Ganesh Nana, the Productivity Commission chair. (Image supplied)
Ganesh Nana, the Productivity Commission chair. (Image supplied)

The BulletinNovember 8, 2021

The cost of rapid population growth

Ganesh Nana, the Productivity Commission chair. (Image supplied)
Ganesh Nana, the Productivity Commission chair. (Image supplied)

Productivity Commission chair says NZ needs a better strategy for immigration, from building more homes to ensuring communities have capacity to absorb arrivals, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

A new approach to immigration is needed. New Zealand’s rate of immigration before the Covid-19 pandemic was unsustainable and a rethink is needed, the Productivity Commission has concluded in the preliminary findings of its inquiry into the country’s immigration system. While the full report won’t be finished until next year, commission chair Ganesh Nana spoke with The Bulletin about what’s been found so far.

“Clearly what we have signalled in our work is that the level of migration in the immediate pre-Covid era was unsustainable given the absorptive capacity of the country. We could not continue, unless we are willing to make the investment in that capacity: housing, public transport, water infrastructure”, he said.

We might not need an annual cap on migration numbers, but we need a conversation. One of the main issues highlighted by the commission is a deep disconnect between the country’s relatively high levels of immigration and its ability to absorb newcomers. New Zealand needs to align its policies at the government and council levels with the number of new workers and families it accepts. I asked Nana why there hasn’t been much of a conversation on the issue:

“I suppose that’s fair because we’ve never had that opportunity and this is the first time long-term immigration has been looked at in 30 years. One of our recommendations is a government policy statement on immigration and while that might sound bureaucratic, it’s one avenue to set the objectives for immigration and tie in other objectives, be they infrastructure, climate change and skills training. It encourages a public debate”, he said.

New Zealand’s immigration is also ‘very peculiar’. The country had some of the highest number of migrants arriving per capita before the pandemic, but it also had very high levels of departures. Somewhere around 18% of New Zealanders live overseas, about one million people. As a sign of how significant that is, only about 2% of Americans live overseas, or 9% of Canadians. Making issues more complicated for the New Zealand government, there’s been steady traffic across the Tasman as people leave for Australia. According to Nana, it makes the immigration system difficult to manage and means that the actual number of migrants doesn’t end up reflecting any true government policy.

More of an effort needs to be made to work the Te Tiriti o Waitangi into immigration policy. The treaty is a document that has a lot to do with immigration and the crown has a duty to protect Māori interests, according to Nana. It could be a statement or policy, but the treaty needs to be recognised and respected as part of the immigration process, the commission has concluded.

“We want to attract migrants who are prepared to commit to Aotearoa New Zealand for the long-term and one of those elements could be whether they are committed to learning te reo,” said Nana.

The immigration system should be more transparent about who can stay. It’s part of the debate the country needs to have, but there should be a clearer distinction for migrants about which are temporary and have no pathway to residency and which do, Nana said. Some of the current categories under which people migrate create expectations of permanent residency that can’t be fulfilled and that’s bad for the country’s reputation.

I asked him if making some people only temporary workers would make New Zealanders uncomfortable. That would mean some people would be asked to pay to migrate here, work here and create links with the community, but they’ll eventually need to leave with no possibility of staying.

“That was the problem in the pre-Covid era”, he said. Some people, maybe informed by dodgy consultants overseas, came here under the wrong impression they could work and stay, when they couldn’t. “We could say we’re comfortable with that and we want to be clear that people need to leave, or we could also say that we don’t like that and we want to go down the route of permanent migration.”


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