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The Nation: Iain Lees-Galloway

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Iain Lees-Galloway

Simon Shepherd interviews Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway about the recent changes to New Zealand’s refugee policy.

He began by asking Lees-Galloway why the government has only increased the ratio from those regions by such a small amount?

Lees-Galloway: Well, actually, if you look at the actual numbers with the family link in place, I think the proportion of our refugee intake coming from the Middle East was about 1.2%, not 14%, 1.2%, and the proportion coming from Africa was about 5.3%. So we’re confident that by removing the family link, we can get those numbers up to the 15%. That’s doable in this three year programme. And also, you know, we have to balance our role and responsibility within our own region, the Asia-Pacific region. There is still a lot of need in our region with what’s happening around the world.

Simon Shepherd: Advocates were saying it really should be 50%, because most of the war-torn areas and the places of need come from those two regions.

Yeah, yeah, look. New Zealand’s doing its bit. We’re increasing the quota to 1500, which on a per-capita basis kind of brings us to about the middle of the pack. But we’re still a small country, doing our best, making our contribution. We think we need to balance our responsibilities between being a good neighbour to the Asia-Pacific region and looking where the global need is.

Okay, so we’re a small but rich country; surely we could have even more. I mean, are you going to boost the number from 1500 further?

1500 is what we’re planning on at the moment; that’s what we’ve decided to do. We think that’s the right number for being able to settle those people well. You know, it’s not just about getting the numbers in; it’s being able to make sure that they’re housed, that there’s opportunities for them, they can get an education, they can get jobs, that they’re able to settle well in their new homes, their new communities. And we think we’ve got that balance about right.

Okay, and have you been hamstrung by, say, New Zealand First on these immigration matters, for these refugee policies.

No, not at all.

No? There’s no concessions to them about the numbers?

No, no, not about numbers. Not at all, no. I mean, the truth is, in coalition Governments, sometimes, you know, these decisions can take a little bit longer. But I actually think taking a little longer on decisions can often be a good thing. It means more robust, more enduring decisions get made.

Just quickly, are there any more of these sort of race-based policies in place, in terms of the refugee policy?

Ah, look, not that I’m aware of. The family link was one which stood out a little bit and which we’ve been keen to make some change on. I think we’ve got our refugee policies in a good place now. We’re taking a good number, which as I said, puts us sort of in the middle of the pack amongst the nations that we like to compare ourselves with. And we’ll now be able to take people from all around the world, and do our bit.

Okay, so other people who want to come here by boat, they haven’t arrived yet, these are asylum seekers. And in the budget you’ve increased the budget significantly to $26 million to prevent asylum seekers coming to here on boats. Where are you spending that money? I mean, you’ve announced it, but where are you spending it?

Yeah, look, we think the previous government probably under did this a bit. People trafficking is on the rise around the world.

That’s around the world, but treasury has said there’s no credible evidence we’re on the rise or we’re at further risk here, though.

Look, as I say, I think the previous government probably under did this a little bit. So we’re wanting to make sure that we are making our contribution again in our region. So where that money is going to go is to putting people on the ground in some of those source and transit countries to help prevent people becoming vulnerable to people trafficking. And you’re right, it’s an important point here, you’re right. No one has made it here by boat; it is a dangerous treacherous journey. People who try to undertake that journey are putting their lives at risk. We would like to play our part as a nation to prevent people becoming exploited by people traffickers, and potentially putting their own lives at risk.

Has Australia pressured us over this?

Absolutely not.

All right. Net migration has been tracking well above comparable countries, the countries that we like to compare ourselves… We’ve been averaging 50,000 new residents a year—

Not residents, no, that’s not correct.

No, sorry, 50,000 net migration, that’s right.

That’s right, yeah.

Okay, so you promised to cut that in the last election by 20-30,000, and it hasn’t happened.

OK, well, that’s not correct.

Well that’s what the Labour Party document said.

That wasn’t what the Labour Party policy was, and also there is no coalition government target for numbers.

Sorry, that is correct, I went back to the Labour Party policy in 2017, and the changes to the visas that you outlined there said the net effect would be a reduction by around 20-30,000.

Yeah, that was our estimate, but it was never a target.

What’s the difference?

And there is no government target for net migration, and we’ve got to remember, you know, the context for all our immigration decisions, our economic migration decisions, is New Zealand has a strong economy right now. Unemployment is very low.

Sure.

And we did inherit a severe skill shortage from the previous government because they didn’t invest in vocational education. So what we’ve got to do is make sure that our immigration system is well-aligned with what we’re doing in education, what we’re doing in welfare. The changes which Chris Hipkins is leading — I’ve been working really closely with him to make sure what we do supports the government’s aims for a more productive, more sustainable, more inclusive economy, and that we’re filling those skill-shortages both with the immigration system and providing opportunities for New Zealanders.

It’s still running about 50-odd thousand a year — is that right?

And we’ve just made changes to the immigration system to make sure those people are getting into the places where we need them. We need a workforce to help sustain regional growth, and that’s exactly what the changes are designed to do.

Yes. But do we have the infrastructure to support a 50,000 annual net migration?

Well, look, it’s absolutely true that the previous government did not invest in the infrastructure we need to support population growth. So you have seen, you know, a big effort from this government on housing, on public transport, on education.

If we don’t have the infrastructure now, why aren’t you reducing that number?

Because we actually have to make sure that we have our immigration settings in the right place that they support sustainable, inclusive, productive growth. And that means growth based on real economic growth, not growth based on housing speculation and population growth, which is what National focused on. So our changes are designed to make sure the immigration system supports those. We’re not fixated on the number, it’s about getting the right people with the right skills in the right part of the country.

Your coalition partner, Winston Peters, said at — I think it was at a post-Cabinet press conference just recently, ‘Immigration needs to slow.’ And his party was saying last election 10,000 as their number. So how are you going to navigate that with them?

Look, I work on what the government’s plan is.

He’s part of the government.

The coalition agreement and the agreements and decisions that we make as a government. We are managing the immigration system in a much stricter fashion than the previous government did to make sure that we’re getting people into the right parts of the country, and that we’re focused on the people with the skills that we need to grow our economy.

But the numbers are still high. The numbers are still high compared to other countries as well.

You’re looking at the net migration numbers. Those include New Zealanders. That includes New Zealanders coming home to work and live here, having spent some time overseas. New Zealand has a strong economy—

But are you saying—

...with very low unemployment, and we need that workforce.

But are you saying that New Zealanders returning to the strong economy, low unemployment — are they making up the bulk of this 50,000?

Not the bulk of it, but you’ve got to remember that that’s what this number includes. If you look at residency numbers— I mean, you accidentally said residency number earlier on, those residency numbers are coming down. They’ve come down from a peak of around 52,000 to more like 36,000 in the last year to June. So as I’ve said, we’re not particularly fixated on the numbers. What we’re interested in is making sure that the immigration system supports our overall aims. It’s a more productive, more sustainable, more inclusive economy where everybody in New Zealand gets to do well.

More than a quarter of our population is foreign-born. It’s something like a third in the OECD. Other countries with high migration have experienced— Well, they’re dealing with polarisation and backlash in some of them, like Brexit, maybe and the US. What are you doing to mitigate that backlash when we have high migration?

My first point is, New Zealand’s a migrant nation. All of us either came here from somewhere else or are descended from people who came here from somewhere else. So immigration is not new in New Zealand, and we’ve always relied on it. But yes, we do have to make sure that as our society becomes more diverse, that we’re actively supporting that inclusion. And I think, yeah, you just need to see the way New Zealand responded after the March 15th attacks, in a way, that demonstrated that we are an inclusive nation. We wanted to get around and support those people.

And yet we are still seeing signs like at Auckland University this week, where there’s that tension between supposed white supremacists and university students.

Sure. So the other things I announced yesterday alongside the changes to the refugee programme, is an extension of the Welcoming Communities programme. That’s a programme that has been piloted in 10 councils, where government has provided has provided seeding funding for councils to actively become involved in making their community a more welcoming one to people from outside of their community.

So you’re saying more integration?

Yes. That’s now being extended to 30 additional sites. And the councils that have used that programme over the last two years have found real gains and benefits from it, and I think the other councils that pick it up will too.

2017 you admit that immigration was a pretty hot-button election issue. Will you be changing any other settings?

Oh, look, I think immigration is always one of those areas where you’re always looking at the settings to make sure that they remain fit-for-purpose. I think the big set of changes around the temporary work visas are probably the most substantial change that’s been made to the immigration system in a number of years.

You’re not foreshadowing any more changes?

Oh, look, I think there’s room for more changes, but they won’t be at the — I don’t think they won’t be at the — I don’t think they’ll be quite at the same scale as the changes that we’ve made to the temporary working visas.

Your coalition partner wants migrants to sign up to ‘New Zealand values’, at their last conference, New Zealand First. How are you going to find consensus with New Zealand First?

Well, I think we have consensus around the idea that New Zealand values include tolerance, inclusivity and being embracing of our role in the world.

And yet, they want immigration cut to like 10,000, which is, you know, at odds with you guys.

Yeah, but that might have been their party policy, but we work on what we’ve agreed as a coalition, and what we’ve agreed as a coalition is that we need to manage the immigration system to support our aims as a government. And, of course, one of the other areas that we are focussing on is migrant exploitation. We are really concerned that some people have come to the country and been put in extremely exploitative situations. We need to do more to encourage them to come forward and speak up, and we need to do a lot more to prevent that. When I say there’s more changes coming in the immigration space, you can expect more in that area.

Can you tell us what they are?

Not today, but soon enough.

Okay. Let’s just quickly talk ACC. I asked ACC yesterday whether there have been more mental health claims, mental trauma claims, denied as a result of March 15. And they say it’s up to 61 now that aren’t included for the people that experienced mental trauma from March 15. Why doesn’t ACC — and you’re in favour of this — why doesn’t ACC broaden itself to include mental trauma?

Well, look, the decision was made a long time ago that mental trauma would be covered when it occurs in a workplace, as the result of a workplace accident or it occurs in a way that is related to a physical injury — so if you have a physical injury—

But not stand-alone by itself.

But not stand-alone by itself. That’s been in place for a long time now. In the context of the March 15th attack, yes, I did put up a paper in the immediate aftermath of that. We knew that government had to respond to that in some fashion. We put up the option of ACC being the agency that responded. Ultimately, we made the decision that that response would better come from the health system, from the welfare system. I don’t think it matters to people on the ground which bit of government provides that support. It’s knowing that they get the right level of support. I’m confident that we made a decision that ensures that government provides that level of support. It’s just going to come from another part of government.

And there’s no plans on your behalf to expand ACC?

Not in the immediate future, no.

All right. Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, thank you very much for your time.

Thanks, Simon.


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