Immigration: The battle lines are drawn

by Graham Adams / 21 April, 2017
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People wait, forms in hand, at an Immigration Service queue in Auckland. Photo / Getty Images

National makes a timid move and Labour seizes its chance.

Bill English’s timorous moves to alter immigration settings makes you wonder if he has a political death-wish. The vortex of despair around immigration swirls most dangerously in Auckland but there was little to console Aucklanders in the recent announcement of changes. And these were the last adjustments National will make before the election on September 23.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse set out the details in a speech in Queenstown. The southern mecca has its own problems with foreign home owners and foreign workers but the real problems for the government lie a long way north in the great resettlement camp that is the Queen City.

Foreigners pour in as locals trickle out. Many of the departees are willing refugees from the rat-race, keen to buy a provincial retreat with the money unlocked from their ridiculously over-priced city houses, while the poor are eligible for a few thousand dollars from Winz to relocate elsewhere in the country, all to make way for more foreigners.

The problem for English is that he needs to win Auckland to win the election and he has, astonishingly, just thumbed his nose at one of its citizens’ biggest concerns. And immigration, of course, has a material bearing on Aucklanders’ other great concerns — insane house prices and persistent homelessness.

 

Woodhouse, who always sounds like a self-satisfied major-domo outlining the day’s activities to his staff, appeared to be reading a long suicide note for the National government from the lectern. It was a gentlemanly delivery but it had a frisson of doom about it. He made it clear the moves were not intended to cut numbers but to improve the quality of new entrants.

So the government will set a salary threshold for skilled migrants wanting residence, new time limits for visas, stand-down periods between applications and stricter rules for partner visas. But it will do nothing to change temporary work visas or education visas, well-known now for extensive rorts.

And as Richard Harman noted on Politik: “The government’s clampdown on skilled migration requiring a minimum income will have only a limited impact on Auckland where migration pressure is at its most intense. That’s because only 40 per cent of skilled migrants settle there.”

It’s very important that we import people who will help raise our standard of living, but as an Aucklander I don’t really care in my day-to-day life if the 825 new cars added to the city’s roads each week are being driven by foreign chefs paid $20,000 or IT analysts on $80,000. Nor do I care if I have to wait for eight hours at A&E behind an imported baker or a gifted business student, no matter what their income.

All I am aware of is that the city is full, bursting at the seams, unliveable and unlovable. I remember a time when living in Auckland was pleasant and when you could drive most places without setting aside a full hour to get there. I remember a time when it was possible for anyone on a reasonable wage to buy a house in the city they grew up in. A time, too, when the homeless — either in work or out of work — didn’t live in cars and garages. It wasn’t that long ago. And immigration may not be entirely responsible for these woes but it has played a major part.

The government’s moves have been widely panned as too little, too late. They won’t be implemented until mid-August and their effects won’t be noticeable for some time after that, if at all.

The immediate effect is — unfortunately for National — to give the major opposition parties a big stick to beat the government with.

Labour have long taken pot-shots at high levels of immigration into Auckland and its effect on house prices and homelessness, in particular. But they have previously been coy about exactly what they would do in government apart from acknowledging the necessity of “turning the tap down”.

Such coyness makes a lot of sense in an era when National has progressively transformed itself into a magpie, happy to steal any of Labour’s policies that seem to find favour with the public. Labour waiting for National to reveal its hand was tactically wise to ensure they weren’t gazumped.

A day after Woodhouse’s announcement, Andrew Little made it clear to Duncan Garner on The AM Show that Labour would cut “tens of thousands” of immigrants from the net annual intake, which last year was over 70,000.

The problem for English is that he needs to win Auckland to win the election and he has, astonishingly, just thumbed his nose at one of its citizens’ biggest concerns.

Little was clearly enjoying himself in the studio. Cutting immigration is a no-brainer and he knows it. He can sniff the electoral windfall. English’s new policy is probably the best gift he’s had since John Key resigned.

“I think a lot of New Zealanders will like this,” said Garner, who clearly liked it himself.

The politician who really doesn’t like Labour and Little making hay over immigration is, of course, Winston Peters. This is his territory and has been for 20 years.

In the wake of Labour staking out a position, Peters said, sourly: “The Labour Party supported mass immigration all through the 1990s and the 2000s, and now they say all of a sudden they’re concerned. Well, it’s a bit late when you were a part of the problem in the first place.”

Which is absolutely true. But then neither did Peters achieve anything on the immigration front when he was a high-ranked member of Jim Bolger’s government in the 1990s or in Helen Clark’s after 2005. At least Little has a legitimate claim to being a new broom since he has never been in cabinet or government.

So as the election approaches clear lines have been drawn between National and Labour. National will do nothing that will take immediate pressure off Auckland; Labour says it will take an axe to the numbers of immigrants.

What’s not so clear is whether anyone will trust NZ First to follow through on its promises to slash immigration. A lot depends on which major party it sides with, and how many baubles Peters is offered. His long-running act as the oldest Peter Pan in Western politics has worn thin for many voters and would-be supporters as even a quick look at comments on his Facebook page shows. By putting a figure on a reduction, albeit approximate, Andrew Little has given voters concerned about immigration an alternative home.

Worse, Bill English has made it clear that if he has to form a coalition with NZ First, immigration won’t be part of the deal. In early March in an interview on The Nation, he said even if National's poll ratings slipped and an alliance with NZ First needed to be made, there wouldn't be any concessions on immigration policy to win Winston Peters’ support.

Most exposed, however, by the government’s announcement are the Greens. You wouldn’t know it, but the Greens have a net migration target of one per cent of the population, including returning New Zealanders. They announced this policy in October but have rarely mentioned it since.

The party prefers instead to concentrate on better public transport and getting people to cycle and walk to work.

If you go to their website for party policy you’ll find immigration isn’t among the first 23 items. It’s filed under “Other Policies” on a secondary page.

The Greens are looking like the flakiest of all the major parties on a topic vital to the coming election. It’s a bewildering position for a party allegedly committed to maintaining a light footprint on the Earth.

Regular sewage overflows into Auckland’s harbour after storms…16,000 more cars on the city’s road by the election… inadequate housing for those displaced by the vast influx of foreigners? The Greens are so quiet on these topics it would be easy to mistake it for indifference. And that is a major electoral handicap when its rivals have now staked out their claims so clearly.

 

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