Open home: Immigration the missing link in housing debate

by Graham Adams / 28 March, 2018
Opinion

New Zealand had a net migration gain of 69,800 in the year to February. Photo / Getty Images

The KiwiBuild programme at Unitec only makes sense alongside drastic cuts to incoming numbers.

The Labour-led government clearly sees the new housing development announced for Unitec's campus in Mt Albert as a feather in its cap. And Phil Twyford, the Housing and Urban Development Minister, is certainly cock-a-hoop about it, obviously brimming with enthusiasm when he was interviewed by Corin Dann on TVNZ’s Q+A.

The details of the first homes in the KiwiBuild project are sketchy — including how many dwellings will be “affordable” and the exact mechanics of construction — but, after years of National dismissing high rents and stratospheric Auckland house prices as “symptoms of success”, Labour’s move makes it look dynamic and dedicated in comparison.

Twyford clearly knows it and must have relished seeing National’s leader, Simon Bridges, and housing spokesperson Judith Collins reduced to crying plagiarism — “We thought of it first!”.

Asked by Duncan Garner on The AM Show why, in that case, National didn’t announce it first, Bridges claimed that it didn’t want to be seen to be indulging in “pork-barrel politics” before the election. Garner was polite enough not to guffaw given Bridges’ history of pork-barrelling before the Northland byelection in 2015 when he promised to build 10 bridges in the electorate but forgot about them almost as soon as the seat was lost to Winston Peters.

Collins was also quick to dismiss Twyford’s announcement as “re-badging” a housing project instigated by National but neither she nor Bridges can shake the public’s conviction that their government was indifferent, if not grossly negligent, as a crisis developed under its watch.

The failures of the previous government will inevitably be a recurring theme in the ongoing debate. When Corin Dann asked Twyford about the projected figures for the KiwiBuild programme and suggested he was “pulling numbers out of your arse” (echoing a report by Infometrics), the minister replied: “That’s a lot better than sitting on your arse for nine years, which is what the former government did on housing.” 

The land that will be developed for new homes in Mt Albert is currently part of the Unitec campus. Photo / Wairaka Land Company

Nevertheless, Collins and Bridges would still have a handy hammer to bludgeon Twyford with if only they could mention the elephant in the room: immigration. But National has never resiled from the mass immigration policy it visited on New Zealand — and on Auckland in particular.

Thus the government is largely insulated from that line of attack from National, which severely limits its scope for inflicting damage. Collins was given the housing role because Simon Bridges saw it as an area of weakness for the government but immigration numbers are crucial to any meaningful criticism of housing policy and she can’t use it as a weapon — except to point out the government is breaking an election pledge.

Labour and NZ First are still very vulnerable over immigration — from their own voters. Even under the most optimistic scenarios of KiwiBuild and the private construction industry working at full capacity, it will be impossible to build enough houses to absorb the huge influx of migrants continuing to pour into the nation’s biggest city as well as rectifying the existing shortage.

Mind the gap

Yes, the number of immigrants to New Zealand overall is slowly falling but we still had a net migration gain of non-NZ citizens of 69,800 in the year ending February and there is no guarantee numbers won’t increase again. 

Statistics NZ figures show that Auckland remains the preferred destination for migrants, with a net gain of 34,928 for the region in the 12 months to February. And that figure is probably conservative. As interest.co.nz noted, the real number is likely over 40,000, given that more than 11,000 migrants didn’t state where in New Zealand they intended to live. 

In the face of such inflows, the 3000-4000 dwellings to be built on the Unitec site are a drop in a bucket that continues to overflow despite Labour’s promises to “turn the immigration tap down” — with no indication when that might begin to happen.

MBIE made it clear in its briefing for incoming ministers in November that Auckland’s housing shortfall was rapidly increasing. It compared population increases with new houses actually built — not just consented. Predictably, over the past four years, demand has far outstripped supply. A shortfall of 13,717 houses in 2013 had swelled to 44,738 by mid-2017 as the city’s population boomed

At the time, Twyford lamented the fact his government had “inherited a disaster” but it appears to be reluctant to change the principal driver of the disaster now it is in power.

Coalition govt plays hide the scissors

In the coalition agreement signed in October, NZ First agreed to cut incoming numbers by 20,000-30,000, as Labour had promised, even though Winston Peters had campaigned on reducing numbers drastically to 10,000 a year. But there is little sign of that happening

No doubt the government will already have come under fierce pressure from businesses that rely on immigrant workers, and it will also be very aware of the risk of damaging the $4.2 billion international education industry if it targets it as a way of reducing immigration, as it suggested before last year’s election.

Winston Peters secured a cut to immigration numbers in a coalition deal with Labour, but there's been little movement since. Photo / RNZ

Labour and NZ First voters will give the coalition government the benefit of the doubt for a while but will inevitably become disillusioned if it fails to fulfil its election pledge. More than 800 new cars appear on Auckland’s already congested roads each week and provide a daily and frustrating reminder of the scale of the problem.

The claim by the Immigration Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway, that the government is concerned with getting the system right and is “not fixated on the numbers” isn’t what voters will remember Labour saying on the campaign trail. When he told Newsroom in late January, “We do not have a target for reducing overall net migration,” it’s hard to see it as anything but a major — and unforgivable — u-turn. 

Winston Peters, of course, has made a career of criticising immigration, on both economic and cultural grounds, for decades. His silence and inaction now that he is Deputy Prime Minister will serve only to remind people that his fiery rhetoric is often no more than that.

Mayor mute on migrants

And what about Phil Goff, who made repeated promises while campaigning for the Auckland mayoralty in 2016 that he would put pressure on the then National government to cut immigration to help alleviate the city’s housing woes? Once he was elected his promises evaporated and he is now conspicuously silent on the question even though his former Labour Party mates are in power. 

His press release put out a few hours after Ardern and Twyford’s announcement at Unitec applauded “the vision and ambition of the government’s KiwiBuild programme”.

"We need a transformational programme to tackle the increasing unaffordability of home ownership for many Aucklanders as well as soaring rents and growing homelessness.” 

But there was no word about curtailing immigration, which is vital to any “transformational programme”.

Perhaps the truth is that our masters — Ardern, Peters and Goff — are just as much slaves to mass immigration as their predecessors were, given it is a cheap and easy method of boosting economic activity, even if it doesn’t lift per capita GDP, which is the true measure of wealth.

Ardern has political capital to burn and her government is impressively ambitious in its desire to rectify the social problems that developed during National’s nine-year tenure but many of those problems in Auckland — particularly house prices, high rents and an accommodation shortage — can be linked directly to mass immigration.

If the coalition government really wanted to lower house prices and rents it would slash the numbers coming in even as it pushed ahead with the KiwiBuild programme — as it promised.

Without cutting immigration heavily, it will be trying to bail out a swamped ship with a teacup.

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