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Whatever happened to the great immigration debate?

As Auckland’s population zooms towards two million, mayoral hopeful Phil Goff has gone quiet on cutting the influx into the city to help alleviate its infrastructure woes.

One of the great mysteries of our political life is how the immigration debate that animated Phil Goff’s campaign for Auckland’s mayoralty in 2016 — as well as the battle for the government benches in 2017 — has largely disappeared.

Anyone who recalls Goff’s first tilt at the mayoralty three years ago will remember how often he emphasised that immigration needed to be reduced to curb Auckland’s housing crisis and help ease the city’s traffic congestion

National was in power then and Goff was going to take his concerns to Wellington because, he told us, the government set immigration policy for the city. He was going to be a strong advocate for Aucklanders in bringing numbers down.

We never heard of his mission again. And despite promises in 2017 by Labour to cut net annual immigration by up to 30,000, and NZ First’s promise to slash it to a net intake of 10,000, the government has not made significant moves to reduce it to anywhere near those figures.

Sharply cutting immigration has largely disappeared from public debate as a way of easing Auckland’s accelerating woes — despite the city’s overburdened infrastructure being constantly in the news.

Recently, Middlemore Hospital was reported to be barely coping with demand and last month the AA predicted that congestion can only get worse with Auckland’s predicted population growth likely to put 250,000 more vehicles on the city’s roads over the next decade. 

The coalition government has tinkered around the edges of immigration policy but annual net migration has remained historically high. Since 2014, it has ranged between 48,000 and 64,000 (under revised figures).

In the year ending April 2019, it stood at 55,800.  

As a Statistics NZ spokesman said: “The only previous time net migration was at these levels was for a short period in the early 2000s.”

Related articles: Who is shaping Auckland's future? | A voice of reason in the contentious Auckland traffic debate

Goff now apparently regards the continuing influx as a simple fact of life. As he told his audience at his campaign launch on Sunday: “We live in a city of growth. And, boy, are we growing! There has never been a time in the history of this city that we have grown at the rate we are growing now. Forty thousand extra residents a year! We add the city of Tauranga every three years. That creates pressures.”

Anyone expecting that he would recommend reducing external immigration to alleviate these pressures — as he did in 2016 — would have been disappointed.

Goff immediately followed his acknowledgment of “pressures” on the city with a spectacular non-sequitur: “But it also gives us the ability to provide choice and opportunity for the people who live in the city. To attract people from around the world that bring their skills and the richness of their cultures and their determination to build our city and our country.”

Say what? People are encouraged to pour in to build a city that needs huge new infrastructure projects required mostly because so many people are pouring in? A dog chasing its own tail is the inevitable image that comes to mind — although apparently not to Goff’s.

He went on to praise Auckland’s ethnic diversity before outlining some of its problems — homelessness, traffic congestion, wastewater spillages onto “60 to 80” city beaches “every time it rains” — but he didn’t link them to the city’s exploding population or suggest the government should choke off that flow until infrastructure catches up.

He attributed the low levels of the Hunua dams — which were “58 per cent full when they should be at 88 per cent” — to climate change but didn’t mention the huge drain on the city’s water reservoirs from the thousands of people arriving each year.

You might think a man running as the head of a council that on June 11 declared a “climate emergency” might address the possibility of even worse droughts being a pressing reason to argue for less immigration to ensure that the city’s water supply continued to be adequate for all its citizens but that link seemed to elude him.

Why, then, has the heat gone out of the debate? One reason could be that Auckland house prices have dropped slightly since 2017 and concern about soaring prices may have driven a lot of the earlier angst about high immigration numbers.

Statistics NZ also changed its method of calculating immigration at the beginning of the year. It now uses the outcomes method, which measures how many people actually leave the country, instead of the intentions method, which relied on information from arrival and departure cards. The differences under the two methods have been huge, which makes it difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the change in methodology to get a grip on the figures.

It’s equally possible that people have simply given up raising the topic given that both Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters have failed to do anything significant about immigration and don’t even seem to be embarrassed about it — despite Peters having cast himself for decades as the scourge of mass immigration.

In April last year, after immigration figures had shown a net gain of 69,000 (calculated under the previous method) over the year to March, Mike Hosking wondered if it could be due to party loyalty.

In a Mike’s Minute titled: “Strange silence as immigration hits 69,000”, he asked: “So what happened to the rage over immigration, eh?”

He mooted one possibility: “Here's my guess — [it’s] because the majority of the noise [against immigration] was coming from the left [before the election]. They hated National, Labour promised to change it. Labour hasn't, the supporters are embarrassed so they’re quiet and hope it will all go away without anyone noticing.”

That makes sense — not least because National and Act are hardly going to upbraid the government for unofficially endorsing their own high-immigration policies.

Given the willingness of Goff, Ardern and Peters to abandon their promises on immigration once they gained office, it’s very difficult to see them now as anything more than an election ploy to distinguish themselves from National.

Certainly, it is very hard to understand how Peters — who won significant concessions from Labour including a $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund under NZ First’s control — emerged from coalition talks having only achieved an undertaking to “ensure work visas issued reflect genuine skills shortages and cut down on low-quality international education courses” and to “take serious action on migrant exploitation, particularly of international students.”

Questioned on TVNZ’s Q&A in July 2018, Peters shrugged off the gap between his pre-election rhetoric and his docile approach afterwards: “Yeah, well I lost the [coalition] argument because I didn’t get enough votes.”

The awful truth, however, is that it’s not impossible he will once again cast himself next year as the champion of slashing immigration. It would be a preposterous stance for him to take — especially perhaps after he endorsed the UN Global Compact on Migration in December last year — but he only needs to get five per cent of voters to vote for him. They don’t have to be particularly well-informed voters or even voters who can remember how often he has burned his own supporters.

It’s not beyond possibility that he will claim his coalition partners stopped him getting his way on a topic very dear to his heart. And that enough voters who want to see immigration reduced will believe him and push his party over the threshold.

It would be preposterous but, of course, hardly surprising. And if Peters does get to hold the balance of power next year — whether by siding with National or Labour — you can bet cutting immigration won’t be a big part of the next government’s platform, no matter what he promised.

Much like Phil Goff after his 2016 campaign.

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