Immigration could be a key election battleground

  • 21/04/2017

Labour's pledge to cut immigration by "tens of thousands, every year" is a big call by leader Andrew Little.

He's making it an election issue, and if there's a change of government he's going to have to put his money where his mouth is.

Here's what he said on Newshub on Thursday when he was asked about the 2016 net migration figure of 70,600:

"Well, we can't do (have) 70,000. We have typically had inward migration, net migration, of about 20,000 to 25,000, you want to target that sort of level.

"But you have got to have flexibility because there will be times when you need more people coming in with skills we don't have, and there will be times when the economy slows down, when there are unemployed, as we've got at the moment, and you have to give locals a chance."

He's not talking about minor changes to current policy. That remark about targeting a level of between 20,000 and 25,000 means slashing immigration by at least half.

Little is looking for votes, and he'll probably get them if Labour's soon-to-be-released immigration policy shows the party means business.

The Government has always been reluctant to cut immigration because it's a big factor in the country's healthy economic growth.

But it's also a big factor in the housing shortage, particularly in Auckland where most migrants go, and the city's chronic transport problems.

According to New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who has been campaigning on immigration for a lot longer than Labour, it's also responsible for the over-stretched health system, crowded schools, and a variety of other social ills.

A third of the country's voters live in Auckland, and Labour will be looking for a response from them.

Little's simple message that immigration must be cut by "tens of thousands, every year" runs alongside his party's other clear-cut policy of building 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years.

Whether it could actually achieve either may be questionable, but they sound good and they're in stark contrast to the Government's approach.

It has numerous schemes on the go to deliver more affordable homes without actually building any itself, and this week's changes to immigration rules were no more than tweaks.

They were about "controlling the number and quality" of migrants by setting an income threshold for highly skilled newcomers, new visa time limits and tighter regulations for family members.

They're intricate and not easily understood by anyone who doesn't have the time or inclination to study them.

And it isn't clear how much of an impact, if any, the changes will have on the actual number of immigrants.

Peters poured scorn on the announcement.

"It's just a dog whistle to show they're doing something... they are taking notice of their polls and realise Kiwis have had enough of the country being flooded with unskilled foreign workers," he said.

Little is on to that as well.

"The area we're going after is the 42,000 work visas that are issued," he said.

"When you see that 6000 of those were issued for people to do labouring work when we've got 15,000 out of work labourers, that doesn't make sense."

If this issue gets real traction between now and the election, the Government is going to have to do a lot more than tweak the system.