Immigration is National's Think Big 2.0

by Graham Adams / 26 May, 2017
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 The Clyde Dam was one of Muldoon's Think Big projects. Will any political party move to hold back the number of immigrants coming to New Zealand? Photo / wikicommons

The government’s economic vision laid bare.

Four months away from September’s election, the National Party’s grand strategy has become clearer than ever: it will shamelessly backflip and adopt almost any opposition party policy that is proving popular — including the government building more houses — but it’s sticking with mass immigration, no matter how unpopular that position becomes.

Net immigration was a record 71,885 for the year until the end of April but no one in National is resiling from their policy of stuffing more and more people into the country, and into Auckland in particular.

As Simon Wilson noted on The Spinoff, Finance Minister Steven Joyce made it clear at the National Party’s northern regional conference in mid-May that high immigration was crucial for economic growth — “and, by implication, beyond debate”.

Newsroom has reported Bill English defending his party’s immigration policy during his recent trip to Hong Kong with a curiously circular argument: “We’ve got a lot of stuff to build over the next 10 years — thousands of houses, large infrastructure projects — so we need the skills coming in. That’s why we disagree with policies about shutting down migration… if we shut down migration, you won’t be able to get the houses built.”

The question remains: how much infrastructure would we have to build so urgently if the government wasn’t increasing the population so rapidly? And if we’re importing tradesmen to build houses, how many of them will be needed to house them? 

National appears indifferent to these questions although it is aware of the hostility to its programme. Consequently, in April, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse did some tinkering around income levels for skilled migrants but no one thinks his tweaks will stem the flood of newcomers — or that they were ever seriously intended to. The government has done the very least it can in order to appear to be doing something, hoping that will defuse its political liability in the run-up to the election.

This government is not for turning, at least not on immigration. Mass immigration is its key, overarching economic policy. A bigger New Zealand is the party’s 21st century version of Rob Muldoon’s Think Big energy programme in the 1980s.

It shores up support among businesses and farming organisations, which want demand kept artificially high and wages low. It also appeals to many house owners who have seen their dwellings catapulted into the ranks of the most expensive in the world and like it that way, no matter how many of their fellow citizens are locked out of owning a home of their own. And as the housing market in Auckland continues to flatline, they’ll be keen to see more immigration, not less.

The government and its acolytes have presented virtually no evidence that high non-citizen immigration confers any economic advantage apart from goosing GDP in the short-term. But it doesn’t really need to put forward any credible economic justification for the tide of humanity entering the country because it has so many willing cheerleaders in the media. They echo their employers’ point of view, who want to continue with the mass importations to keep their own businesses afloat, in large part through collecting advertising revenue from the artificially boosted housing market. The NZ Herald, in particular, presents a slew of pro-immigration articles and very rarely opposing voices (except in letters to the editor).

And there’s also the government’s fanboy Mike Hosking, who reckons Labour’s pledge to cut immigration by tens of thousands is “economically dangerous”, blaming the party’s stance on “xenophobia, and the fact it might be worth a few votes”.

But the biggest ally the government has is the young. They are so anxious not to be seen as racist they mostly don’t speak out against high levels of immigration, even though they are among the worst affected, in terms of imported competition for jobs and houses. They are entirely complicit in their own misfortune but either can’t see it or, if they do, don’t want to say so.

If immigration were slashed, it’s likely that house prices and rents would fall sharply. But the young suffer in silence.

Ironically, the role of agitating publicly for lower immigration on their behalf has fallen to older people, including Andrew Little (52), Gareth Morgan (64) and Winston Peters (72). They argue that we’re not giving young people a fair go by importing so many foreigners, but we rarely hear from young people themselves on the topic — and that includes aspiring politicians such as Chloe Swarbrick (22). Even though Green Party policy advocates restricting net immigration to 1 per cent of the population including returning New Zealanders, I have never heard Swarbrick promote it. But then again I’ve never heard her older Green colleagues promote it either.

Nevertheless, there is huge resentment against mass non-citizen immigration simmering beyond the public discussions, but it’s the nation’s curse that Winston Peters is the lightning rod for much of it. A man who is skilled in diagnosing society’s unspoken wishes, and bold enough to describe them publicly, also happens to be flaky. Even his own supporters sometimes suspect he will find the baubles of power so alluring after the election that his bottom lines — including immigration — will become instantly flexible.

Phil Goff hasn’t turned out to be any better. His manifesto for Auckland’s mayoralty included putting pressure on central government to “ease record migration levels to allow infrastructure development to catch up with growth in population. This can be achieved by slowing the issuing of temporary work visas currently running at over 209,000 a year or by lifting the threshold for permanent residency.”

Goff has gone quiet on this topic ever since being elected.

And so the immigration bandwagon rolls on, with all its attendant woes: clogged roads, overburdened hospitals, overflowing sewers, depressed wages, a big swathe of the population unable to buy a home — and some unable to find any shelter at all beyond a car or garage.

The government sees all these difficulties as someone else’s problems that can be swept under the carpet until they can’t be — and then they offer endless and predictable promises on the never-never: more social housing even as they are selling off existing stock; more roads to be built even if they manifestly can’t be built in time to cope with the swelling demand.

Mostly, the government shifts blame wherever it can: onto councils and their red tape; the last Labour administration; beneficiaries who are dragging us all down; the lazy, drug-addled, feckless young.

There won’t be an earth-shattering day of reckoning for this reckless immigration policy. Rather, one day we will wake up to find we have become the Argentina of the South Pacific — little by little worn down economically, as we slip further and further down the OECD ladder.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world, with an enviable per capita income. Its success was based on the immense wealth generated by its farms that was distributed among a relatively small population. In fact, there was a common saying: As rich as an Argentine.”

Then mass immigration turned Buenos Aires into a megalopolis, and the agricultural wealth had to be shared among millions of new inhabitants.

New Zealand is looking at a similar future if we keep on relentlessly expanding Auckland — a city that punches well below its weight in producing exports that ultimately determine our standard of living. It is becoming a financial drag on the productive provinces that provide the bulk of our export income, whether from produce or tourists.

Our farming sector and striking landscapes can provide enough export dollars to sustain a relatively small population in comfort, but adding more and more foreigners to work in Auckland’s old folks’ homes, service industries, stores and restaurants inexorably dilutes the average income.

We are certainly not getting the world’s best, as we were promised. As one economist told me recently: “Most of the people coming into New Zealand are simply using our country as a bolt-hole, capitalising on our reputation as a relatively unspoilt country presently occupied by 4.5 million good-natured fools.”

One day we will wake up to the fact that our indiscriminate immigration policy of quantity over quality has condemned us to being a low-wage economy forever, where rich foreigners own the best of our land and enterprise, and our children work in service industries at their pleasure.

National is no doubt hoping that a majority doesn’t wake up to this unfortunate fact before the election arrives.

It will also hope not too much attention is paid to the situation in the UK, which has a population 15 times larger than New Zealand but a level of net migration less than four times higher than ours — 273,000 versus 71,000 here. Yet the Brexit vote in 2016 was driven in large part by disquiet over immigration levels.

And Theresa May’s Conservative government has pledged to cut net immigration to 100,000 — or by nearly two-thirds. Which makes Labour’s plan to cut immigration by “tens of thousands” appear comparatively restrained.

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