By Alex Tarrant
Bill English is shrugging off criticism from some of the National Party’s most supportive sector stalwarts over last week’s immigration policy.
Having the terms “fallen on deaf ears” and “disappointed” (twice!) thrown at National over policy usually wouldn’t raise any eyebrows. But when Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ both have a beef with National over the same issue, then it shouldn’t be ignored.
The criticism comes at an interesting time. While most of the attention of the last few days’ polling results has focussed on Labour’s woes, National is also down in a couple of them – over two points (but within the margin of error) to 45.2% in the Newshub-Reid Research one on Monday (although unchanged at 47% in the 1 News poll Sunday).
Remember, National needs at least 47% to get back in with current partners, ACT, UnitedFuture and the Maori Party if their votes hold. Else, it’s English’s old mate Winston Peters. Another one to note: English’s preferred Prime Minister rating was also down on Monday, from a net 43% in June to 26% in July.
As the election approaches, English should be able to blindly rely on support from players like the Feds and Dairy NZ. Lack of criticism would imply he’s doing alright by National’s rural support base. Now, we shouldn’t be alarmist - it doesn’t look like there’s any risk of a large farmer exodus from that support base (who would they turn to?) - but it doesn’t look pretty a few months out from an election that this mud is being hurled by friends.
Trouble down the cow shed
In April, National announced several potential changes to immigration policy. To enter New Zealand under a Skilled Migrant Category visa, a worker would be considered sufficiently skilled if they earned more than $48,000 and had a job in the top three skills levels as rated by Immigration NZ.
Other changes meant those less lucky would only be allowed in for three years, without family, face annual reviews and a two-year stand-down outside the country at the end before being allowed back in again.
This annoyed the farming lobby – most farm workers (everyone apart from Mr Farmer and his manager below him) were classed below level three on the skills lists. The lobby, along with tourism, horticulture and hospitality bosses, told the government that these were bad proposals. Three years would be spent training someone up, then they’d have to leave.
Not to fear, English and Immigration Michael Woodhouse said. They’ll tweak the policy. A huge sigh of relief from these sectors – until they were told last week what the changes were. A reduction from $48,000 to a $41,000 floor was the key change. Problem was, farm workers were still classed outside the top three skills levels.
The Feds, in quite a strongly worded press release for them, used terms like “we are disappointed” and “fallen on deaf ears” in a response headed “Government’s Fiddling With Immigration Doesn’t Help Rural NZ.”
Dairy NZ was also “disappointed” by the announcement. But they did say they were looking forward to seeing how the government would tackle the skills list problem – Woodhouse promised to review this, although details were scarce.
English on Monday said the system used to determined how skilled a job was, “isn’t particularly flexible.” So, there will be ongoing discussion about whether farm worker categories can be bumped up the lists.
Speaking at his post-Cabinet press conference, English said he wasn’t surprised about criticism that the government wasn’t running a loose enough system for everybody. It was the government’s job to find the right balance, and industry groups weren’t necessarily concerned with that having to happen.
He wheeled off a list of industries that were affected by the original proposals: Farming, hospitality, the rest home industry, horticulture, freighting/trucking operators, contractors, builders “all indicated concerns.”
Some would be happy, some not so happy. That’s not surprising. What is though, is who’s not so happy this close to an election. English will be hoping Woodhouse is able to get the announcement out about changing those skill set lists soon. Having National enter a campaign without support from the farming lobby would be like Labour going in without any union backing.