Paul Spoonley: The immigration debate is sending a dangerous message

OPINION: The immigration debate at the moment is sending a message to those who might be thinking about coming to New Zealand: we don't value you.

The political rhetoric might actually damage our international reputation as being a welcoming and tolerant country.

I always anticipated that National and Labour would take a firm position on immigration in an election year, simply because they will want to deny Winston Peters an audience.

But what we've seen is a very rapid move to essentially demonise immigrants as though they are the only or the main cause of problems like the cost of housing in Auckland.

Immigration is one of only a number of factors in contributing to housing affordability, and politicians are beginning to simplify the debate and attributing too much responsibility to immigration. Any suggestion that immigration is to primarily blame for the high cost of housing is quite wrong.

Why haven't we got the infrastructure required or the housing supply right by now? Why haven't we got labour supply and labour skills right? These are questions which have often got very little to do with immigrants but a lot to do with how we anticipate demand and prepare to respond in terms of supply. Immigration is part of the mix but let's not either see it as the only answer or cause.

The National Party, having made immigration policy changes recently, could help by clarifying what it thinks this is all going to achieve.

In terms of Labour, I found the initial suggestion that the number of immigrants would be cut by tens of thousands of people very puzzling. I know that Andrew Little has walked that back a bit but it's still not clear to me why you would make an announcement about making substantial cuts to immigrant numbers without having the policy details and the numbers worked out before such an announcement.

I've been very disappointed with the level of the debate generally, and then there's Winston. Having seen his traditional territory being claimed by National and Labour, he seems to have adopted a rather extreme position.

Of course, we need to have a discussion about immigration because it's now very important to this country, in terms of both its social and economic impacts. It has been a very significant contributor to our recent economic success and we need to make sure that we're getting the right immigrants, and that they're contributing as we hope they would.

The very high numbers have raised concerns. The discussion's been skewed by the fact that the number of immigrants - particularly the number of permanent immigrants and the net migration gain – has been at an historic high over the last three years. 

That's encouraged some anxiety and prompted politicians to respond to these anxieties. But immigration is a complex beast. There are a lot of visa categories in terms of how people arrive, live, work and settle in New Zealand. I don't think it's particularly helpful that it gets simplified to a few headlines.

The current 72,000 net gain is a little too high in my view and it's probably putting pressure on some of our systems and infrastructure. But if we want to reset policy settings, which categories and pathways should we be looking at? And if we cut, do we put our economy, employers and some activities at risk – and make it tough for immigrants?

International education at the moment is worth $4 billion to this country and 30,000 jobs are associated with the sector. There is a case for cutting some of the low-value qualifications, particularly some basic English language acquisition programmes or some low-level sector courses such as in hospitality. We should move towards higher quality offerings and therefore higher quality students.

We've already seen a decline of 4000 in the numbers of international students arriving according to the latest arrival statistics, but that's been more than countered by the increase of 5000 in terms of work visas. The latter is largely a response to growing skill shortages in this country. Take construction in Auckland or Christchurch as an example, where there simply is not enough labour supply in those cities to meet current demand.

If we start talking about cutting the number of immigrants, especially those in the work visa category, we've got to be very careful we don't actually disadvantage our employers or our economy.

Finally, I wonder whether the political parties have really thought about the fact that Auckland is a key site in this election year. Do they fully appreciate that 40 percent of Aucklanders are immigrants and that, when you also include their children, they make up almost 60 percent of the city's population?

They are going to be critical in deciding who wins – and who loses – in Auckland.

What message is being sent to them, and what is to be gained from appearing to be anti-immigrant in terms of these immigrant communities?

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley is the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Massey University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences and a research leader on the Capturing the Diversity Dividend of Aotearoa New Zealand research programme.