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10 ways for the new government to be smarter about immigration

The arrival of a new government offers the chance to reset the often heated immigration debate. So where should we start? Immigration policy expert David Hall has some ideas.

There are few better ways to fuck up a society than to stoke the coals on immigration. It is easy to do, but hard to retract – and harder still to manage.

Of the various challenges faced by New Zealand’s new coalition government, immigration is perhaps the most volatile. The issue brims with strong opinions, bad statistics, high anxieties, blinding privilege, wilful misinterpretation, and salvos of racism and sanctimoniousness that catch many innocents in the crossfire. As global politics are currently illustrating, electoral gains do sometimes arrive upon politicians who fish in these waters, but you never can be sure what fresh horror will land in the boat.

With our government formed, New Zealand has acquired the migration policy that the Labour Party campaigned on. It isn’t the 10,000 net migration target that New Zealand First advocated. It also isn’t the 20,000–25,000 target that former Labour leader Andrew Little first feistily proposed. Nor is it National’s steady-as-she-goes approach, or the cosmopolitanism of the Greens. It is, rather, a cluster of policy revisions that are estimated to reduce net migration by 20,000–30,000 (I’ll come back to that estimate shortly).

Like it or not, this is roughly where we are as a country. As I wrote for The Spinoff a few months ago, the New Zealand public is ambivalent about immigration. Not entirely negative, by any means. Actually, 34% of people in New Zealand are strongly favourable towards immigration, with only a much smaller rump (23%) strongly negative. But the largest swathe of New Zealanders (43%) straddle the fence– and Labour voters are perhaps more equivocal than any other party’s. Here lies the middle ground.

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This ambivalence over immigration cannot be ignored. It can’t be ignored by a party leader. And it certainly oughtn’t be ignored by our new prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who is governing with support from the two parties that respectively have the most liberal and most conservative views on immigration. This is bound to produce friction in the near future, but these are the same frictions that reside within the New Zealand public. Working these out through government is the whole point of democracy.

Also, the rest of us – the public, the media – shouldn’t ignore this ambivalence either. Ultimately, politicians take their cues from voters: that’s what our democracy is designed to facilitate. We all share some responsibility for managing our borders in a way that doesn’t wreck people’s lives, whether it’s the lives of people crossing borders or those of us already inside. What do you actually want out of migration policy?

In this vein, here’s a few thoughts:

1. Steer clear of targets: Our new prime minister and minister for immigration, Iain Lees-Galloway, shouldn’t hold themselves accountable to an immigration target – and nor should the rest of us. This is the road to losing our national marbles.

Look what happened to the British Conservative Party. When Theresa May became home secretary in 2010, she inherited a campaign pledge to reduce net migration from 252,000 to less than 100,000. The Spectator once described this pledge as “a Thick-of-It style farce”, floated offhandedly three years earlier by her predecessor, then lapped up by the tabloids: “The Tories didn’t want to make a fuss by disowning it”.

But May doubled down. She rolled out the notorious “Go Home” vans. She restricted international student visas, foreign spouses and asylum seekers. However, in 2016, the fateful year of the EU referendum, net migration was barely reduced at 248,000. Frustrated communities resolved to “take back control”, voting against May and the political establishment in favour of Brexit. Hate crimes soared. Economic and diplomatic uncertainty reigns. May fell for what I call the Throbbing Gristle paradox. By exercising the mantra, “We need some discipline in here!”, she sowed the seeds of its own subversion.

Ardern also inherited a number from her predecessor: to reduce net migration by 20,000–30,000. However, upon becoming Labour leader, she kept her distance – “I’m not fixated on numbers” – and did the same again upon becoming prime minister. Good on her. Labour’s official policy only ever describes the 20,000–30,000 figure as an “estimate” of policy consequences, not a “target”. This estimate may or may not be credible (I have my doubts). It might also be overtaken by long-term cyclical trends (notably, net migration has dwindled in the last few months). So the focus should remain on the quality of policy and the evaluation of its effects. If improving educational quality in the PTE sector reduces the number of visas issued, so be it – but do this because it improves educational quality, not because it contributes to some magical migration target. Targets in migration treat people as mere numbers, as units to be reduced, not as fellow human beings.

2. Cut the bullshit: Elections always brim with bullshit. But the early part of this election campaign was especially memorable for its bullshit about immigration. The culprits still live among us. Some are now in government. The bullshit must stop.

Take Auckland house prices, for example. Sure, house prices and net migration rose in tandem over the last few years. But over the last year, house prices plateaued and house sales dropped, well before net migration ever faltered. Moreover, house prices have been rising since the 1990s, accelerating away from incomes around 2002. Throughout this time, however, net migration has ebbed and flowed, even dropping to negative levels around 1998–2000 and 2011–2012 (remember the “brain drain”?).

Does this mean that housing and migration are unrelated? Of course not. It just means that the issue is more complex than the bullshitters make it out to be. And why does that matter? It matters because if people believe their own bullshit, then they’re going to propose policy responses that are, at best, tenuously or indirectly related to the policy problem. (For example, can we really expect restrictions on low-skill work visas and PTE student visas to reduce demand for housing, when these visa holders are surely the least likely to be buying houses?) Worse still, if policy makers invest in mythical solutions, then they’re not investing in tackling the root causes of the problem. This is why Labour’s switch to its “relentlessly positive” focus on affordable homes, homelessness and public transport infrastructure is where the real action is.

3. Let’s get more sophisticated about impacts: A common cause for confusion over immigration is the indices we use, which often sit at the national level. Economists mostly agree that immigration has a modest positive impact on GDP, but this tells us little about how the economic benefits are distributed. If a few regions are strongly benefiting from migration while the rest are not, then this could still show up—on average—as a positive impact on GDP. So, if people in these disadvantaged regions hear economists bang on about how immigration is economically good, even when this doesn’t reflect their lived experiences, then locals might quite reasonably decide that they “have had enough of experts”.

We need a more sophisticated, more finely grained approach to assessing the impacts of migration. Economics ought to resonate with what people see in their daily lives. This is especially important for the new government, which promises to target “real skills gaps” and to focus on regional shortages. Locally specific knowledge will be crucial, as will consultation with business and industry.

4. Listen to others: Our debate on immigration is dominated by economists and economic ideas. This has its place—but it isn’t the only factor. People’s anxieties about migration policy often have little to do with economics, but about cultural cohesion, or social strain, or the anguish of being excluded from society. This is partly why, as research shows, people don’t usually change their minds after being barraged by economic factoids.

People’s sincere concerns deserve to be heard, marginalised peoples’ most of all. It’s often hard to understand a person’s beliefs about migration without understanding their underlying values or experiences. Where possible, these concerns should also be integrated into how we evaluate immigration; one possibility is the wellbeing approach presently being explored by Julie Fry and Peter Wilson.

5. Listen to tangata whenua: The anxieties of some Māori around immigration cannot be separated from historical context. As Tahu Kukutai and Arama Rata describe in the book Fair Borders, immigration was used to overwhelm Māori after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, so some Maori remain understandably anxious about open borders. But if the way to restoring a spirit of manaakitanga (hospitality) is to enhance mana (dignity) for Māori, why not support that?

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6. Language matters: Andrew Chen has said this better than I ever could. In brief, by all means let’s have a conversation about infrastructure, population and the economy, but let’s do so without undermining the standing in society of anyone who—from a Pākehā viewpoint—appears “foreign”, even when they could be Kiwi as. Here’s looking at you Duncan Garner.

7. Question the status quo: Where will the government land on National’s recent migration policy changes? Will the Parent Category remain closed? Will the income threshold remain between temporary migrant workers who earn more or less than $41,538 per year? This should be a worrying policy for Labour, given that reduced rights for low-salary workers are liable to diminish workplace conditions for everyone, citizens included.

8. Avoid cruelty: The increased refugee quota, from 1,000 to 1,500, will reduce global human suffering a jot. The government’s renewed focus on migrant exploitation is vital. But there is now a pattern of sorrowful stories about people with disabilities being shut out by our borders, including children like five-year-old Caitlyn Davies, or families promising to provide private care. One recent case of a mentally impaired man facing deportation is now under review by the new government, but how to improve these outcomes without relying on interventions from ministers? Surely New Zealand can be better than this.

9. We belong in the Pacific region: Labour promises to establish a ministerial advisory group on Pacific migration. Outstanding! Even while net migration has climbed, Pasifika arrivals have shrunk by nearly one-third since 2012 in some visa categories. This speaks to the reality of skills-based migration. For all the apparent impartiality, the cool accounting of human capital, there are ethnic implications. So how do we stop cutting ourselves off from our Pacific neighbours? And in an age of rising sea levels, how do we prevent the idea of climate refugees from becoming a box-ticking exercise: “Are your water supplies really that salinated? Are your corals really that bleached?”

10. Population policy anyone?: The policy lolly scramble is over for now. But let’s consider a population policy for next time. This is a serious proposition, not least because it prompts policy makers to think long-term about infrastructure planning, something New Zealand is obviously not that good at. But it could also take some heat out of the immigration debate, creating a space for data and interviews to be studiously gathered, responsibly interpreted, and communicated to the public. Knowledge gaps are where bullshit thrives: let’s fill them.

David Hall is a senior researcher at The Policy Observatory at AUT, and editor of Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century, published by BWB Texts.

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