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Expedition 42
Expedition 42

SocietyJune 12, 2017

With the election looming, a new poll reveals New Zealanders’ views on immigration

Expedition 42
Expedition 42

Immigration politics are coming to New Zealand – but are we ready? David Hall introduces some fascinating new survey data.

New Zealanders are facing a great flood, a tsunami of immigration politics that will submerge us all in the lead-up to the election. Wellington will turn on the tap of water-based metaphors. Auckland will burst at the seams with dog-whistles. Are you prepared?

I’ve written for The Spinoff twice before, both times loosely about the politics of immigration. The first time was one week before the UK’s referendum on EU membership, where I described how the politics of immigration were tilting voters toward Brexit. The second time was January this year, where I described the turn toward harder borders in the UK, the US and elsewhere. With a general election due, would New Zealand follow suit?

My answer then was that it would depend on how anxious New Zealand voters are about immigration and its supposed effects. And how anxious are New Zealand voters? Well – thanks to this survey by UMR Research, we have a better idea. Here is a handful of observations from the data.

Generally, people in New Zealand are positive toward immigration but…

People living in New Zealand – on the whole – are more favourable toward immigration than not. Given that New Zealand is commonly conceived as “a nation of immigrants”, that’s what you might hope for.

But – and this is a fairly big “but” – this weighting toward positive views of immigration is partly driven by migrants. If you separate out New Zealand citizens and long-term residents from recent migrants (in this survey that means non-citizens in New Zealand for less than five years), then attitudes toward immigration look more equivocal. Indeed, you see a pattern that looks roughly similar to the UK in recent years.

In 2014, think tank British Future used this same question to assess British attitudes about immigration. They found roughly a 25:50:25 split. In other words, about half of all Brits held strong opinions about immigration, one way or the other, with one quarter strongly negative about migration (0-2) and the other quarter strongly positive (8-10). The other half British Future describes as “the anxious middle” (3-7) with conflicted beliefs and feelings about immigration. As recent UK politics demonstrate, this middle section can tip one way or the other depending on how the issue is framed, on wider social circumstances, or the influence of external events.

For their analysis, UMR used slightly different groupings: the sceptics are 0-3, the ambivalent middle is 4-6, the liberals are 7-10. But among New Zealand citizens, the basic distribution is much the same, albeit with a slight tilt toward openness. Perhaps this goes some way to explain why surveys often paint a relatively rosy picture about New Zealand attitudes toward immigrants, especially by comparison to other countries, even when anecdotal evidence suggests that anti-immigrant sentiment is an enduring presence in New Zealand society. There remains a solid flank of about a quarter of New Zealand citizens who regard immigration very negatively.

Younger New Zealanders lean towards a more open and accommodating approach to migration

One trend that runs throughout the UMR survey is that younger New Zealanders lean toward openness and accommodation on migration. Compared to the over-60 demographic, for example, 18–29 year olds are half as likely to think you need to be born in New Zealand to be a “true New Zealander” (21% versus 40%), half as likely to think migrants should abandon practices that New Zealanders deem “wrong or offensive” (24% versus 47%), much more relaxed about English language proficiency, and generally much less likely to agree with various complaints about immigration such as reduced cultural cohesion, sense of belonging, urban segregation, crime, and risk of terrorism.

What drives this intergenerational difference? Here’s three possible explanations. The first is the widely noted trend that, on average, people become more politically conservative as they get older. In terms of migration, it’s a rewrite of that old saw: “If you don’t believe in open borders before you’re thirty, you have no heart; but if you don’t believe in closed borders after thirty, you have no head.”

The second explanation is that younger New Zealanders are inherently more cosmopolitan than earlier generations. This is feasible given the relative ease and affordability of international travel, greater contact with other cultures via the Internet, the growing proportion of second-generation migrants among younger New Zealanders, and a burgeoning culture of acceptance of diversity. If there’s any truth to this – a larger historical trend toward cosmopolitan ideals – then policy makers should be asking themselves who to design the nation’s borders for. Should migration policy serve the preferences of a generation who recall how things were forty years ago? Or should migration policy serve the preferences of the generation who must live with policy changes (and their impacts) for the next forty-plus years? Indications of a strong youth turnout for the UK Labour Party last week – which ran on a policy of removing the immigration target that Theresa May introduced as Home Secretary in 2010 – shows that youth concerns cannot be dismissed entirely.

We’re on a trend toward more temporary migration – but public support isn’t unequivocal

While there’s a lot of talk about total volume of migration, there is less talk about its changing nature. But this is, arguably, the bigger story.

Over the last two decades, net migration levels have gone up and down and now up again. A more stable trend is the growing proportion of temporary visas. Francis Collins at University of Auckland describes how, over the last two decades, approvals for residence visas have remained fairly steady between 40,000 to 50,000, whereas approvals for temporary work visas rose from 30,000 to nearly 200,000, about a 600% increase. In his view, the National Government’s proposed changes to migration policy will reinforce this trend, which in turn will accelerate the “flexibilisation” of the labour market – with implications for all New Zealanders.

To get a sense of people’s preferences on this, the UMR survey included the following question …

Of course, real world policy choices need not be so stark, but this question splits respondents in interesting ways. Again, age is an issue, with older voters clearly favouring New Zealand’s present policy trajectory: higher levels of temporary immigration with limited access to social benefits. This is also the preference for National and New Zealand First voters, to a strikingly similar degree (72% and 73% respectively).

But younger respondents and Greens voters lean in the other direction, preferring a reduction of numbers in exchange for more secure migrant outcomes. So too do recent migrants, prioritising security over volume at a ratio of 64:36, almost perfectly the inverse of what New Zealand citizens favour (38:62).

Recent migrants are more amenable than New Zealand citizens to Māori consultation on migration policy

Just over half of all respondents disagreed with the notion that Māori should be consulted on migration policy, which could be inferred from the principle of partnership in the Treaty of Waitangi. Notably, though, recent migrants were much more amenable to Māori consultation than the national average: 46 per cent agreed to Māori consultation with 30 per cent opposed and 23 per cent unsure. By contrast, 33 per cent of New Zealand citizen agreed while 53 per cent disagreed. Unsurprisingly, Māori themselves were the demographic most inclined to support consultation at 56 per cent.

This trend held steady on a related question. Respondents were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed (from 1 to 10) with the following statement: “People who want to live here should have to declare their commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi.” Only 28 per cent of New Zealand citizens strongly agreed (1-2) with this statement, whereas 40 per cent of recent migrants did. Additionally, 47 per cent of Māori and 49 per cent of Pacific Islanders strongly agreed.

These findings imply that recent migrants would not wholly oppose more Māori involvement in designing migration policy. It also implies that the major hurdle lies among New Zealand citizens who aren’t Māori or Pacific Island. This is worth bearing in mind, in coming months, if anyone starts saying that our bicultural framework is failing because of multiculturalism. Because it isn’t new migrants that manage our borders, and it isn’t Māori choosing not to be consulted. Responsibility lies with the other half of the bicultural partnership: with Pākehā.

Many New Zealanders want to talk more about immigration.

Just over half of respondents want to talk more about migration. But what exactly they want to talk about is another question.

Recent migrants are more cautious. A quarter think we already discuss immigration too much and only one-third think not enough. This suggests that migrants are somewhat more worried than citizens that New Zealand would make a hash of its great debate on immigration, that it would cause more harm than good. Given that New Zealand First voters are the most enthusiastic to talk more about migration (65%), that fear is not unwarranted. The fact that Greens supporters aren’t far behind, however ­– even though Greens supporters are largely liberal on migration – suggests that this public sentiment is more complex than this question captures.

One strand of this complexity is the majority of respondents (57%) who agree that: “It’s hard to discuss immigration without sounding racist.” Again, this finding is somewhat inscrutable: it could be capturing both denials and acknowledgements of the prevalence of racism in migration debates. But I note that the groups least likely to agree with the above statement are recent migrants (42%), Asians (43%), students (40%) and 18–29 year olds (46%). Perhaps that’s a sign of optimism, or perhaps a sign that they know how not to be racist.

There is a significant level of misunderstanding about migration policy

As I hinted above, it isn’t unreasonable to be wary of a great national debate on migration. The UMR survey shows a significant level of inaccuracy in beliefs about migration policy in New Zealand. And false beliefs in public debates – especially about immigration – are politically volatile.

For example, more than half of respondents (55%) believe that New Zealand has “a cap on the total number of people from overseas who are allowed to come and live here.” But New Zealand does not have an immigration cap – which is why parties such as the Greens and New Zealand First are proposing establishing one. In this light, how should we interpret public support for immigration caps? To what extent do people understand what they are endorsing, or how it differs from our existing border regime?

Knowledge of New Zealand’s refugee quota is also weak. Currently, our quota is 750 refugees per year and due to raise to 1,000 in 2018. However nearly half of respondents thought that it is already over 1,000 – with nearly a quarter (24%) assuming that it is more than 10 times this number.

These results need to be treated with some caution. The framing of questions can induce response bias. Nevertheless, so too can clever political framings. If people succumb to bias in a survey, then they’re liable also to be seduced by the “alternative facts” of silver-tongued politicians. And a national debate on migration policy is hardly worth having if it starts from shaky factual foundations.

For all that, we are largely perceived as a welcoming bunch

For all this ambivalence, New Zealand appears to be fairly welcoming. So much so that recent migrants are more prone to think this than New Zealand citizens. More than half (56%) of recent migrants rate New Zealand as very welcoming whereas just under half (49%) of New Zealand citizens think the same thing.

Can New Zealand make it through to the September 23 election without scotching that reputation? We shall soon see …


Results in this report are based upon questions asked in a stand-alone UMR online survey. The survey was a nationally representative sample of 1,000 New Zealanders, 18 years of age and over. To improve accuracy amongst migrants, oversampling was undertaken on a total sub-sample of n=150. The full sample was weighted to ensure immigrants were not overrepresented in the overall results.

The survey was conducted from 16th to 21st May 2017.

The margin of error for sample size of 1,000 for a 50% figure at the 95% confidence level is ±3.1%.

David Hall is Senior Researcher at The Policy Observatory, AUT, and editor of Fair Borders? Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century published today by BWB Texts

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