By Bernard Hickey
The Green Party has shaken up the migration debate with a policy that would significantly reduce current levels of net migration, albeit through a target on total population growth rather than net migration itself.
Co-Leader James Shaw has proposed changing migration settings in a dynamic way to ensure the population grew 1% per year, rather than the 2% growth seen last year.
Shaw announced the policy in an interview with Lisa Owen on The Nation on Saturday (see video above).
"We think that the country needs a more sustainable immigration policy, so what we would do is to set a variable approvals target based on a percentage of the overall population, and so that would be at about 1% of the population, which is historically how fast New Zealand’s population has grown," Shaw said.
"So what we would do is we’d say, well, if you look at a period like at the moment, when you’ve got lots of Kiwis coming home and not many leaving, then the number of approvals would be much lower, and in other years it would be much higher," he said.
Given the current population, that would imply population growth of around 45,000, including the migration home and away of New Zealanders to and from overseas, which cannot be restricted, along with natural population growth. Shaw said the 1% population growth policy would mean that net migration of non-New Zealand citizens would therefore be around 17,000 to 20,000 migrants this year, down from the current net migration of around 70,000.
Currently close to NZ First target
New Zealand First's current policy is for net migration of around 10,000 to 15,000.
New Zealand's population actually grew 2.0% last year, including growth through net migration of around 1.5% and natural population growth of 0.5%. There were a net 2,588 New Zealand citizens who emigrated in the year to August, down from 28,375 in the year to August 2013, while the number of temporary work visa and student visa migrants rose by 22,254 to 65,737 over the same period.
"The whole idea here is to try and smooth out the peaks and troughs," Shaw said.
"If you look at government policy, what they do is they try and say, well, there should be about 45-55,000 a year, but that sits on top of movements in the general population, which is why you have these big peaks and troughs," he said. "And that’s why people are getting concerned about it this year – because it’s having an outsize impact on house prices, on infrastructure and on wages, actually."
Shaw said the numbers coming in under such a variable migration target could rise to 30,000 if the net migration of New Zealanders was to return to previous levels. He rejected suggestions of a hard stop to migration from levels of around 70,000 now down to 30,000 or 17,000.
"You’d need to manage it down slowly, so we wouldn’t say that next year it should suddenly drop by that amount. What you want is to sort of smooth it down so that we get back to the kind of sustainable population growth that we’ve had over the past few decades," he said.
House price effect?
Shaw said such a drop would not necessarily have a big impact on house prices.
"Changes in migration flows to the equivalent of 1% of population actually push up house prices by about 6-12%, so it’s significant and noticeable, but it’s not 100%," he said. "It’s not a huge outside number. If you smooth that number down, you’re gonna put less pressure on house prices the way that we’ve seen over the course of the last sort of 12-24 months." Shaw said he'd talked to Labour about the policy, "and they seem comfortable with the idea."
Fewer overseas student places?
He did not give specifics on exactly which parts of the migration mix would be tweaked to achieve the 1% population growth, given the Government now has a planning range for permanent residency of 85,000 to 95,000 for the next two years, but does not have targets or caps for temporary work visas or student visas. Last week it temporarily suspended parental visa applications and lowered the planning range by 5,000. It is also reviewing work testing for work visas and student visa numbers.
A variable migration target implies constant tweaking of targets for permanent residency visas, both for skilled migrants and their families, along with targets for temporary work visas and student visas. Some elements cannot be controlled, including net migration of New Zealand citizens and working holidaymaker visas, given New Zealand has bilateral agreements with many countries that allow unfettered movements of such visas.
Shaw suggested student visas as one area that could be changed.
"We think that the government is actually barking up the wrong tree by putting the pressure on the family category," he said.
"There’s huge numbers of students that are coming into New Zealand on temporary work visas and that’s actually where a lot of the pressure is coming from, especially on housing and on transport infrastructure."
New Zealand First put out a self-congratulatory press release after Shaw's announcement, and accused Shaw of hypocrisy.
"The Greens have always stood on a pedestal, looking down their noses, claiming the high moral ground as New Zealand First warned that immigration was strangling our public services, cutting Kiwis out of jobs, and helping push house prices up," Peters said.
“What a turnaround we saw today. The party that claims it’s for as much diversity in the population as we can get reveals there are problems with a soaring population," he said.
“Who will call who racist and xenophobic now? It appears the Greens, like Labour, have had a Road to Damascus experience on policies they pushed for decades. But you simply can’t trust them."
Woodhouse has no new numbers of abandoned parents
Meanwhile, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse admitted in an interview on The Nation that the Government's decision to suspend parental applications was not made on fresh data on the number of parents being abandoned here by their children and going on to cost "tens of millions" in welfare costs.
Woodhouse said the Government would review the numbers as part of a review of its policy while applications were suspended.
"When the parent category was last reviewed, what we did see was that the health care costs by them were about three times higher than in, for example, the skilled migrants," he said.
"We also saw that there were very high levels of income support, both two years and five years after they came here. I can’t remember the exact numbers in millions of cost of income support, but we will be updating and analysing that as part of the review," he said.