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Forget Garner’s undies: What works when it comes to immigration policy?

Duncan Garner’s recent column on immigration and K-Mart underpants has had the unfortunate – though highly predictable – effect of reigniting New Zealand’s often-poisonous ‘immigration debate’. But there’s a better way, writes Jess Berentson-Shaw.

Immigration has never been an easy thing to talk about in New Zealand. When it gets raised in a public forum, as it was this weekend via the vexed issue of Duncan Garner’s undies, we can get a toxic brew of concern about the country we want, outright xenophobia, real anxiety about racism, and economic technobabble. Often the conversation lacks solid research or evidence.

Can we talk about immigration policy more reasonably?

As head of research at a think tank, it’s a bit ironic that I find immigration policy is one of those areas where the current research is not hugely helpful. Sure we have economic data on immigration, but there is little to tell us what works in immigration beyond effects on per capita GDP – they’re modest but worth having, according to the research.

This lack of clearly measurable outcomes that are meaningful to people’s everyday lives may be why things get so ugly – a vacuum of information is never awesome for constructive policy discussion. But let’s also be honest: humans are not great about talking about, in a kind or unbiased way, those they see as being outside their existing tribes. So to start, let’s look at the actual numbers and get some context for immigration policy right now.

Both new New Zealanders and existing New Zealanders contribute to the numbers

Yes, as the graph below shows, the number of people coming into New Zealand is high at the moment. But such a peak is not entirely new, and nor is it all about non New Zealand citizens (or as I am going to call them, ‘new New Zealanders’. I considered ‘fresh’ but realised that might lead to inevitable comparisons with ‘stale’ New Zealanders, so new is what I am sticking with). The number of new New Zealanders coming in has been high before, as we can see from the net migration figure. In the early 1970s and in the 1990s there were significant peaks (in flows) of new New Zealanders. At the moment it also happens that there are a lot of existing New Zealanders arriving back. It is these two issues, plus lower departures of both new and old, that make up what we call ‘net migration’.

The numbers of new New Zealanders invited we can influence relatively easily (through immigration policy), the existing New Zealanders staying or returning is harder. But if migration of new New Zealanders is high and we have not anticipated or predicted the resident population numbers then it is likely that problems in our infrastructure, services and systems will be exacerbated. Note that migration is not necessarily the cause of the problem in the first place, the cracks may just get super-charged. So the first thing to be aware of is this is not simply about new New Zealanders, it is also about good population planning – are services meeting our needs and what are our likely needs into the future?

The peak arrivals of new New Zealanders, you will notice, have happened at times when we have needed more workers and dropped off when we have not – for example, a rise during the era of expansion of industry and a drop during the GFC, generally speaking. Inviting new New Zealanders to our country, with the exception of refugees and the humanitarian quota, has traditionally been about the need for more labour.

We need to move beyond referring to immigrants as economic units

The problem with the labour market drive for new New Zealanders is that we tend to think about them as economic units, here to improve GDP and fill a gap, and not as people like you and me who are looking for a new and satisfying life. Language gets pretty sloppy when you stop seeing all people in your country, whether born here or invited here, as being of equal value. With sloppy language comes the reinforcement of existing biases, whether unconscious or conscious. All that evolutionary brain development that tells us to only trust our tribe in case we get hunted or killed kicks in. It can get pretty nasty. Our tribe can be defined many ways and can change, but in the case of immigration a person’s tribe is usually people who look, sound and act the same. So language matters here, as does treating others as people who are just like us. How do we do that?

We need to think about what matters to us as a nation

It will help us to think beyond the ‘economic unit’ issue if we consider why immigration matters to us, what is important, and what we value. Yes we value having specific skills in our economy, increasing productivity and innovation, and filling gaps in the labour market. Do we also value treating people fairly in New Zealand? Is anyone really OK with businesses treating migrant workers as second-class citizens here, or worse?

Do we value diversity of culture? Does being/having a tolerant society matter to us? Perhaps we value buying our gruts in a store that has short lines and a diverse clientele. Perhaps we value affordable housing and other basic services and infrastructure for all New Zealanders, new and old. Do we value being a good global citizen and giving others the opportunity to be part of everything that is great about New Zealand?

What matters for Māori in term of immigration? Protecting Māori needs and culture matters when we invite new New Zealanders in and such protection is key to the Crown’s obligation to Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi. We can look to the Treaty as one of the first discussions and agreements we reached on how to take care of existing New Zealanders (Māori) when inviting in new ones (Pākehā). In Māori culture there is high value placed on manaakitanga – extending kindness and generosity to guests – and it’s a value that policy-makers would do well to incorporate into modern immigration policy, as Arama Rata and Tahu Kukutai make an excellent case for in Fair Borders.

It is only once we have figured out what we value that we can talk about what works to achieve it. One thing is for sure: we need to think about a lot more than simple impacts on GDP and the labour market.

Moving beyond money

Earlier this year I suggested five questions that researchers should ask and answer to help us consider what works in immigration policy. However, one economist, Julie Fry, has given the issue a lot more consideration over the years in her work at Treasury and in her book with Hayden Glass, Going Places. More recently she and her colleague Peter Wilson developed a well-being framework to help us assess the impacts of immigration [PDF].

If we all rightly agree that life and well-being in New Zealand is about more than the money sloshing around the system (ie, its GDP), and perhaps we even agree about what we value for new and existing New Zealanders, then what specific information do we need to help us figure out some solid immigration policy?

So far Julie and Peter have come up with 12 areas of well-being to consider in immigration policy, set out in the table below. The idea is that we can set immigration policy on the basis of what we can and are willing to do to achieve positive outcomes in each area. In housing, for example, a positive outcome is described thus:

‘The economy should have the capacity to house all migrants and existing residents to a standard that is acceptable.”

The authors explain how that would work in practice:

We know that, in addition to strong internal migration to the upper North Island, many migrants will want to settle in Auckland. If Auckland cannot or chooses not to provide sufficient new housing (and associated infrastructure) to accommodate people to the standard that we consider acceptable (in terms of quality and price and environmental footprint), then migration should be reduced, since preventing migrants (or indeed anyone else) living in Auckland is likely to be impossible.”

–Fry and Wilson, 2017

Source: Fry & Wilson, 2017, Policy Quarterly

The framework is of course a work in progress. A lot more detail and discussion is required to develop it, and I imagine we will see some concrete metrics emerge in the next round of work. Even so far, it is a damn sight more constructive than the way we have talked about immigration policy to date.

Another thing I hope to see emerge is a greater focus on well-being for the new New Zealanders, not just existing ones. A measure of manaakitanga would be a fantastic way to consider the needs of the people coming in explicitly, and it would also show that we value Māori measures of well-being as much as non-Māori ones. In addition, I think we would do well to stop using ‘unskilled’ as a proxy for low paid, not educated to a tertiary level, or not having specific skills we need. Again, it’s all about how we talk and think about immigrants (and existing New Zealand workers). Instead of dismissing people as unskilled, we should focus on the specific skills and education areas we need, and those we do not.

We have to (re)start somewhere

We need a restart on immigration discussions. They have been fraught to date, and drawn too much on the language of racism, whether intentional or not. New Zealand is better than that. Discussing what we value and what matters in immigration will help. Having a decent framework for the issues that matter is a really good start, so let’s continue along this constructive track. I want to buy my undercrackers in a tolerant society that can talk more reasonably about this stuff.


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