Govt under pressure on immigration's hidden costs

2:47 pm on 12 October 2016

Power Play - The revelation taxpayers are footing a multi-million-dollar annual bill to support many parents of migrants will only inflame public angst about immigration.

Auckland Airport

Migrant children who sponsor their parents to come to New Zealand have to have a minimum income and make a commitment to support them. Photo: 123RF

The government has not given specific figures about how many of those are not getting the financial support their children promised, when they sponsor their parents to migrate to New Zealand; about 5500 migrant parents come here each year - the bulk of whom come from China and India.

But the fact Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse says it is spending "tens of millions of dollars in emergency support each year" suggests those numbers are high, and furthermore that this is not a new problem.

There is a case for immigration: to fill skills shortages, to enrich New Zealand society and to play the part of a good global citizen through its refugee programme, but New Zealanders have to be confident the advantages outweigh any disadvantages.

The government is already under intense pressure over immigration levels, against the backdrop of ever-spiralling house prices and claims migrants workers are pushing down wages and taking jobs from New Zealanders.

It argues immigration is not putting pressure on the housing market, Auckland in particular, as the high numbers are in the temporary categories or New Zealanders coming home. However, that is an argument many in centres like Auckland or Queenstown will likely find hard to swallow.

And the admission by Mr Woodhouse that taxpayers have been paying the price for failures in the application process in the Parent Category only fuel the belief the government is not fully in control of immigration.

Senior ministers have been staunch defenders of the current settings, arguing the high number of work permits is needed to fill skill shortages in the regions, and immigration helps stimulate economic growth.

The problem for them is that most immigrants settle in Auckland, a city already bursting at the seams, and, as noted by the Auckland Chamber of Commerce, many of the 800 new arrivals each week do not have desperately needed skills like construction that could help to alleviate that pressure.

Fewer new residents, but what about temporary visas?

The changes announced this week primarily deal with visa categories that result in residence.

The 5 percent reduction made to the two-year planning range, from 100,000 to 95,000, was part of a scheduled review.

But other adjustments, such as the cuts to the Family Category, are straight policy changes that can be made at any time, and that is where the reduction to the overall number of new residents will come from, with 3500 fewer approvals coming from that category each year.

Another change is to make it harder for those in the seeking residence in the Skilled Migrant Category to get approval, with the points requirement being upped by 20 points. The move is already being criticised by immigration consultants as unfair and unnecessary.

However, the two-year planning range is not a cap; as the minister points out, the government cannot control total numbers, for example New Zealanders marrying someone from another country.

The government and the Treasury have also changed their tune about future forecasts. Both are acknowledging the numbers are more likely to keep increasing, as opposed to expectations numbers would fall away, which both had been referring to until relatively recently.

But much of the political pressure is over temporary visas - work and student visas in particular - which have not yet been addressed.

The argument is that, although there have been record-high numbers of work visa approvals, there is little evidence those workers have the right skills to meet shortages in New Zealand or that they are actually in the parts of the country where they are needed.

The minister says he will be examining temporary visas, which includes working holidaymakers as well, later this year, but he is not sounding convinced there is any great problem.

That review will be the opportunity for the government to signal to voters it is serious about making sure immigration is delivering benefits to New Zealand, and is not disadvantaging the people already living here.

Politicians like Winston Peters and Andrew Little have immigration in their sights, and would relish the chance to make life difficult for this government as it eyes a fourth term in power.

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