When David Parker first announced that Labour intended to use immigration as a tool to ease housing and inflationary pressure, I was somewhat concerned. Firstly, Governments are notoriously bad at planning long-term, and immigration targets aren’t something that can be easily adjusted on a year by year or six-monthly basis, depending on new house price and inflation data. Secondly, everyone seems to be operating blind on what effect immigration even has on local house prices and inflation – the data just isn’t there.
An additional concern was the ability for the debate to slide into Winston Peters territory. And sure enough, David Cunliffe soon pulled out his dog whistle, to the consternation of most Labour activists. “It would take 80% of our housing supply just to accommodate this year’s migrants – and National is doing nothing,” intoned Mr Cunliffe.
The problem for Cunliffe was that he laid out some fairly hefty immigration targets – getting net migration numbers down from over 40,000 currently to between 5,000 and 15,000 – before realising that there was no possible way he could do that, given that the bulk of the immigration blow out has been caused by fewer Kiwis leaving the country, more returning, and more Australians coming here to live and work as the Aussie economy goes down the sinkhole. Cunliffe immediately backtracked on the idea of a finite target, and has instead resorted to waffle about “sustainable flows of migrants”, without providing any sort of indication about what he considers a sustainable flow to be.
Since then, Labour have been unable to provide any figures regarding where cuts to immigration would be made. Somewhat embarrassingly, when definite statements have been made about specific categories of immigration that would be targeted, those statements have soon been contradicted.
For example, on 28 May the Dominion Post reported Labour’s immigration spokesperson, Trevor Mallard, as saying that Labour would target the number of migrants getting work visas, as well as visas in the family reunification category. However, by yesterday, David Cunliffe was on Radio Live telling Sean Plunket, “Yep, we’ll leave family reunification out of it”.
So that leaves those arriving on work visas. According to Statistics NZ, there were about 30,000 last year, which means that if Labour slashed their numbers, they could bring net migration down to a “sustainable level”. But there’s two problems here. Firstly, how many people on work permits buy houses? I wouldn’t have thought there’d be many – but wait a minute, that’s right, we don’t have any data on that… Secondly, if those migrants are coming here to work, that’s a lot of tax that’s not going to be paid and a lot of economic activity that won’t occur. Labour had better be pretty damned sure about the level of excess inflationary pressure it aims to alleviate and just how much of an effect such a cut in work visas would have.
The other area of immigration that Labour has definitely signalled it will look at is the Investor and Investor Plus categories – those controversial categories where if you pay enough money, you get residence. Unfortunately, the numbers of those entering New Zealand as part of those categories is minuscule – 21 Investor Plus applicants and 99 Investor applicants. Frankly, I can’t see the axing of 120 millionaire immigrants per year having much effect on inflationary pressure or house prices. (That’s not to say that the English language requirements shouldn’t be tightened up, but that’s a different issue.)
The more statements Cunliffe and Mallard make on immigration, the more it looks as if they’re simply making it all up as they go along, which isn’t particularly comforting.