The most significant thing the Government could do for the economy will cost it far less than this week's Budget and yet yield massive returns: start a managed opening of the border.
This is not a plea for international tourists to return. That's a long way off. It's a plea to start bringing international students and migrant workers back into this country as soon as possible. All the necessary controls - including a two week quarantine - can stay in place. A lost fortnight may be enough to put off most tourists, but it's less of a barrier for those who plan to relocate here for months or years.
Unless foreign students start coming back, our universities are in trouble. They're doing their best to develop viable-sounding plans to satisfy the Government. Victoria University of Wellington, for example, says it has identified three locations in the capital where it could quarantine students for the required time. A businessman connected to Auckland University has pitched the idea of chartering an Air New Zealand flight out of Shanghai to bring Chinese students here in time for the second semester in July. What both these plans need is Government approval.
The argument for getting on with this is a slam dunk. International education is a $5 billion industry. Without these students, our universities will be forced to push on with plans to lay off staff. That's the kind of shrinkage we must avoid if we want to emerge ready to take on the world post-crisis.
There is a deadline. Australia hopes to allow foreign students in by July. Unless we beat or match that timeframe, we risk losing first-mover advantage.
Equally, we need to get skilled migrants coming back in. There is a temptation to believe that New Zealanders will be able to fill every available vacancy but that is simply not true. We have published lists of skills shortages for a reason. Our choice now is between importing those people or training our own to do the job. Imports are an immediate solution, training will take years.
Transmission Gully is an example of what a lack of workers means. A seven-week lockdown has resulted in a delay of several months, if not two years. That's in part because imported workers shot off to Australia before the lockdown and now can't get back in.
We can be picky, and we should be. We can weed out the "students" migrating here for dodgy education courses. But we can't continue with this full-stop on immigration. We will end up worse off without the world's brains available to us.
I worry about this part in particular. New Zealand First and its leader Winston Peters publicly rail against migration and have, in the past, had sympathy from within the Labour caucus. I'd hope there's a willingness to differentiate between workers we don't need and workers we do need.
Implementing this doesn't need to be expensive. By the sound of things Immigration needs to spend $100,000 on an IT upgrade and beyond that it would be perfectly acceptable to tell migrants, students, tertiary providers and sponsoring employers to foot the bills associated with the required quarantining.
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This would cost a hell of a lot less than the $50 billion budget, and ultimately achieve the same end: saving jobs and keeping New Zealand ticking until we open our borders fully.
One of criticisms of the Budget has been a lack of vision. That's fair. Despite all the Finance Minister's "reset" hype there was no reset. But, it's also unfair given it's hard to develop a vision while still fighting off a crisis.
Perhaps, the government doesn't need a vision right now. It just needs to get out of the way as much as possible and let business do its thing. A bit more "can do", less "can't do", especially with the border.
The best solutions aren't always expensive and aren't always funded by the Government.