The immigration debate is back. But are the politicians yielding to populist sentiment, or just catching up with reality?

Is there any politician or political party that doesn't make its immigration policies on the basis of opportunism and populism? That is one view you might have from watching the ongoing immigration debate, which looks to be a policy issue around which next year's general election could swing. The National Party has been accused by some as being the latest to capitulate to pragmatism and populism in its decisions to "crack down" on immigrant numbers and rules. Or is it simply a case that political parties, and the government, are finally coming to their senses about the need to reform New Zealand's immigration settings?

The Government's "expedient crackdown" on immigration

The general political reaction to the Minister of Immigration Michael Woodhouse's announcement of changes to immigration settings has been to see it as a pragmatic response to electoral pressure. Newspaper editorials have been particularly scathing. Today the Otago Daily Times concludes that "The immigration changes are strictly down to political advantage: nothing more, nothing less" - see its editorial, Immigration expediency.

Here's the editorial's argument: "Do not be mistaken. These changes are not being made for the right reasons or even reasons that can be adequately supported by evidence. The changes are being made because National Party polling has indicated immigration is a hot-button issue for party supporters. A year out from the election, Prime Minister John Key will know immigration, particularly in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland, is causing angst as voters believe house prices are being unfairly pushed higher by rich overseas investors or immigrants arriving with large amounts of cash."

Furthermore, the paper hints that there's a racial undertone to the Government's electoral calculation: "National was critical of Labour singling out people with Chinese-sounding names buying into the Auckland housing market as it campaigned to raise awareness about overseas buyers. Now, National will stand accused of doing the same by cutting back on the parent category."


Today's Dominion Post is equally harsh: "The cut to the number of family members allowed in is based on anecdote and has an unpleasant tinge of xenophobia. This is window dressing and politics rather than a serious change of direction. It's typical of John Key's Government to make small changes in an attempt to take the sting out of the opposition. Often enough this has worked reasonably well: the proof lies in the government's continued high polling" - see: Tweaking migrant numbers is just window-dressing.

The newspaper argues that National has made the changes - particularly the temporary halt to applications for parents to join children in New Zealand - without robust evidence, and fuelled by race-baiting: "There are stories now of parents being 'dumped' in rest-homes by uncaring sons and daughters. These unpleasant tales are politically convenient and feed off the xenophobia that the Government routinely condemns. It is assumed that parents are using the health system for the lowest of motives rather than because of need. And the stories certainly contradict the well-known three-generation family solidarity of Chinese and Indian families, who make up 70 per cent of the parent category."

The paper also makes the case against cutting the numbers for family members being allowed in: "The case for family members being allowed in is an attempt to help families make the big adjustment that migration always requires. Helping families stay together in the new country is a reasonable investment in human capital and a compassionate policy as well."

And according to Vernon Small, these changes to the immigration settings are simply part of a larger government manoeuvre that aims to neutralise National's vulnerabilities at the moment - see: Government turning down the voltage on issues, to amp up the personality race. He argues that much of the change is symbolic rather than meaningful, with an attempt to stave off the more xenophobic electoral progress being made by opposition parties: "It signals a clamp down in particular on Chinese and - to a lesser extent - Indian immigrants. Like the change in approach to housing supply, there is no big-bang announcement, no dramatic U-turn. But the policy swerve is there all the same, and it is being made with a nod here and a wink there ... and with a weather eye on the 2017 election."

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Labour and New Zealand First parties are dismissing the immigration changes - see Stacey Kirk's Rising demand for New Zealand residency sees Government turning down the tap. She says: "opposition MPs are criticising the changes as 'window dressing', accusing the Government of making a populist move without addressing the issue." Winston Peters is quoted: "They're panicking from reading their polls, the public has serious concerns and they're tinkering around the edges."

Evaluations of the policy changes

One of the better explanations and analysis of the Government's changes - especially in terms of the freeze on parental immigration - can be found in Tracy Watkins' The Government's slow awakening on immigration.

But perhaps of greater interest is answering the question of why the Government has been deliberately downplaying the extent of the reforms. Watkins explains that National has had to speak very softly on the issue: "The immediate backlash from the Indian community that it was an attack on their cultural values shows why the Government is walking such a tightrope, however. The Indian and Chinese votes are increasingly important to National - but with Winston Peters threatening to run rampant in provincial New Zealand its more immediate concern is to stop him getting a foothold in National's heartland."

Last month Watkins wrote another useful piece on the looming immigration electoral battle: "immigration has been building up a head of steam on a range of fronts - sky rocketing house prices caused by population growth and rising demand, and pressure on infrastructure and services like schools and hospitals. Even wages are now becoming part of the immigration narrative, as a growing number of horror stories emerge about the exploitation of new migrants, putting downward pressure on wages. Add it all up, and it takes immigration from the realm of a nationalist debate, into the realm of a hip pocket one. And Winston Peters - who has banging the anti-immigration drum for decades - goes from looking like an alarmist, to a soothsayer" - see: Immigration tipping point - are we there yet?


And interestingly, in this she forecast a pragmatic policy shift by National: "That may come sooner or later on the basis of this latest evidence that the public mood is shifting. Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse has already foreshadowed a review of the current settings. A tweak that sends a signal that the Government is putting a lid on further rises in immigration might take some of the steam out of the issue."

This policy shift has received positive support from a number of commentators. Former Treasury adviser, economist Michael Reddell, approves of the decision, calling it A modest start, but suggests the five per cent cut should be more like fifty percent.

He makes the case for bigger cutbacks: "As a reminder, the United States issues around 1 million green card a years: that is one green card per annum for each 319 people already in the United States. Our new target, centred on 45000 residence approvals per annum, offers one new residence approval per annum per 105 people already in New Zealand. The evidence base for running an immigration programme three times the size of that of the United States, to an extremely remote location with an underperforming economy, remains scant to non-existent, even after all decades of the current policy.

David Farrar also approves of the shift: "This is sensible, and even overdue. I've been saying for a while that I am very pro-immigration but the numbers we have are putting a strain on infrastructure. This will take the pressure off a bit" - see: A small drop in residency approvals.

And for more on the apparent fiscal problem of parental immigration, see Benedict Collins' Migrants' parents cost NZ 'tens of millions' and Jane Patterson's Govt under pressure on immigration's hidden costs.

See also Barry Soper's Are we a dumping ground for foreigners' unwanted parents? He suggests that criticisms of the parental immigration scheme are fair, and National should also be looking at reforming "the student visas that allows those studying here to work and ultimately get residency."

Criticisms of the policy shift

But there have also been criticisms. The business community is mixed on the topic of immigration, but some industries are definitely less comfortable with any sort of crackdown - see Tom Pullar-Strecker's Concerns tighter NZ immigration controls could create 'critical' hospitality shortages.

Similarly, Mike Hosking has been notable as the strongest defender of immigration, expressing his dislike for National's decision - watch: Cutting migrants a big mistake.

And one politician is calling a plague on both Labour and National's immigration policy opportunism - see Peter Dunne's blog post, Migration & Police - Bad Policy but Good Politics. He says that National's "harsh suspension of the parent category... will cruelly disrupt the lives of many migrant families", and suggests that the party is merely competing with Labour to outmanoeuvre "New Zealand First's increasingly erratic, irrational and inaccurate attacks on immigration and migrants".

Finally, for a satirical view of the various debates in New Zealand about immigration, see my blog post, Cartoons about immigration in New Zealand.