Cutting 30,000 visas to certain foreign workers, students and graduates would stall New Zealand’s economic momentum, Bill English says.
However, growth is not migrant-dependent, the Prime Minister said as he tried to attack Labour’s immigration policy announcement.
English also argued National’s own recent tweaks to visa settings were not aimed at cutting inflows, rather that they focussed on changing the skills mix.
In comments defending National’s approach against a Labour stance that would “choke off” growth, English went as far as to say any foreign construction worker seeking a job in New Zealand would be allowed into the country.
Labour’s announcement Monday included a proposal to include a ‘KiwiBuild Visa’ which would allow up to 1,500 construction workers into the country at any one time.
This visa would allow construction firms to dodge labour market tests designed to ensure no locals are available for the job. In return, employers must pay the ‘living wage’ and promise to take on a local apprentice – funded by Labour’s Dole for Apprenticeships policy – for every migrant.
Labour’s policy announcement argued entrants under the category would complement construction workers continuing to enter the country under current settings.
Attacking the policy, English argued the announcement read as Labour proposing to cut construction migrant numbers from over 7,000 to 1,500 a year. Adding changes to student visas and post-study visas, this would “stall the economy.”
“It’ll deprive businesses of the skills they need to enable them to make the investments they want to make to grow New Zealand,” he said.
In contrast, English argued National was “up for the challenges of dealing with sustained success and growth for New Zealand.”
English was questioned on the comment, given National had only recently announced changes to immigration settings itself. He argued those moves would not mean reductions in the amount of migrants, particularly construction workers.
“At the moment, basically if they apply they get in.. if they go through the right process, yes,” English said when asked if under the current settings any foreign construction worker would be allowed into the country to work.
It was put to English that the National government’s changes had actually raised concern in the building industry, as the $48,000 wage floor meant it would be more difficult to find some workers, particularly Filipinos.
There had been a range of feedback on the proposals, and the government had some decisions to make, he said. The assertion was “much closer to reality” than what Labour was proposing, he said.
Meanwhile, English said 70-80% of students didn’t stay in the country after study. He claimed targeting students was more a political move by the Labour Party.
“They don’t actually buy houses and not a whole lot of them have cars, and most of them go back to the country that they came from when they’ve finished their study,” he said.
He attacked Labour for announcing the proposals while also calling for the economy's focus on commodities to be switched more to being knowledge-based. “Export education is as pure a knowledge export as you can get. And they’re setting out to shut it down.”
English argued immigration was not the only driving force for the economy “You grow by, for instance, by diversifying your export base, and Labour’s answer to that is to shut down one of the faster-growing export industries, which is about exporting education.”
Asked then how cutting migration by 30,000 would therefore stall the economy, he replied: “Growing the economy the way it’s growing right now needs a set of skills. We need people to build houses, we need people to build infrastructure.”
He raised an example from “the other day” where someone on a “large infrastructure site” told him some tenders coming out from councils for projects had no bidders because there wasn’t the capacity to do any more work than is currently being done.
“It is the longest, strongest construction boom and it’s going to go on for the next four or five years,” English said.
“We need these skills to build houses for the people who are here, now.”
A few years, ago the political discussion was on how many people were leaving New Zealand. He noted the “single biggest change” was more Kiwis coming home and fewer leaving. “We regard that as success and we’re willing to take on the challenges of investing and supporting that success.”