A year ago, the government teased us with two big policy “trailers”: the first was for a Productivity Commission inquiry into immigration settings.

The second sounded like a real blockbuster: the government said it would seize the once-in-a-generation opportunity of closed borders to “reset” immigration onto a different path.

The end results landed in reverse: first came the government’s announcement of its main decisions on the rebalance (née reset), and then, a few weeks later, the commission dropped its final report.

National party spokesperson Erica Stanford asks why the government bothered to spend $5 million on an immigration report that landed a few weeks after announcing the immigration rebalance (The commission told BusinessDesk it spent $1.3m of its $6m annual budget on the immigration inquiry).

“You think if you're going to spend that much money that you would use some of the evidence and findings in that report to formulate your policy, but it is indicative of this government's approach, which is knee-jerk reaction rather than evidence-based.”

Immigration minister Kris Faafoi’s response to the awkward sequencing is that while the commission raised some “interesting points”, the government’s priority was giving “migrants and businesses certainty on our immigration settings as we reopen our borders fully by 31 July”.

Under pressure

If ever there was a textbook case of policymaking under pressure, immigration under covid would be it (a shame, then, that the recent book on the subject was largely written pre-covid).

I think most would agree that, while the closed borders presented a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebalance immigration, the closure also created a once-in-a-generation level of economic pain, including the tightest labour market on record.

In the face of such insurmountable political and economic pressure, the government simply made the pragmatic choice to speed up the policy process, just as the pandemic has forced its hand on so many previous occasions.

8 out of 10

It’s a pity, because the report raises a lot more than some “interesting points” and it would be a great shame if it was quietly shelved.

David Cooper of Malcolm Pacific rates it an 8 out of 10 and his opinion should carry some weight, because he's spent his entire career in the field, first as an immigration officer, and then as an adviser in the private sector where he heads up one of its leading firms.

For Cooper, the report’s key finding is the lack of long-term planning and integration of immigration policy with other areas of government.

“What it's done is put to bed all of the untruths that are spoken about migrants in relation to pushing down wages, stealing jobs, and they're all responsible for the infrastructure stress.

“Our woes are because we haven't been planning: we come up with arbitrary numbers about how many visas we're going to give away, but we're not tying that into education, we're not tying that into infrastructure, and across the board.”

Cooper supports the commission’s thinking around having a population policy and publishing a government policy statement (GPS) because “everyone would know where we’re headed”, but he expects it will be a very hard sell politically.

“Politicians tend to run the mile when they hear ‘Let's have a discussion of what New Zealand's population should be’ but actually, immigration generated over the last 10 years' population growth without there even being a conversation about it.”

Consensus?

For such a reform to become embedded in our policy DNA the same way the Fiscal Responsibility Act or the GPS on land transport have been, will require some degree of cross-party consensus.

BusinessDesk asked Stanford if such a consensus was even possible?

She said she was open to the idea of an immigration GPS but in her view, Labour and National have quite opposing views on immigration.

She accused Labour of believing a reduction in migration will fix all society’s ills, “whether that be housing, productivity, wages, whatever”, while her own party takes a “far more pragmatic view” based on the evidence that migrants benefit our economy.

“The way the Productivity Commission is thinking about our national policy statement and our long-term view will require some consensus around those things, and I'm just not entirely sure that we would get there.”

I think history tells us policy frameworks only endure when they're flexible enough to accommodate different political views on, say, what constitutes a “responsible” level of government spending or on the right balance between funding roads versus public transport.

The only consensus that can ever be hoped for is on the need for transparency and the need for a long-term vision in setting immigration policy, not on what that long-term vision should actually be.

But Stanford says even that much could be problematic because governments sometimes need to respond very quickly to short term pressures on migration flows, such as global pandemics and stock market crashes.

“So, that long term planning can be very difficult. I'm not saying it's impossible, but we have to do some pretty deep thinking about how a long-term strategy could work given the amount of unknowns that constantly crop up that require short term levers and immigration to be turned on and off.”

Updated with the cost of the Productivity Commission inquiry