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Friday, 28 October 2016

Is New Zealand really ready to talk about Immigration?

There has been a slowly growing current of articles in the media and blogsphere lately about immigration.

The reasons for this, I think, is that the topic has started to become one which does demand discussion but also because things like Brexit and Donald Trump have pushed it back into the light (although often not with the best intents) and the result has been a freeing up of media space for the topic.

But is this a topic that NZ is really ready to discuss? Martin Van Beynen makes a persuasive argument for the fact that whether we like it or not we are going to have this discussion and I don’t really disagree with him but I think this chat will be far more into the “or not” space than the “like it” realm.

And my reasons for this view are simple and based on the fact that prior to my current line of work I spent over five years working for Immigration New Zealand (INZ) as an immigration officer dealing with cases deemed high risk.

The views that follow are shaped by not only working at the coal face but also from being required to deal with an immigration system which is not set up to deal with the problems it faced and the willingness of various governments to ignore the risks that were known in favor of pandering to short term gain and vested interests.

What I won’t be discussing in this post are any case specific details or any “juicy” bits of gossip (although I could regale readers with a fair few hair rising stories if so inclined) simply because that would be unprofessional but also because I agreed not to when I left INZ. What I will do is link things and if you follow the links you will know that there is more to those stories than is being reported. 

What I will be discussing is the dynamic of immigration in NZ, what drives this immigration and the risks that exists and how INZ does (or does not) deal with them.

None of the points that follow are going to be particular mind blowing but I hope that by painting a picture from my point of view the reader may come to see what the issues are and why it will be difficult for NZ to have this discussion in any way but one very fraught with loaded undertones, and one in the end which we may regret having because it’s going to lay bare a lot of things we take for granted, cut to close the bone or one’s personal circumstances or simply because it will require the reader to accept facts which are just unpalatable.

I am not directly echoing Van Beynen’s position but his article made me realize that the growing surge of immigration related content that I was beginning to see might be part of the regular topic related media cycle (where, this time, its immigration's turn to be in the spot light for a month or two just like the housing hernia was before sinking back into blissful obscurity while the real problems and issues continue on) but this is not a topic that will be easily discussed or where its problems will be easily fixed by a few simple law changes.

What is on discussion is something which relates to all of us in one way or another and in a way all of us in this country are immigrants, sons or daughters of immigrants, married to immigrants, live, work or study with immigrants or are only third or fourth generation kiwis (Maori obviously excluded from that last one) or work in an industry which relates to immigration (think tourism) or deal directly with tourists. I myself am the son of a Canadian and a German/Australian with a mix of Irish, English, Scottish and Gypsy blood.  

What is on discussion touches nearly the entire fabric of NZ and once you start pulling on that thread the whole rug could come unraveled which could do a lot more damage than good when you consider the fractures that were unveiled in the UK over Brexit or how Trumps divisive rhetoric tapped into a rather large voter base in the US (although that base somewhat hypocritically seemed happy to support Trump in his immigrant bashing racists views but were less happy with his sexism) and does little but fuel further suspicion, hatred and paranoia towards anyone not part of the racially and culturally accepted homogeneous whole.

It’s not zero sum argument but the only way succeed is to be fully open and honest and that is hard for any nation to do in any area or topic let alone one which might require it to examine its own dark history in depth and detail.

But first some housekeeping.

While I agree with Van Beynen’s argument about the difficulty of the discussion I have issue with his citing Treasury and Reserve Bank figures as the ending coda to his argument. Really? It took Treasury and the Reserve Banks opinion before you thought it was time to weigh in on this Martin? There were no other warning signs? No other indicators that something might be out of whack with NZs current immigration system.

It might be that Martin has only recently become aware of the issue and decided to do a little digging or perhaps the issue has come to him in the form of others (in this case the government) taking notice of the issue.

And it’s here that Martins argument starts to seem a little self-serving, a little like white flight and when you read his final line a little like the rallying call for those on the inside who are here to protect what they have, in what might be considered a nation scale version of gentrification or a gated community, from those outside who do not because that’s how it looks to an ex-immigration officer.

You might think that having worked with lots of high risk immigration I might be averse to letting people come to NZ but in fact it’s exactly the opposite. I just want the right people to come to NZ.

I understand that immigration is important to NZ but I also know that it’s not a one size fits all process or something abstract (although Croaking Cassandra does a good job of doing the numbers) that can be easily discussed. It’s a very human issue because at its core it is all about people, people coming to NZ.

So where to start? What nation or group should we highlight first? Should we go for the low hanging fruit like refugees or perhaps all the dodgy rich people we sell citizenship to? Perhaps we could examine the fact that INZ recently (temporary) closed off the parent/grandparent category for applications. Or we could look at one of my favorite areas, the ever popular student visa category?

Or we could look at how Kiwis ourselves expect to be treated when we travel the world and go live in other peoples lands and how we want to be treated when rock up to the border of a nation state. Do we give as good as we get? How do we treat the increasing number of migrant workers that come here looking for a better wage than they can get in their home country?

Or how about the way we deal with risk? Maybe we should question how much we know about who is actually living here, what their backgrounds and identities really are and where their wealth came from? Then again we could look at the history of various immigration scandals and scams (of which there are a quite a few) and how INZ often knows of them but remains unwilling to do anything about it due to pressure from its political masters.

The ugly truth is when you say “immigration”’ the discussion immediately turns to those who are seeking to come to NZ rather than how we facilitate entry to this country and Martin Van Beynans article exactly encapsulate that view.

It’s not that he is wrong but he summarizes only one side of the issue and that may be due to ignorance of the other side of the coin or (I believe) an unwillingness on his part to want to discuss the other side because it reflects back badly on us and not the people we may end up demonizing.

But again I am not shy of describing immigration risk or admitting that it exists but if I was to proffer an analysis of NZs immigration system I would say that its deeply flawed and we have compromised ourselves in order to facilitate easy tourismdollars, offset a stagnant economy by bringing in cheap labour and to ignoring international reputation damaging people we happily let in because they have friends in high places.

Our current immigration system is broken but not in the way that Van Beynen thinks. We currently process immigration applications like a production line, standardizing what we do and setting daily weekly quotas to which middle managers have to meet no matter the risks or the pressure on staff.

We outsource a wide range of work to foreign parties (including making decisions on applications and handling important documents) despite warnings of the risk or danger inherent. Also INZ has a long history of its own internal failures, most of which remain hidden, but where a few have partially surfaced (try googling ‘project crusade NZ” to get a taste of what can go wrong).

The public has only just started to become aware of the issues with the wide range of work visas being issued in NZ but several of these categories were created as payments to various nations for services rendered or votes /support given elsewhere or with a sudden reduction in oversight of their own nationals when they entered NZ no matter the risk.

The ugly truth of immigration in this country is that it serves a purpose and most of NZ benefits from it but those who benefit the most are often those who decide what our immigration policy should be not those who have to deal or live with the effects of it.

Immigration pressures have been cited as a factor in the housing hernia and it is correct as they do factor in but as many have pointed out it’s the government’s response (or lack of it) which is in fact creating the problem. Immigration is a similar issue.

Van Beynans article is honest and has some basis but is a quick road to thinking that it’s just a case of shutting the door when the issue is already inside the house; it’s been here all along.

I will write more on this at a later date but it’s worth ending things today with the following thought: A co-worker of mine was bemoaning the current immigration situation as they saw it. They expressed unhappiness with house prices going up into the stratosphere and the fact that they saw foreign speculators and immigrants as a prime cause. They then lamented the low wage situation and how wage increases were few and far between due to lots of “foreign talent” (as they sarcastically remarked) coming in. Finally they began to remark how they felt about “their country” being sold out from under them and how they felt powerless to do anything about it.

At that point a co-worker* of mine piped up from behind the partition and said the following line. “Now you know how the Maori felt when the Europeans arrived”.

*-yes they were Maori.


  1. E.A asks "Is New Zealand really ready to talk about Immigration?". Well, some of us are, though not all may be ready to listen.

    From the time they left their ancestral Eden, human beings have been migrants. They have also been territorial as illustrated in the phrase "tangata whenua". What happens when migrants come into contact with tangata whenua? That depends on the tikanga of the respective parties. When Tuhourangi lost their lands at Te Wairoa to the Tarawera eruption in 1886 Ngati Whakaue made them welcome and gave land at Ngapuna where they could re-establish themselves, and where many remain to this day. The tikanga that applied was manaakitanga - hospitality to the visitor or stranger - which may be almost as old as the countervailing territorial instinct. That happy migration arrangement between Tuhourangi and Ngati Whakaue may have owed something to the fact that the the two tribes were closely related within the Arawa waka, but more fundamentally the hospitality of Ngati Whakaue was extended because both Tuhourangi and Ngati Whakaue subscribed to the tikanga of manaakitanga.

    Should New Zealanders use their status of tangata whenua to show the same spirit of manaakitanga to the thousands of would be immigrants who want to settle in this country? Perhaps they should. But they are unlikely to do so for a very simple reason. Neither they nor the immigrants have a strong commitment to manaakitanga. The New Zealanders of today are obsessed with territoriality - under the legal guise of "property" - and so, the evidence suggests, are most, if not all of the new immigrants and would-be immigrants. That does not mean that strife between immigrants and those who consider themselves to be tangata whenua or native New Zealanders is inevitable, but it definitely raises the odds on conflict.

    The often cited fact that all nations are made up of migrants has little moral or practical impact. Once people have established themselves in a land, or on a piece of property, the territorial instinct takes charge by default. New arrivals may be discouraged, resisted or evicted, and the only way of mitigating that territorial instinct is through a strong tikanga which respects the situation, rights, interests and desires of both tangata whenua and manuhiri.

    The questions around immigration into New Zealand in 2016 are of course much more complex than the plight of Tuhourangi in 1886. People are migrating to New Zealand for a great range of reasons, and there are similarly wide-ranging consequences for native New Zealanders. Government corruption, both here and abroad, has further complicated the immigration debate.

    In settled times the natural ebb and flow of migration takes place on a small scale and has little discernable social impact. Mass migrations occur in times of crisis, principally war and famine (or at a lower level political conflict and economic distress). They depopulate the countries in crisis and profoundly change the demographic structure of the countries in which the migrants seek refuge. Such migrations are largely spontaneous and the decision to migrate is made by the migrants themselves, with the receiving countries at best playing a passive role. They have occurred throughout history, with one of the earliest recorded examples being the movement of the people of Israel into and out of Egypt.

    1. To continue..
      There have also been contrived mass migrations, engineered by imperial powers for reasons of state. An early example would be the forced removal of the people of Israel by the Babylonians, and their subsequent repatriation to the land of Israel by the Persians. The organised and planned mass movement of peoples, with its origins in antiquity, was raised to an art form by the British empire. Tamils were moved to Sri Lanka, Indians to Africa and Fiji, Africans to the Caribbean and North America, Melanesians to Queensland, Chinese and Indians to Singapore and Malaya, Jews to Palestine, and British people themselves were moved in relatively small numbers to the British Asian, African, Mediterranean, Caribbean and Polynesian territories, and in large numbers to North America, Australia and New Zealand. These movements were neither accidental nor spontaneous. They had clearly defined economic, political and military objectives. The purposes were to support the development of the cotton industry in North America, rubber production in Malaya, rice and tea in Sri Lanka, sugar in Fiji and the Caribbean, wheat in Australia and North America, gold, timber, meat, dairy products and wool in New Zealand and so on. There were also broader geopolitical objectives surrounding the establishment of a global seaborne empire which needed coaling and provisioning for its ships in all seven seas, and subject populations able to be conscripted in time of war. Migration was one of the most important instruments of imperial policy. Within countries such as South Africa and New Zealand the British also pioneered the development enforced internal migrations through the use of concentration camps to neutralize recalcitrant native populations.

      New Zealand fits the model of planned mass migrations within the territories of the British empire. The first plans were formulated by the New Zealand Company in the late 1830s. The Treaty of Waitangi was designed to facilitate this planned migration and the wars of the 1860s were fought to remove the remaining obstacles to migration. In fact, mass immigration has been the central policy of the New Zealand state since its foundation in 1840. That makes New Zealand almost unique among the nations of the world, with one obvious exception being of the State of Israel. Most mature nations concentrate their efforts on economic and social development as a means of achieving stability, but nations like Israel, and more particularly New Zealand rely on immigration for their political survival. For New Zealand immigration is the lazy and dumb alternative to intelligent economic development. So New Zealand is rather like a country riding a bicycle. If it stops moving, if or when the immigration flow stops, the economy is in danger of falling over. The problem is that at some point the bicycle has to come to a stop.

      Whatever the government may say, the motive for building a society of immigrants is as much political as economic. Just as Israel needs to keep increasing its Jewish population in order to maintain numerical superiority over the Arabs of Israel and the West Bank, the New Zealand government has needed a constant inflow of new immigrants to maintain its links to the British empire, and to keep the native (New Zealand born) population in a state of political subordination.

      (to be continued)

    2. The policy was well articulated by Premier Sir Julius Vogel in 1870 when he told Parliament "the balancing of the numbers of the two races by a large European immigration - will do more to put an end to hostilities and to confirm peaceful relations, than an army of ten thousand men". This statement was made at a time when the number of Europeans already exceeded the number of natives, so to Vogel "balancing" clearly meant an overwhelming and dominant majority of Europeans. He also frankly acknowledged that immigration policy was a civil war strategy. Immigration would put an end to the fighting, because it would leave the natives hopelessly out-numbered. In the same speech Vogel noted "what sheep breeding (is) to the run-holder...are immigrants, if they become settlers, to the state". That must rank as one of the most candid statements in New Zealand political history. Vogel saw that just as people farm sheep, the state farms people. Immigration is designed to serve the interests of the state by increasing the stock of citizens willing to be farmed by the state. Immigration was not designed to serve the interests of the immigrants themselves, and certainly was not designed to benefit the native population.

      These days the stock political postulate is that immigration is intended to help the economy which works in the interests of all New Zealanders, but the real purpose of immigration remains exactly what it was in Vogel's day. Politicians often talk of the economy as though it was a thing in itself, a person, a family, corporation or state, which has interests of its own. That is a deception. People, firms and states have interests within an economy, but the economy has no interests of its own, just as the weather has no interests of its own even though people may have (often conflicting) interests in the weather. The invisible hand does not attach to an invisible torso. Immigration policy primarily serves the interests of the state, and secondarily the interests of those who control the state. No more than wet weather on the one hand, or dry weather on the other, can immigration be of universal economic benefit.

      Immigrants to New Zealand have always been a mixed bag. In the early days, escaped convicts, runaway sailors, and Christian missionaries. Later on remittance men, bankrupts, religious idealists and dispossessed agricultural labourers. In the present day the same strange mix of social idealists, environmentalists, medical practitioners, scientists and technologists along with white racists from Southern Africa, corrupt capitalists and public officials from East Asia, self-seeking bureaucrats with a highly developed sense of personal entitlement from Anglo-Saxon nations.

      The native response to immigration has been equally mixed. In the early nineteenth century Maori welcomed immigrants who could introduce new technologies, facilitate trade and initiate certain specific cultural changes. In the process some of them also welcomed grog dealers, the tobacco trade, and the mixed blessings of European firearms. The problem is that every influx of new immigrants reduces the amount of land available for the use by the native population, and that was one reason, perhaps the primary reason, why some Maori began to resist land sales, and by implication immigration. On the other hand some Maori were always willing to sell land, and since those willing to sell claimed rights over considerable areas of coveted land, the amount of land in Maori hands declined inexorably, even before the wars and the confiscations.

    3. (to conclude)
      Mass immigration, conquest and dispossession were not things that just happened to Maori. They were part of the process, and if Maori had not been riven by conflicting loyalties and desires history would have taken a very different course. The present native population of New Zealand is behaving in remarkably similar ways. Many support immigration for the perceived benefits it brings, including the facilitation of trade, technology, cultural diversity, easier ways of living and getting by, and, importantly, the opportunity to sell land. As with Maori, some of the benefits of new technology and cultures are overstated, many of the benefits of property sales are frittered away and not all New Zealanders (in fact only a small minority) have a share in those benefits. As was the case with Maori, there is no united front among native New Zealanders on the question of immigration because there is no real sense in which they feel themselves to be a people with an obligation to their own kind.

      Mass immigration is stressing New Zealand society at a time when it has already been fractured and disoriented by the social and economic restructuring.of the fourth Labour government. There is little prospect that the nation will be able to deal with the stresses of migrant inflows in a deliberate, coherent and effective manner. The on-going, never-ending "housing hernia" saga is the most obvious example of how New Zealand now seems incapable of managing the consequences of an immigration policy that has been pretty well unchanged for the past two hundred years. The old policies no longer work as well as they did during the last great waves of immigration, for example in the 1870s, 1920s and 1950s. That is hardly surprising. The world has changed, and more to the point, New Zealand has changed. In the late nineteenth century the New Zealand state had a clearly thought out strategy for accommodating the immigrants. Vogel began building the railways, which opened up vast areas of land for productive settlement. His predecessor, Sir George Grey, had already neutralized the threat from Maori nationalism. The present New Zealand state lacks the wit, the will and the wherewithal to follow his example. It can do nothing, and it is doing nothing to either forestall a nationalist backlash, or to provide for the needs of the immigrants. Even though Vogel believed in the "thoroughly reproductive nature of immigration" in an "underpopulated country" he was at pains to ensure that immigration was "judiciously managed". A century and a half later, his successors in a much more densely populated country have no conception of what "judicious management" would even look like.

  2. Hi Geoff:

    In depth and thoughtful comments as always.

    Just a technical question first before I add any more to the discussion. Was the site limiting the size of your replies as you have come though in four parts. If it has I will check to see if I can adjust the limits of replies.

    In regards to your comments:

    NZ has always had an interesting relationship with its immigration inflows and outflows and after five years of not only dealing with it daily but seeing the actual numbers (when I started outflows were greater than inflows and when I left five years later it was the opposite) has left me in a similar opinion as yourself but with the caveat that a reliance on immigration to offset our economic position could be a viable policy for a small far flung nation if it was better articulated and implemented as many of the people who come to NZ today are coming just to work as much to live and as such some only come for the period of their employ (often referred to as "economic migrants").

    That said that is the more modern take on things and based on the fact that for NZ to stop getting by on immigration flows now would be almost impossible to either National or Labour, the reliance on foreign workers and the pressure they put on local wages has proved an invaluable tool for National to break the power of the unions, even if only peripheral to the effects of the Employment Contracts Act.

    What I was trying to highlight, which you noted as well is that internal "politics" is often, if not more, the driver of issues in immigration. We live in a global age and people crossing borders is a reality unless you live in Antarctica or somewhere like that.

    But like you say, the crux is how united/divided the local populace is to what is happening ot their country and at the moment NZ seem in thrall to our current state although I think the mood is changing but its changing to a backlash against the easy option, the people themselves who come here rather than the facilitators of the movement, in this case the government and its immigration policies.

    And yes no one still knows what "judicious management" looks like. If you could see the way visas are handed out it would probably make you mad as hell.

  3. I wrote a response, found it exceeded the word limit for comments, and then worked around the rules in order to post the full text. I do respect rules, and now that I know the length restriction exists, in future I will limit my responses to 4000 characters.

    Emigration from New Zealand is as interesting as immigration, and it serves similar political and economic purposes. It is about mobility of labour, "labour market flexibility" or to put it crudely cheap labour (the Treasury is freed from the costs of maintaining non-productive labour), but also intended to avoid accumulating a body of of under-employed people who could potentially threaten the political status quo. Emigration, particularly to Australia, is a political safety valve for the New Zealand state. Many of us have whanau in Australia, Canada or California, although we also notice quite a few first generation emigrants have recently been returning to Rotorua. A sign of changing times perhaps?

    The easy option is to indiscriminately criticize the immigrants themselves. The next easiest option is to blame government policy, which admittedly has been mercenary, deceitful and disgraceful. However government does not form policy in a vacuum, and New Zealand's immigration policies reflect the political and moral values of a large section of the population. When those values change for the better, government immigration policies may follow suit.

    While I have no doubt that the visa system is misused and abused, I try to remain emotionally detached about abuses within the system of government in New Zealand, so as to avoid becoming "mad as hell" every hour of every day.