration.

Our natural birth rate is falling and our population is ageing, following trends in Western Europe and demand.

Without a steady flow of migrants our economy faces stagnation.

With unemployment at historic lows, an international labour pool prepared to drive trucks, pick fruit and work tough, low-paid shifts in factories, rest homes and hospitals is now crucial to New Zealand's economic and social wellbeing.

Most of these people work to give their children a better future.

They will be Kiwi engineers, scientists, doctors and business leaders.

The Government is right to be looking at aligning skills and regional requirements for immigration.

It should be commended for pulling back from pre-election rhetoric.

The best way to deliver for New Zealanders who remain concerned about immigration is to follow through on promises made about housing and infrastructure.

There's room for more people in this country. We just need to invest realistically for population growth.

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