The Government is attempting to reset immigration at a time when labour shortfalls are being felt in critical sectors of the economy.
Sometimes the best indication of what a government is doing is what it's quietly avoiding doing.
When it comes to immigration, it's a blur of inactivity. The Government has had the tremendous alibi of the pandemic to halt the inflow. But indications are the tide is not going to be allowed to come back in once the world is vaccinated.
It's no secret there's a policy review under way and that its purpose is not in the spirit of Sir Dave Dobbyn's Welcome Home anthem.
At a recent select committee hearing, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi demonstrated how one could be a man of action by being a man of inaction. All categories of incomers were on hold indefinitely pending a "reset", he said, doing a good impression of a person who had secretly left the room, having assigned an android on autopilot to deflect further inquiries.
Even in categories in which there are severe skills shortages, with sectors crying out to import workers urgently, Faafoi was a scrupulously blank space. "I'm not saying there's not going to be any [skilled immigration], but …"
And what a "but" that is. The Government has become increasingly wary of skilled immigration, because of its depressant effect on local wages. Unskilled immigration practically brings it out in hives – even though for jobs such as fruit picking and labouring, it's less the low pay that's the turn-off for locals as the work itself.
Pay rates have stagnated over many years, which didn't trouble the previous National Government, but is a core challenge for Labour. Its ideological preference is to insist New Zealanders be trained to fill jobs, rather than our continuing to import workers from poorer countries, such as the Philippines, who are apt to accept less pay and poorer conditions.
At the margins, unscrupulous employers have exploited some immigrant workers to the point of slavery, so immigration's romantic Ellis Island image has been badly tainted.
Voters have long made the connection between unplanned, liberal immigration policies and exhausted infrastructure – not least extortionate house prices.
Now that Covid has kindled a mortal fear of incomers, political polling shows immigration is decidedly unpopular these days.
Trouble is, practically every way the Government turns, lack of labour is an impediment to progress. There's almost no sector that wouldn't be disrupted by the pending immigration crackdown.
A handily coincidental example is health, where the Government has just confirmed a restructure that will make Italy's Risorgimento look like a picnic. It is re-centralising hospital administration and instituting a massive new focus on primary healthcare.
Beneath the duelling choruses of "About time!" and "The world will end!" is one of the squeakiest immigration "buts". This country is chronically short of nurses and specialists and the GP shortage is at crisis point in some districts, making the job increasingly unattractive.
It takes years to train these workers, and their skills are globally portable. While we wait for new ones to be trained and hope they'll stay, there will be harrowing consequences – preventable deaths, not to put too fine a point on it – unless we import some people to fill the gaps.
Teachers are another critical shortage – as are foreign students whose fees are sorely missed.
From the Government, the language is all about how to "reset" education so as to "manage" without incomers.
In housing and the wider construction industry, much the same applies. More people are being trained, but there's a lag of years before they're productive – if they even stay here, given the global demand for them.
Canada has just made 27,000 temporary visas available for skilled workers. Australia is emitting similar signals.
With eerily apt timing, the Productivity Commission issued a report this week urging decisions be made on the future intake of immigrant workers while offering solutions that, at least politically, could be far worse than the original problems.
It is, after all, the Productivity Commission, not the Popularity Commission.
The killer fact in its pitch is that New Zealand's globally high dependence on immigrant and guest workers has not contributed anything much to productivity and growth.
"New Zealand's main approach … has relied on adding more people into the workforce, having employees working longer hours and expanding production in industries with damaging environmental impacts," chairman Ganesh Nana chided. "This approach is not sustainable."
Speculation that the media-savvy economist had been brought in to make the commission's often flinty reports more touchy-feely has certainly proved wide of the mark.
One of the commission's bolder new suggestions is that the Government look at "frontier firms" rather than trying to foster all sectors of the economy.
Let's hastily scroll past the implication that some of our more pedestrian industries should be left to wither; this is an ancient and tombstone-strewn political battleground.
It's what used to be called "picking winners" and it became an unfashionable strategy for governments after Sir Robert Muldoon saddled the country with a market-numbing blanket of agricultural and industry subsidies, and a number of Think Big projects of which the subsidy and the debt were the only "Big" things associated with them.
When you consider a previous Labour Government picked Sovereign Yachts as a hero and lost millions, yet didn't take an equity stake in Rocket Lab to complement its early investment, the Crown's track record in identifying star players is not flash.
Happier examples, such as technology pioneer Fisher & Paykel, appeal to the commission. From washing machines to hospital equipment, it has found lucrative markets where it has innovative advantages. Might the Government not foster more "hero" companies like that, the commission asks?
At this point, anyone familiar with the perorations of our pre-eminent hero company, Fonterra, is probably hiding under the bed. But the commission has another fire to bustle the Government toward: genetic modification.
"Technologies such as gene-editing offer potential new opportunities for boosting productivity, improving health outcomes, reducing biosecurity risks and responding to climate-change risks and other environmental problems," the commission said.
It didn't add, "Don't thank us, we're here to help."
If nothing else, the commission's report has made the prospect of watching 20 ferociously patch-protecting district health boards sack themselves and find ways to play together nicely as one seamless unit seem quite restful by comparison.