Sometimes, voters get what they appear to wish for without voting. The mere approach of an election can cause a government to lose its nerve on an issue it knows to be unsettling the electorate.

National lost its nerve a little on immigration near the end of last year when it raised the bar on skilled migrants and followed that up in April this year with a crackdown on temporary work visas.

No doubt the party's polls and focus groups were reflecting the concerns widely aired in public forums, that infrastructure was creaking under the strain of record net population gains since 2013, that migrant workers were taking jobs from young New Zealanders, that higher income migrants were driving up Auckland house prices, and "cultural" concerns largely unspoken but no doubt underlying the voters' wish for a "breather", as the Labour Party puts it.

Voters should be careful what they wish for. While the changes to visa rules in November and April looked reasonable and moderate at the time - and were criticised by the Opposition as not going far enough - persistent reports suggest they are having a severe impact on livelihoods in the industries that rely on migrants to meet chronic shortages of skills and labour.


The April decision to use the median wage (currently $49,000 a year) as the main criterion for issuing a skilled labour visa is said to be proving particularly onerous.

Employers have been lobbying for a rethink of the recent restrictions and this week the Prime Minister conceded they may be "a bit tight". With so much work to be done, he told RNZ National, "building the houses, building the infrastructure, getting the primary production out of horticulture and the dairy industry....we don't want to handicap ourselves by overreaching [on restrictions]". A decision would be announced in the coming weeks.

National will be under no illusion that a reversal of any restriction will be popular. Already Labour leader Andrew Little is calling it a backflip and an "admission the Government failed to consider regional and industry variations", as Labour did its recently announced plan to cut the number of work permits.

It made an exception for the builder it would need to bring in for its state house programme.

But Little's criticism is an indirect endorsement of the need for the Government to rethink, Bill English will be more worried about the voters who would like the Government to close the door more completely than National or Labour has proposed.

But the fact that English would risk their ire is a sign the Government is less worried than it was in November and April.

November, remember, had brought the election of Donald Trump, whose campaign had largely exploited immigration resentment, as had the Brexit referendum six months earlier.

The reverberations of those results remained strong through Trump's first months in office this year. But in New Zealand the polls have hardly changed, despite one or two stumbles by English.

He must be confident now he can afford to put the needs of the economy for migrant labour ahead of National's political security and that should be applauded.