The anti-immigrant and protectionist sentiments that got Donald Trump, Theresa May, and Malcom Turnbull elected in their countries could easily be visited here. New Zealand has remained isolated from anti-immigrant sentiment compared to what we have seen it in U.S., E.U., and U.K. elections of recent years. But with such high inbound numbers we are at high risk this will change.It matters to New Zealand, because whether it’s super-rich Mr Thiel or a struggling Syrian refugee, people really, really want to live here.
It matters to the global left broadly, because immigration is the global left’s Achilles heel. We can’t be afraid of the debate.
None of the three biggest political parties – National, Labour, or Green, have challenged the consensus of at least the last 15 years that New Zealand needed plenty of unskilled migrants to push the economy along. In sentiment terms, we are all descended from migrants, so door-open policies are consistent with that.
I work in an industry that requires global expertise, working on huge, expensive, and complex infrastructure. That expertise is rarely found in New Zealand, since to make their careers such specialists go where the continuous work for them is. We can’t stop the need for skilled migrants.
Net migration alone is increasing New Zealand’s population by more than 1% per year at the moment and that’s before natural population growth adds to the pressures. And not all migrants are the same. The breakdown for approved residencies from 2010 2016 is: 70% business or skill category, 21% family category, and 9% humanitarian. These days, the Skilled Migrant points required have gone up to 160,and two investor-class migrants have to invest $3M!
In 1979 we used to get most of our inbound from the Pacific Islands – now it’s about 30%. We used to get about 5,000 a year from Europe – now it’s 20,000. And from tiny numbers previously, we get over 40,000 a year from Asia. But only a fraction of all of them are permanent.
But maybe the wave feels so big so fast now that the statistical breakdowns no longer matter. Which is when it really starts to get political.
Back in 2015, the OECD concluded that “Rapid population growth and a low responsiveness of supply have led to housing and urban infrastructure constraints.” If anything, it’s got worse since then.
Apparently we’re heading for over 5 million people here within a decade.
More roads become needed, more rail, more health spending, more housing becomes needed, and with that, the need for more taxes and rates to pay for it. Either productivity has to go up fast and helps expand the economy and hence the tax base, or rates and taxes and national debt will have to go up to cover all those costs. That means costs for taxpayers and ratepayers alike because of the infrastructure costs.
For Labour, the immigration debate is the new Third Rail, because for many elections, new immigrants have backed them solidly. For National, they represent sorely needed domiciled investment capital, as much as it means Phillipino cockies in Southland. For Greens, they represent demand on our resources.
I can’t find good evidence to show that migrants are taking Kiwi’s jobs. But really high immigration suppresses wage growth: why pay more for locals when you can just import them? Wage growth has been much lower than everyone expected in the last three years, at least partially due to strong net migration soaking up the pressure that would otherwise have been applied to wages. That in turn makes it so much easier to undercut remaining union bargaining power, every year.
Of course we don’t need a wall when there’s thousands of kilometres of ocean there. Yet as Richard Burton intoned in the famous radio version of The War of the Worlds, ‘But still, they come.”
The left has to face the immigration debate before its globally powerful agenda engulfs us as it has almost every other strong democracy in the world.