15 STOUT STREET & MBIE WORKPLACE via warrenandmahoney.com
15 STOUT STREET & MBIE WORKPLACE via warrenandmahoney.com

ACT MP James McDowall: Stout Street on a Boulevard of Broken Dreams

Opinion 09/07/2021

OPINION: Sitting high and mighty on Stout Street in Wellington is the head office of MBIE, and within that building lies Immigration New Zealand, an institution that seems content with ruining lives and sabotaging our economic recovery. 

Of course, they’re not entirely to blame. They have arrived at this point due to inane political ideology from the Labour Party, and in particular, a Minister of Immigration that openly decries migrant workers and denounces businesses for employing them. 

The Labour Party campaigned in 2017 on reducing migration to 30,000 net arrivals. They never implemented their policy (it worked about as well as Kiwibuild), but COVID-19 has more than realised their dream. In the year to March 2021, net arrivals were down 92 percent. Labour’s current attitude towards immigration should come as no surprise to anyone. 

In May of this year, the Government announced that it would review immigration settings. It called COVID-19 a ‘once-in-a-generation opportunity to change’ immigration – a ‘reset’. The Government described migrants as increasingly low-skilled and that COVID-19 ‘starkly highlighted our reliance on migrant labour’. The reality is that New Zealand has economy-wide skills shortages, and the Government continues to deny reality.

If the Government finally implements its ‘reset’ – whatever that is – skilled workers who might have chosen New Zealand will go elsewhere. It will become even more difficult for businesses to fill skill gaps from overseas so that they can grow and compete globally, harming the prospects of workers who are already here, too.

New Zealand’s immigration system is a mess. Crucially, the Skilled Migrant Category – our flagship residence visa – is not fit for purpose. This visa’s failure is largely caused by years of dishonest advertising by successive governments. In short, the aggressive selling of our export education sector as a simple pathway to residence.

This practice misaligned our immigration system with our education sector. Attracting international students to study in New Zealand should be promoted, however, there needs to be clear expectations and criteria set as to how students can eventually get residence after studying here. This includes a list of qualifications that are in high demand in New Zealand, and work requirements upon graduation for a pathway to residency.

Visa processing delays have reached unprecedented levels – 25 months and growing for the Skilled Migrant Category in fact. Migrants with valuable skills currently wait too long to get certainty in their lives and decide to go elsewhere, for example Canada or Australia, who both have expedited visas based on skills. Many are split from their families, including young children, due to border policy. Migrants are ready to give up on New Zealand, taking their skills with them. 

We’ve also been hearing a lot about the adult children of those waiting for their applications to be processed. They are stuck in no-man’s land, unable to work, study, or get into the trades for the betterment of the New Zealand economy. The Minister says he is seeking advice. Well, here’s some free advice: just grant them temporary work visas with a condition that does not take them out of their families residence applications, so that they can get on with their lives and up-skill while they wait for Immigration New Zealand to do their jobs. 

While you’re at it Minister, have the courage to grant work visas to those on working holiday visas, rather than just extending them at the very last minute in a bid to try to get them to leave. Like a lot of problems in our immigration system, these are not hard fixes.

The lapsing of 50,000 temporary visa applications is another sign that Immigration New Zealand and the Government are throwing in the towel when it comes to reopening the border or expanding MIQ to allow more skilled workers to come in. Meanwhile, employers around the country are scrambling for workers with ‘help wanted’ signs fast becoming a permanent feature.

TradeMe has a record number of job ads, and businesses across all sectors are shutting up shop and scaling back operations, all while being chastised from the Government for not ‘simply’ hiring more locals. Imagine that – a record number of job ads and Immigration New Zealand still requires employers to go through a ‘labour market test’, a pencil-pushing exercise where the employer has to prove that they are struggling to fill a roll, even if the migrant already works for them and just needs to renew their visa. That’s just stupid. 

While it’s not entirely surprising that they are lapsing 50,000 temporary visa applications, it has caused concern that something similar may happen to those who are waiting endlessly to have their residence applications or Expressions of Interest looked at. 

The Minister has told me (more than once) that he is not going to scrap these applications, but that won’t stop him from giving migrants a dud deal to force their hand: claim a refund now or wait for years to have any certainty in your lives. I suspect that’s coming. 

Immigration is a crucial component of our economic recovery, and if the Government doesn’t get competitive, New Zealand will get left behind in attracting highly skilled migrants, including entrepreneurs, and filling our long-term skill shortages. Worse still, we may see another ‘brain drain’ of migrants currently here who give up on trying to get residency or cannot get their partners and children here.

Many of our businesses and public services either couldn’t function, or would be much poorer, without the infusion of new people and ideas. New Zealand needs to recognise the long term and generational economic and social value of immigration, and the strategic importance of immigration for our post-COVID-19 recovery.

The solutions are relatively straightforward, however given Immigration New Zealand’s unforgivable delays in visa processing and overall attitude problem, this may all just be too hard for them. 

In the long-term, there are growing calls for replacing the department entirely, and launching a new immigration system that fills skills shortages, and empowers migrants, businesses, and communities. We need to truly unlock New Zealand’s economic potential and get globally competitive. 

Unfortunately, we are currently on a road to nowhere. The Government is delusional, and that’s being ‘kind’. 

This oped was written by ACT MP James McDowall. James has a PhD in marketing, he has a young family, and speaks Chinese.

He is ACT’s spokesperson for Immigration and Economic Development.

James owns several small businesses, including an immigration law firm. He has also worked for a large NGO in the mental health sector.

He is a classical liberal who is sceptical of big Government. His experience in business and the community sector has taught him that Government has a role but when it oversteps that role it becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.