National 'singing from a very different song sheet' on immigration post-election - Labour

By Craig McCulloch and Russell Palmer of RNZ

The Labour Party has conceded immigration settings may need to be tightened, but rejects National's criticism of its record.

Speaking on Morning Report on Monday, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon described the system as "a complete hash" which had gone from being "way too restrictive to way too loose" under Labour.

The latest migration figures are expected to be published on Tuesday, with the last update showing a record net gain of 118,800 in the year to September.

Labour's new immigration spokesperson Phil Twyford said Luxon's comments were "a little surprising" given National's calls over the past year.

"They were incessantly calling on Labour to loosen the rules, to bring more people in, to make it easier to bring in workers on temporary visas, so they're singing from a very different song sheet now."

Twyford defended the Labour government's record, saying ministers had opened up settings "for the good of the economy" given the acutely tight labour market.

"You've got to remember we were coming off the most extreme skill shortages that we've seen in memory.

"It probably is about time for striking a better balance. The indications from the data are that those skill shortages have largely been resolved."

Green Party immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said National had been "hypocritical" in its approach and urged it against treating migrants as "expendable economic units".

"Political parties should be taking a step back and instead thinking about the lack of long-term planning when it comes to infrastructure," he said.

"The key conversation National should be having is not about treating migrants like economic units, but rather about things like: How do we make sure our migrant workforce is able to stay... rather than recycling people back and forth based on short-term needs."

He said terms like "opening the floodgates" were an anti-immigration dogwhistle, and called for the party to honour its pre-election commitments.

"The National Party spoke about the need to have a more streamlined immigration system when it came to residential pathways, and they need to honour those commitments now that they're in government."

Green Party immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March.
Green Party immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March. Photo credit: Ricardo Menéndez March / Facebook

Policy advice firm Iron Duke Partners managing director Phil O'Reilly, a former BusinessNZ chief executive, was reassured by the approach the new government seemed to be taking.

He told RNZ the net migration figures seen now "probably feel too loose if it carries on forever", but the government should be focusing on targeting workforce need rather than a specific number.

"The question is not whether there's too many people coming in, it's whether the right people are coming in to fill those gaps that employers need, and other things like family reunification."

"Immigration policy should be taking into account the real needs of businesses and communities at any given time, so you definitely want a system that is nimble, that enables employers to get the talent that they need, and at the same time it doesn't exclude New Zealanders from the jobs that they want to do."

He said the current level of arrivals was partly the result of the previous government's "knee-jerk" response after the Covid-19 travel restrictions dropped.

"[It was] justified by the last Labour government as listening to employers, if you like, but at the same time I think the average employer would say 'we've got to have a balance here'."

"I am encouraged by the idea that says 'we need a strategy, we need a plan about immigration' because that'll actually give confidence not just for employers who might want to set up a business or grow their business ... but also migrants who might want to come to New Zealand."

Luxon later told reporters at the post-Cabinet media briefing he was not planning to set a cap on the number of migrants, saying no government could realistically achieve that.

"With our economic cycles being quite variable, the skills shortages that we need, it's a very dynamic sort of setup. All I'm foreshadowing to you is that actually the current levels of 118,000 net migration are not sustainable for New Zealand in the long term," he said.

He said it was about making sure there was rigour in application of inviting migrants to the country, and said another priority for the government was to get more New Zealanders off a benefit and into work.