Immigration is likely to be one of the major issues in the election that’s coming up in September – or at any rate, some parties think that it will be, and are trying to push the topic forward.
Immigration is important for New Zealand in general and Auckland in particular. Many Kiwis were born overseas, and hence heated or hostile rhetoric will personally affect many of us. And looking forward, although natural increase – the excess of births over deaths – is expected to account for the majority of Auckland’s population growth, net migration will also play a big role in shaping the city’s growth.
Here, I want to take a look at the politics of immigration. This is an analytical perspective, rather than a partisan one – I’m seeking to understand what is happening, rather than setting out what I think should be happening.
Before getting into it, an advisory: Greater Auckland’s user guidelines sternly disallow sexist, racist or other offensive comments. Comments that single out immigrants for criticism frequently fall into this category and will be deleted.
With that in mind, I want to present two charts and a couple of observations on the political landscape.
Here’s the first chart. It shows that immigration of non-New Zealanders tracks well with New Zealand First’s polling averages over the last two decades. While this isn’t evidence of causation – other things were happening – it’s certainly consistent with the idea that higher immigration pushes some voters towards New Zealand First’s nativist, “keep out the yellow hordes” message.
And here's the chart tracking opinion poll support for NZ First with non-NZ citizen migration as a percentage of the population… pic.twitter.com/lBfHDDRR11
— Bernard Hickey (@bernardchickey) June 21, 2017
Here’s the second chart, which shows voting intentions for the Labour Party in the Roy Morgan poll. (Other polls show the same basic trend.) I’ve highlighted the timing of the three recent major Labour policy announcements on immigration.
Two things are immediately apparent from this chart. First, nothing that the Labour Party has done has really moved the needle on voting intentions – they’ve been bouncing around between 25-30% of the vote share for years. Second, in the polling period immediately after these three immigration announcements, the Labour Party’s voting intentions dropped significantly – all three drops were larger than the poll’s margin of error of around 2.7%.
Voting intentions tended to rebound in subsequent polls, but basically this data shows that the Labour Party, unlike New Zealand First, has experienced no electoral benefit from promising to cut immigration. If anything, it is more likely to have been harmed by its position.
Third, the Green Party tried to jump on the ‘cut immigration’ bandwagon last year, proposing to dial immigration settings to maintain a consistent rate of 1% population growth. That went down like a cup of cold sick among many of their supporters, and Green Party co-leader James Shaw apologised for the policy at the start of July, saying that:
Unfortunately, by talking about data and numbers, rather than about values, I made things worse.
Because the background terms of the debate are now so dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, when I dived into numbers and data, a lot of people interpreted that as pandering to the rhetoric, rather than trying to elevate the debate and pull it in a different direction.
We were mortified by that, because, in fact, the Greens have the ambition of being the most migrant-friendly party in Parliament. And I am sorry for any effect it may have had on your communities.
Fourth, here’s a complete list of major announcements that the National Party has made on immigration:
For the last decade, National has commanded the centre ground in New Zealand politics – shifting a bit to the left or right depending upon the issue. So it’s notable that they have stayed almost totally mum on the subject, only coming up to attack Labour’s immigration policy announcements. For instance, here’s what Judith Collins, nobody’s idea of a squishy liberal, had to say on Labour’s policy of cutting tens of thousands of visas:
Ms Collins, speaking to The AM Show on Friday alongside Labour deputy leader Jacinda Ardern and Mt Albert MP, said Mr Little’s stance sounded familiar.
“It reminded me of a politician from the US – I thought it was a real ‘build a wall’ type of thing.”
So what is actually going on here? What do Kiwis really think about the issue? Can public sentiments be harnessed for electoral victory?
In June, AUT researcher David Hall published the results of an in-depth survey on New Zealanders’ attitudes towards immigration in The Spinoff. The results showed a muddle – some Kiwis have clearly positive attitudes towards immigration and immigrants, some have clearly negative attitudes, and many feel somewhere in the middle:
People living in New Zealand – on the whole – are more favourable toward immigration than not. Given that New Zealand is commonly conceived as “a nation of immigrants”, that’s what you might hope for.
But – and this is a fairly big “but” – this weighting toward positive views of immigration is partly driven by migrants. If you separate out New Zealand citizens and long-term residents from recent migrants (in this survey that means non-citizens in New Zealand for less than five years), then attitudes toward immigration look more equivocal. Indeed, you see a pattern that looks roughly similar to the UK in recent years.
These findings start to explain the political outcomes that I highlighted above. A minority of New Zealanders have firmly negative views about immigration – and it’s likely that NZ First has cornered the market on their votes. But most New Zealanders have either positive or mixed feelings about migration. This means that it’s quite difficult for larger parties to target anti-immigration votes without losing an equal (or greater) number of votes.
Digging further into the polling results, there are a number of other nuances that make politicking on immigration difficult. One interesting divide is on the question of whether we should prioritise temporary work visas or permanent residency:
Of course, real world policy choices need not be so stark, but this question splits respondents in interesting ways. Again, age is an issue, with older voters clearly favouring New Zealand’s present policy trajectory: higher levels of temporary immigration with limited access to social benefits. This is also the preference for National and New Zealand First voters, to a strikingly similar degree (72% and 73% respectively).
But younger respondents and Greens voters lean in the other direction, preferring a reduction of numbers in exchange for more secure migrant outcomes. So too do recent migrants, prioritising security over volume at a ratio of 64:36, almost perfectly the inverse of what New Zealand citizens favour (38:62).
Temporary work visas undoubtedly offer more potential for exploitation than permanent residency. We could address that in a number of ways, eg by staffing the labour inspectorate properly and applying stiffer penalties to abusive employers. But we can’t address it at all unless we acknowledge that our current abusive policy is, to a significant degree, what many New Zealanders want. That’s a challenging conversation for political parties to have – hence why parties that try to take it on seem to make little headway.
Finally, I think it’s worth highlighting the survey’s findings about attitudes towards the Treaty of Waitangi:
Respondents were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed (from 1 to 10) with the following statement: “People who want to live here should have to declare their commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi / Te Tiriti o Waitangi.” Only 28 per cent of New Zealand citizens strongly agreed (1-2) with this statement, whereas 40 per cent of recent migrants did. Additionally, 47 per cent of Māori and 49 per cent of Pacific Islanders strongly agreed.
These findings imply that recent migrants would not wholly oppose more Māori involvement in designing migration policy. It also implies that the major hurdle lies among New Zealand citizens who aren’t Māori or Pacific Island. This is worth bearing in mind, in coming months, if anyone starts saying that our bicultural framework is failing because of multiculturalism. Because it isn’t new migrants that manage our borders, and it isn’t Māori choosing not to be consulted. Responsibility lies with the other half of the bicultural partnership: with Pākehā.
I think this is incredibly important. It tells us a lot about what migration might mean for our country going forward. Migrants are self-selected: It takes a certain amount of motivation to get on the plane to a new land, where you may be cut adrift from all of your previous social and family ties. People do not generally migrate on a whim. They think about where they’re going and (by and large) try to find a place with values that match theirs.
Many migrants come here with an awareness of New Zealand’s (imperfect but very real) biculturalism and its environmental ethos. They’re not coming to undermine what’s good about the place, but to participate in it. So it seems to me that many of the fears about immigration fundamentally changing New Zealand’s culture are overblown. I think that New Zealanders are generally aware of that, because most of us live and work alongside migrants. And that, too, should be a consideration for parties seeking to harness anti-immigration sentiments for political gain.