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On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Professor Paul Spoonley

Simon Shepherd: This year, New Zealand's population is forecast to exceed five million for the first time. Massey University's Professor Paul Spoonley has researched demographic issues, migration, and social policy for decades. He says we should take lessons on immigration from countries that do it well. I began by asking him whether - in an election year - it's possible to have any discussion about immigration without it becoming racist.
Paul Spoonley: No. No, I don’t think so because as soon as you get to the, sort of, generalities that Shane’s involved in at the moment, then you’re beginning to be racist in whatever way, shape or form. So I think it’s very very difficult, and I certainly would appreciate a genuine discussion about immigration because it’s complex and it’s very important to this country. But, of course, once politicians get near it, no, I’m afraid it gets very murky very quickly.
Speaking of Shane Jones, on the programme last week he talked about proposing a maximum population policy. What is a maximum population policy?
Well, I agree with the population policy because at the moment, our immigration policy is our population policy and it’s much more complex than that. So, we’ve got dropping fertility, we’ve got an ageing population. Migration is the major source of population growth for this country, and we’ve been growing quite fast. In the OECD, we’ve been one of the fastest growing countries because of our immigration.
Okay. In terms of a maximum population policy, I mean, there’s predictions that we’re going to hit 5 million population this year and Auckland’s going to hit 2 million. It’s not about just putting a cap, saying no more than 5 million, is it?
No, it’s not. No, no, no. No, it’s not. So, one of the issues around that is that at 2 million, 40 per cent of all New Zealanders would live in Auckland. Is that something that we really want? And do we want to see the, sort of, West Coast of the South Island, which is already in population decline, continue to decline in population terms? So I think it’s really around where the growth is, who’s contributing to that growth, the sort of migrants that we need for our economy but also for our society.
Okay. First of all, one of the claims is that – and Jones has done this – is they sheeted a lot of our infrastructure problems back to the growth in immigrants. Is that fair?
I think it’s—In part, it is fair because what you’re seeing is migration growth here which is quite substantial. Just to give you one figure. Between 2013 and 2018, we had a net gain of 260,000 from migration. That’s huge. We’ve never seen it before in our history and it’s unusual in terms of the OECD. So that growth, that population growth from migration has certainly contributed to demand, but then I think it’s much more complex than that. I think historically we’ve had a deficit in terms of infrastructure. Transport—
So you can’t just purely sheet it back--?
No, no.
Okay. All right.
That would be very unfair because what’s ironic is that not only do those migrants contribute to demand but also they’re an important part of workforce building the infrastructure.
Okay, but does that point back to Labour’s promise last election to cut migration by, say, up to 30,000? That seems to have disappeared as an official target, but what are they doing behind the scenes? Are they actually working towards that?
Yes, well, I think they’ve been a little deceitful there because, in effect, they’ve dropped the number of residencies they’re approving each year and that is dropping the net gain for migration. So if you look at the migration figures, they set a target of 20,000 to 30,000. They’re not going to reach the 20,000, but they’re certainly going to have dropped the numbers of permanent residents arriving here in this country down considerably.
Because net migration’s running about 44,000 now down from highs of 60,000 or 70,000.
Yes, indeed.
Okay, but is the government still trying to keep enough of those migrants coming in to keep the economy looking healthy and keep the country growing? I mean, that’s the balance, is it?
It is the balance. There’s a sweet spot there about the numbers coming in and meeting particularly our labour and skill demands. So it’s quite an interesting, quite complex area.
Do you know what that sweet spot is?
Well, yes.
You do? You should tell Labour.
I think Australia and Canada set their target at about one per cent of their population, which I don’t think is a bad target. That’s net migration gain per year.
And we don’t have that target, though, do we?
No, we don’t, but at 44,000, we’re below, because typically it would be around that 50,000 net gain.
So Labour’s doing these surreptitious things behind the scenes to reduce the migration. We’ve just seen a story of a family who’s caught in limbo because of these changes in policies. They’re no longer a priority. They don’t know whether they’re going to get residency here. Is that fair? Have the goalposts been moved without people knowing?
No, I don’t think it is. I mean, I think one of the things that makes us attractive is that when people come here on temporary work or study visas, they get a chance to transition to permanent residents. That’s very very attractive. That’s what makes—
And have we been selling that?
Well, we have been selling that, and I’m in the tertiary sector and that’s been an important part of our attraction for international students. So what I think the government has done has increased the temporary workforce quite considerably but then reduced the number of residencies, so that transition from a temporary work visa to permanent resident has been reduced over the last two years.
Is that creating a Dubai of the South Pacific kind of arrangement where we have temporary, cheaper labour?
Uh, yes, it is. The Dubai example is an interesting one. I don’t think we’re as bad as Dubai. I think there are much more explicit rules and procedures around the temporary work visas here, but what I do think it is is it’s producing a lot of frustration because the backlog of people applying for residency and not getting it has tripled over the last year.
Does that mean we’re going to see those people leave if they can’t get their residency?
Well, they’ll have to leave. I mean, the rules are that if they don’t meet the requirements, for example, double the median income – so $106,000 salary – in order to qualify… I mean, that’s a huge ask, so I think some of the rules are making it very difficult for the temporary migrants to get approval to stay.
Okay. From research that you’ve done – and I’m looking toward the March 15 anniversary here – but what role do immigration settings have on breeding or preventing extremism in a country?
A lot, really, because if you’re bringing in migrants who are creating anxiety, then at the fringe of that, you’re getting people who are radicalising the message about the Great Replacement, which is one of the key messages of the far right, and that is that somehow we, the host population, the white population, the Pakeha population, is being outnumbered by people who are not of our culture, not of our ethnicity, not of our religion. And so that produces not only a generalised anxiety; it also produces a fringe who are prepared to act on that.
That fringe isn’t based on fact because research out this week shows one in three New Zealanders were probably born overseas already.
Indeed. So, we’ve got one of the highest proportions of overseas born, and of course, we are being interviewed in a city which is regarded as the fourth most diverse city in the world. So I think we should be careful because over the past few decades, we’ve seen this increase in diversity without some of the conflict and the anti-immigrant politics that we’ve seen in other countries. But I don’t think we should be complacent.
Okay. Do you think that the government is going to address this? Can we expect any change in policy?
Yes, I think they will, and they’re going to do it in various ways. I mean, one of those is to look at the hate speech regulations, so expanding the protected characteristics. The other is to introduce a policy around social inclusion.
What does that mean?
It really identifies who we should be doing onshore. So the migrants have arrived here, they’re part of our community. What should we be doing to help them settle here and what should we be doing to reduce any anxieties from the host population? So it’s really a partnership between the new arrivals and the people that are here and making sure that all our systems are working.
Okay, so a big debate to be had in an election year. Can you point us to one country where this system is actually working?
I would point to Canada. I think that Canada does a lot of this really well, and some of the things we need to look at is what do the Canadians do post-arrival to help them? So, for example, they give them so many hours’ English language instruction. What are they doing to distribute migrants around the country? What are they doing to help Canadians understand that diversity and migration are really important to Canada’s success? So we should be doing all of those things.
Paul Spoonley, thank you very much for your time today.
Thank you, Simon. 

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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