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Immigration: Needed, A Policy For The 21st Century

Immigration: Needed, A Policy For The 21st Century

by Keith Rankin
13 September 2005

Immigration was set to become an election issue, but got lost in the fog of tax cuts, student loans, petrol prices and speeding motorcades.

Unfortunately the focus of the spluttering immigration debate in New Zealand tends to be reactive; about how to keep possible undesirables out rather than about who to invite in.

In last century's world of mainly high birth rates and (at times) high unemployment, immigration was seen as either an obligation or a means of gaining people with specific attributes or skills. In general, we saw immigration as a process of us buying labour in a buyers market. We were in control. Unlike in the nineteenth century, we did not have to advertise for immigrants.

Our challenge today is to recognise that the 21st century labour market will be global in character (ie more like the 19th). It will be a sellers labour market.

All of the world's richer countries – including the newly rich East Asian countries – will be requiring guest workers and/or immigrants to service their affluent but aging populations.

The standard of living of New Zealand's baby boom generation in retirement will depend critically on our ability to attract skilled and semi-skilled service workers in the face of competition from other immigrant-seeking countries.

A good analogy or precursor has been the competition for international students. In this particular game, New Zealand educational institutions did well only when world market conditions were strongly favourable. Now it’s a struggle to attract international students. All along, there has been no planning, no preparedness. We've got into ideological battles about assessment while Australia has understood education to be a knowledge-wave export industry.

If New Zealand is to successfully compete for the best immigrants and students in the coming decades of labour shortages, we need to start planning now.

Many if not most New Zealand residents belong to economically cooperative family networks. A rapidly growing number of New Zealanders (citizens and permanent residents) have "whanau" networks that extend beyond New Zealand's borders. Adult children have emigrated. Many New Zealanders have married into international family networks. And, of course, our many foreign-born Kiwis almost all belong to extranational whanau.

The future migrants that will best serve New Zealand are youth who live in developing countries but belong to overseas families with New Zealand connections; nieces, nephews and cousins of New Zealand citizens and permanent residents. Many of these nieces and nephews also connect with other uncles, aunties and cousins living in countries such as Australia and the United States that will be competing with us this century for service and construction workers.

Many (but by no means all) of these young people wish to live and work "abroad" (just as many New Zealanders do). They are young enough to be easily assimilated into New Zealand. They are people who wish to be dual citizens, contributing economically both to their country of residence and their country of birth.

They have no more expectation that their whole whanau will follow them to New Zealand than does a migrant to Auckland from Palmerston North or Dunedin.

The additional people that New Zealand will need in the 2020s are alive now, school‑children in the so-called "third world".

What could be better for New Zealand than to enable a substantial quota of children with family links to New Zealand to migrate young enough to do at least a part of their schooling here? They would learn to speak English with a kiwi accent, and then feed into the New Zealand tertiary education system. They would face none of the employment discrimination that commonly faces recently-arrived adult migrants.

Such children should not have to be adopted by their New Zealand relatives. Having New Zealand relatives as guardians should be enough to allow them to attend New Zealand secondary schools and tertiary institutions without paying exorbitant international-student fees. Just as a 15-year-old child from Gisborne or Brisbane might be living with an aunt or uncle in Auckland as their guardians, and attending school in Auckland, why not a child in identical circumstances but from Bangkok, Cebu or Bombay?

New Zealand will be competing for semi-skilled as well as skilled labour over the next few decades. The international family networks of many New Zealanders are a human resource just waiting to be tapped.

These are not people who will give up their existing identities to become exclusively New Zealanders. That world of excessive national identity – of citizens versus "aliens" – thankfully belongs increasingly in the past. Indeed, we feel proud of overseas-born teenage New Zealanders who have been amongst our high achievers in (for example) maths, music and sport. New Zealand is an important part – but not the only part – of who they are. Dual citizenship will be a normal feature of humanity's future.

We need an immigration policy that encourages young overseas people with existing New Zealand connections to come here before they are persuaded to go elsewhere. As the western world's baby boomers age, we will need new young New Zealanders more than they will need us.


keithrankin @

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