By Greg Ninness
Population growth from migration is running at its lowest level in two years, according to Statistics New Zealand’s latest quarterly migration figures.
These show there was net gain of 19,062 people from migration in the fourth quarter of last year, down 4.8% compared to the gain of 20,032 in Q4 2016 and just below the gain of 19,398 in Q4 2015 (all figures in this article refer to people arriving in or leaving the country for 12 months or more, or returning long term after an absence of 12 months or more).
However even bigger changes are occurring in the mix of people coming to and departing from NZ and that could have big implications for the Government's ability to tackle the housing crisis.
The main drivers of the decline have been a slight drop in the number of migrants arriving, and a big increase in the numbers of the same group leaving after an extended stay.
In the fourth quarter of last year there was a modest 2% drop in the number of citizens of countries other than NZ or Australia who arrived here, at 21,898 compared to 22,350 in Q4 2016.
At the same time there was a more significant rise in the number of the same group who departed long term, with 6554 departures in Q4 2017, up 23% compared to the same period of 2016, and up 44% compared to the same period of 2015.
So slightly fewer have been arriving, but quite a few more departing, which meant there was a net gain of 15,344 non-New Zealand and non-Australian citizens in Q4 2017, down 9.9% compared to the same period of 2016.
However the total net gain for the quarter was pushed up by the fact that there was also a net gain of 2845 New Zealand citizens and 873 Australian citizens during the quarter, giving a total net gain of 19,062, which was still down 4.8% compared to a year earlier.
But there are also some interesting trends emerging in the migration patterns of New Zealand and Australian citizens.
More New Zealand citizens are returning home after an extended absence and fewer are leaving long term.
In Q4 2017, 9891 New Zealand citizens arrived back compared to 9665 in Q4 2016, while 7046 departed long term (7414 in Q4 2016), which gave a net gain of 2845 in Q4 2017 compared to 2251 in Q4 2016.
A similar trend is evident for Australian citizens although the numbers are lower, with a net gain of 873 Australians in Q4 2017 compared to 753 in Q4 2017.
So there are two opposing trends.
More New Zealanders and Australians are arriving and fewer are leaving, while for citizens of other countries the reverse is true.
That could mean that the year-on-year decline in the total net gain of migrants from all sources which we have started seeing over the last few months, could be short lived.
The number of New Zealand citizens arriving home has been steadily rising since 2012 and is now the highest it has been in any quarter of any year since 1990, and has been surpassed only once since Statistics NZ’s published figures began in 1978.
At the same time, the number of New Zealanders leaving this country long term is declining, with the 7046 that departed in the fourth quarter of last year being the lowest it has been in any quarter of any year since 1993.
The combination of more New Zealand citizens arriving and fewer leaving meant the net gain of 2845 in Q4 2017 was the highest it has been in any quarter of any year since the start of Statistics NZ’s published records in 1978.
If that trend continues at pace, and/or the recent decline in the gain of citizens from other countries starts to slow, there’s a risk that the total gain from net migration could start pushing up again.
That’s a real risk for the Government.
Because even though the rate of population gain from migration has started to slowly decline, it is still running at levels that are putting real strain on infrastructure such as housing, transport and social services.
And although the Government has ambitious plans in areas such as housing, it will likely be at least two years before we start to see significant results from those plans, and probably longer.
So if migration starts tracking up again, there’s a danger the government could be heading into the next election with a housing crisis that’s worse than the one it inherited.