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Election 2020: Will there be an immigration reset or a new normal?

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says the border will re-open sooner than people think and mass immigration should be consigned to the past.

Immigration spokespeople in the 2020 election campaign (from left): Labour's Kris Faafoi; the National party's Stuart Smith; Golriz Ghahraman of the Greens; ACT's James McDowall and NZ First leader Winston Peters. Source: rnz.co.nz

By Gill Bonnett for rnz.co.nz

Labour says there will be a new normal - while National wants to introduce a tech visa, ushering in highly skilled overseas workers and entrepreneurs.

The closed border may not have killed the immigration debate at this election, but it has made it more complicated.

Labour said it was not realistic to set numbers on new residents and temporary workers in the current climate.

Immigration spokesperson Kris Faafoi said Covid has forced industry to reconsider where its workforce comes from.

"From the very first moment that I became the Minister of Immigration a couple of months ago we were sending a strong message to sectors who were crying out for labour from offshore that they had to start rethinking things for the medium and long term. As we start seeing the effect that Covid has on New Zealand workers, we start prioritising them and the training opportunities and the wage opportunities that will come out of that as well.

"I do think that because of our success with fighting Covid in comparison to other countries, that New Zealand will be an extremely attractive place for people to want to potentially come to. The challenge for New Zealand is how to use that increase in demand to make sure that you're getting the right kinds of skills in and maximising the opportunity to economically, culturally and socially bounce back from the effects of Covid."

Managed isolation (MIQ) is predominantly for New Zealand residents and citizens, but Labour wants to open up a quota for skilled workers and investors.

"We do know that we've got to make sure about our capacity to grow, using MIQ capacity for that and and that looking at what kinds of skills and talent we want to bring into New Zealand is important for us to be able to bounce back from the economic effects of Covid.

"We are certainly keen on making sure that we can bring talented individuals and companies to New Zealand to invest."

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Massey University professor Paul Spoonley joined Breakfast to discuss the latest findings from TVNZ’s Vote Compass tool. Source: Breakfast

National Party immigration spokesperson Stuart Smith said immigration numbers should be led by business needs rather than government targets.

The first priority was the safety of the border, he said, but overseas workers were needed to fill gaps in the economy.

"I think that's been one of the major failings at the moment - we haven't fully utilised all of the capacity that's available for quarantining. And we have businesses crying out for specialists to come in who can't get in the country because they just simply won't give them quarantine space."

National's technology growth policy would see fast-tracked processes for overseas investors and entrepreneurs, and tech visas for skilled workers.

In time the technology sector could equal dairy in terms of revenue, he said.

"We'd relax the requirements for an investment class visa so we could make it much less red tape involved and make it a very attractive destination for those high-net worth investors and technology entrepreneurs to come in and that would really help our tech sector move to the next level."

National leader Judith Collins also announced yesterday its plans to allow skilled and seasonal workers back into the country.

ACT's immigration spokesperson James McDowall said there had been a massive immigration reset caused by Covid-19 and the country would need to find a way to attract people back.

"The reality is we've had a great number of migrants leave New Zealand, those on temporary visas. And then at the same time we've had a lot of New Zealanders come back to New Zealand so there will be a big shift here - immigration has basically flatlined.

"I think we have an opportunity to use our relatively Covid-free status, our ability to manage the virus well to attract extraordinarily skilled people, investors and other productive individuals to New Zealand. Immigration numbers have plummeted this year and with all of the expat New Zealanders coming home, things have shifted - the skills landscape has shifted massively."

The immigration points system was not necessarily focused on the right things, McDowall said.

"Immigration today has devolved into a complex and arbitrary system of points and scores when what we really need to do is look at how we can best understand where the skill shortages are."

Education providers would lose market share to other countries if a solution was not found to managed isolation.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has reversed the usual brain drain associated with NZ. Source: Seven Sharp

Britain this week reported a record intake of students from outside the EU, with a 9 percent rise despite its handling of the coronavirus crisis.

He described the changes made to sponsoring a parent as punitive - immigrants must now earn at least $106,000 a year.

Green Party immigration spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman said she also wanted the parent category back on the table.

Fairness should be the priority and refugee numbers should gradually rise to 4000 - putting New Zealand between Australia and Canada in the per capita number of refugees it accepts.

"Our focus has been to get the immigration system working on a principled sort of basis where we're not necessarily, for example, delaying residence visas to bring down numbers arbitrarily. That we're providing pathways for migrant workers or students who come here in good faith to be both protected against exploitation, but also to apply for residency and have those applications processed fairly.

"The residence programme I think has been a source of real stress and anxiety for migrants and it has felt really exploitative of New Zealand to let people in and have them integrate into our system, to give their labour or their money in terms of education and then not be able to settle. I think setting arbitrary numbers by political parties has been the cause of that."

New Zealand First wants to take the immigration portfolio if it is part of the next government - but leader Winston Peters would not be drawn on whether he wanted to be immigration minister.

He said wholesale and low-skilled immigration in the last three decades created dysfunctional supply and demand in housing, health and infrastructure.

Global investors must also only be allowed in on New Zealand's terms, he said.

"Immigration is still a serious issue for this election. And what we do after this, hopefully, is not to learn nothing from it and go down the same pathway as the previous Labour and National Party governments did.

"We can run immigration properly in our interests, that is bring people here who we desperately need, not people who desperately need us. Let me tell you, I can't find any other country in the free world that's gone down the path that we've previously inherited, which we're trying to turn back now."

New Zealand First took credit for keeping Immigration New Zealand in check over the last three years.

"[There has been] a far closer examination and inspection of what the Immigration department is doing. Countless challenges to them, nearly on a monthly basis to how they're preparing the information; disquiet expressed to them about the way their information was so poorly assembled; and in the end by saying we want that portfolio after the next election. Why? Because no way should a system like that have been allowed to run down so badly."

Among parties not currently in Parliament, the Māori Party promised this week it would halt all immigration until housing supply catches up with demand.

The New Conservative Party also has a Net Zero immigration policy while housing demand eases, with student visas and seasonal workers excluded.

The Opportunities Party would hold a Royal Commission into immigration needs and effects, and meantime restrict visas to jobs in areas of skills shortage and students at postgraduate level.