Immigration figures released this week suggests New Zealand's net gain appears to have stabilised around 70,000 a year which, if it continues, would see the population hit 5 million the year after next. Since the present rate has been sustained longer than anybody, including the Government, expected there is reason to suppose it will continue. It is attracted by a strong economy and contributing to it. But its challenges as well as its benefits will be a hot topic of debate at the election less than five months away.
Rapid population growth demands that infrastructure development keeps pace. It would be hard to convince drivers in Auckland their roads are coping with the additional traffic, though they should see a difference when the Waterview connection completes the motorway network. Whatever is holding up the opening of the tunnels, Aucklanders can only hope it does not delay the opening much longer.
The Government is clearly feeling the pressure of the issue this far out from the election. Finance Minister Steven Joyce has revealed this week his Budget next month will contain $4 billion for additional infrastructure. The only specified item was the restoration of State Highway 1 north and south of Kaikoura after the earthquake slips, but that hardly counts as additional infrastructure.
Whatever is in the rest of the Budget for infrastructure, the Labour Party will safely be able to repeat its mantra, "too little too late", which it uses also for government efforts to meet the housing demand created by rapid population growth, and for controls on the immigration flow. Labour's answer is to "cap" immigration but that is not as simple as it sounds.
Of the nearly 130,000 people in the year to February who ticked the box on their arrival card for an intended stay of a year or more, the largest number had work visas, the next largest group had student visas and relatively few had permanent residence, which would seem the easiest to control. Most migrants are here for study or temporary work and many of them apply for permanent residence once they are here. The Government is understandably reluctant to reduce student numbers because education has become a valuable "export" for the country and source of income for schools and universities.
The Government has just raised the bar on skilled immigration, introducing an income threshold. To qualify in future, immigrants will need to be coming to a job paying at or above the median wage ($49,000 a year). This could have a severe effect on ethnic restaurants, as the Herald reported yesterday. The average wage in the hospitality industry is around $40,000 a year.
New Zealand needs immigration. It has an ageing population and more New Zealand-born citizens leave the country each year than return, though the net loss is far less than it used to be. A larger population makes the country more cosmopolitan, more interesting, provides more opportunities for business and arts and culture and enlarges its talent pool.
Inevitably, most immigrants are attracted to the largest city and nearby centres. But a population of 5 million is no more than that of a small city in many parts of the world.
New Zealand needs these people but it also needs to housing and infrastructure to cater for them. Whatever government emerges from the election, it will need to get on with it.