No one really knows what the population of New Zealand will be in five years, let alone 20 years from now.

Uncertainty about the size and composition of the population makes it hard for infrastructure and service providers, facility developers and associated businesses and communities to plan their investments. Arguably, some informed guidance from central government as to expected population growth would help reduce this uncertainty. Indeed, governments and communities all make decisions with some picture of expected population growth in their minds. In some cases, this picture will be clear and announced as part of decision-making, but in most cases, the picture will be lurking in the dim background.

Reducing uncertainty around expected population growth can help guide national, local, and business investment decisions and facilitate long-term planning for community and infrastructure services.

Yet any suggestion of a population plan is contentious, and successive governments have steered clear of adopting an explicit population policy.

But there is a way that important population-based issues affecting the country now and future can be addressed – the introduction of an immigration government policy statement (GPS), as proposed in the Productivity Commission’s deep dive into the country’s immigration system, “Immigration – Fit for the future”.

A policy, or a plan?

Different people have different perceptions about what a population policy is and what it aims to do. This is not helped by some interpreting a population policy as akin to a plan. Some see a population policy as regulating or controlling the rate of population growth. Others are less interventionist, preferring to highlight the need for a plan that is responsive to upcoming changes in the size, age composition, and regional distribution of the population.

Immigration policy can and does influence population and demographics. For many years now, immigration has been the key driver of population fluctuations. It has drastically altered the size and composition of New Zealand’s population.

We need to bring immigration together with other government policies, local demographics, and global migration trends to guide expectations around population growth. Whether it is called a plan or a policy, the importance is getting better-informed expectations of population growth. These expectations would facilitate long-term planning, guide investment decisions, and support productivity and wellbeing across the country.

The benefits of an explicit population policy

Indeed, the economic argument for reducing the uncertainty of future demand for long-lived infrastructure services is the main reason the recently published New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy called for a national population plan.

The report emphasises that “we have the potential to gain significantly from this (population) growth”.

“However, if growth isn’t adequately planned for or anticipated, it can create infrastructure problems that erode the benefits of growth and undermine public acceptance of a growing population.”

Improved transparency of expectations in the context of an immigration GPS can also help shape constructive public debate about aspects of population growth. This can include the rates of immigration, where people will live and work, and what skills they will need to support the long-term wellbeing and prosperity of those in Aotearoa.

A population plan should also clarify how the government intends to address current and future population challenges and vulnerabilities. These challenges are broader than just immigration and include ageing, gender and racial inequalities, and population stagnation or decline in specific regions. All this helps New Zealand to accept and respond to these challenges, investing for the future rather than simply reacting to past population changes.

For comparison, the Australian population statement supports a long-term focus. The 2021 population statement, for instance, details the impacts of covid-19 on Australia’s population over the next decade.

Does an immigration GPS fulfil the need for a population plan?

The Productivity Commission’s “Immigration – Fit for the future report” highlighted that the key driver of population changes, and the only component of the population growth the government can meaningfully influence, is immigration. Instead of a population policy or plan, the commission called on the government to regularly issue a coherent and transparent immigration GPS. We see this recommendation as entirely consistent with the Infrastructure Commission’s call for a national population plan to establish clearer and more transparent expectations of population growth.

Further, an immigration GPS would be a strategic plan specifying objectives and priorities, linking immigration policy to the labour market, education and training policies, and promoting a longer-term outlook.

It increases certainty for the businesses, communities and service and facility designers and providers by presenting a likely long-term population pathway.

In reality, past immigration policy has been a de facto, in-disguise population policy for New Zealand. The proposed immigration GPS would remove that disguise.

If a population policy is too contentious, an immigration GPS would – at the very least – improve transparency and certainty, enable public engagement on where we are heading, and explicitly and more effectively guide community and business investment decisions.

Figure 1 Components of population change, 1951-2021