NZ Immigration Minister: Alignment With US, Australia Visa Change Announcement Timing A Coincidence

Immigration Minister on impact to Pacific migration: 'there may be a small change in the diaspora coming from the Pacific countries, but we also have very generous policies in respect of our Pacific neighbors'

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, April 29, 2017) – New Zealand's Immigration Minister says it is a coincidence that his announcement of tighter access to skilled work visas came in the same week that Australia and the US announced changes to foreign worker visas.

"It certainly was a total coincidence that it happened to be within 24 hours of Australia's change in their [457 visa]," Michael Woodhouse said.

"We have been working on this policy for several months — about a year, in fact."

He also said the changes did not mean there was rising anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.

"I don't think that's a conclusion that can be drawn from the changes we made last week ... quite the opposite — I think New Zealand has demonstrated that it is very much open for business and welcoming of overseas workers and potential new residents," he said.

"But it is important that we get quality, that we get clarity and that we put Kiwis at the front of the queue for those jobs and I don't think anybody would have a problem with that." 

Record-high migrant arrivals

Figures released by Statistics New Zealand this week showed a net gain in migration of 71,900 in the year to March 2017 — a new record.

Economist Michael Reddell, a former NZ Treasury official, said it was not a sign of healthy population growth.

"We have now one of the fastest population growth rates of any advanced country in the world — around 2 per cent over the last year," he said.

"Over the same time, we've had basically zero productivity growth, so our economy has been increasingly skewed towards just coping with a rapidly-rising population."

He said compared to Australia, New Zealand was "an awful lot poorer".

"I think one of the reasons for that is, in contrast to Australia, which has had the benefit of the huge new mineral discoveries — the gas, and all those sorts of things, NZ has had nothing comparable — we're a very small and remote place," he said.

"And when you try and put many, many more people in to New Zealand when there are no fresh economic opportunities, it makes it very hard."

He said another factor was the state of the Australian economy and fewer New Zealanders leaving.

"[Over] the last 40 years or so, there's been a really big net outflow on average of New Zealanders to Australia and that fluctuates depending on the state of the Australian labour market.

"And with the Australian unemployment rate relatively high at the moment, the flow of New Zealanders has declined and so the planning for how many foreigners to bring in assumed we'd have 25,000 New Zealanders leaving every year, [but] in fact, that's come back to about zero."

'A modest step in the right direction'

Mr Reddell said the top five countries that people came from on essential skills work visas were [from highest number]: the Philippines, India, UK, Fiji and China.

"On the residence visas ... it's much the same picture — China and India are top, UK third, Philippines and South Africa four and five," he said.

He said the NZ Government's changes to the skilled work visas were a "modest step in the right direction".

"Some of the data released in conjunction with that package really highlighted the problems that we've had with the system — that it's been sold as a really skills-focused system and yet something like 60 per cent of the applicants that the Government was dealing with when they put this paper together weren't earning more than $NZ49,000 a year. Even by New Zealand standards, that's just not a high wage.

"So if we now say you have to be earning over $NZ49,000 to get credit in your application for residence, that's a good thing. 

"What it doesn't grapple with is the bigger question about how many people we should be bringing in in the first place."

Impact on Pacific migration

Richard Small is an Auckland-based lawyer who specialises in Pacific migration.

He said the changes made at the end of last year had a dramatic change to potential skilled migrants from the Pacific.

"[The new changes are] part of a continuum of a quiet closing of the door to the Pacific for all but the quotas," he told Pacific Beat.

"It's estimated that as many as 90 per cent of skilled migrant applications from the Pacific — which relied upon those skilled job offers, predominantly — would be unlikely to succeed."

But Mr Woodhouse rejected that figure.

"I think there may be a small change in the diaspora coming from the Pacific countries, but we also have very generous policies in respect of our Pacific neighbours," he said.

"We have quotas for Pacific nations — in particular Samoa, where there are 1,100 places a year, and for other countries like Tonga, Tuvalu and so on.

"So there are I think about 1,700 or 1,800 places a year, which is a pathway to residency for people that don't rely on the remuneration threshold — that will continue.

"There's also a very generous, recognised seasonal employer scheme, where 10,500, mostly Pacific workers are coming in, earning very good incomes and repatriating that money back to their sending countries.

"So I think we have very generous policies for Pacific nations and there's no plans to change that."

 

Aupito Su'a William Sio is the opposition Labour Party's spokesman on Pacific People.

He said the remuneration threshold changes would make it difficult for people from the Pacific.

"We already are struggling as a country to provide housing for our own population and so that's their response so far by this Government," he said.

"But it's certainly going to affect the Pacific and certainly will change the perception on New Zealand's relationship with Pacific island countries."

Labour Leader Andrew Little has announced his party would cut immigration "by tens of thousands", without giving an exact number.

Other opposition parties, including the Greens and New Zealand First, have also announced plans to cut down immigration numbers ahead of elections in September.

No magic number

Asked if the net gain in migrants arriving this year was too high, the Immigration Minister said "there's no magic number".

"What we really want firstly is for Australians and New Zealanders to come and go, and take advantages that a growing economy is producing and that's certainly materially influencing the net migration numbers.

"But we also have a very rapidly growing economy with job demand high and at least now, and probably for the foreseeable future, we're not being able to meet that demand domestically.

"So while I always want to see Kiwis at the front of the queue ... it's necessary to rely on overseas workers as well."

One example he said was in the construction industry, which needed overseas workers on rebuilding projects following recent earthquakes.

 

One of the concerns about NZ's immigration numbers was congestion and the increasing cost of housing in Auckland.

"The best estimates are that while immigration and migration are having an impact on that pressure, it is materially a supply-side challenge, in which case we need to build more roads, more houses and better infrastructure — and that's what we're doing," Mr Woodhouse said.

He also said the changes to the skilled work visas would provide greater clarity to those coming to NZ on how they could gain residence.

He added it was important for the Government to address skills shortages among locals and encourage businesses to hire them.

"It's part of my role and I work very closely with the Minister of Employment and the Minister of Social Development to develop initiatives with industries that have been reliant on overseas workers to ensure that they're more diligent and smarter about attracting New Zealanders into those industries and occupations.

"And we're seeing some successes there particularly in the construction and the farming sector."

How soon impact will be seen

Mr Woodhouse said the Government expected to see an impact "reasonably quickly", especially in the numbers of people who travel to NZ with work visa-holders and among the number of international students.

"There has been I think a perception of pathways to residence that simply doesn't exist for some sub-degree students," he said.

"Now, there'll probably be a reduction in the overall number of those students coming to NZ, but an increase in quality as those students choose different courses, if indeed residence is a long-term goal of theirs."

The NZ Government is currently conduction consultations on the changes to the temporary visas, expected to come into effect in mid-August, while the remuneration changes for skilled migrant residency come into effect on July 1.

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