An immigration policy that is economically harmful and electorally flawed
For someone who is known derogatorily as Angry Andy, the leader of the opposition was beaming with delight as he announced his plan to reduce immigration by 50,000 a year if elected Prime Minister. It’s hard to comprehend why a politician, especially one of a left wing party could be so happy about cutting immigration. Little has alienated almost every ethnic minority and liberal in this country, while spouting lies about the economic impact of immigration. His supporters argue it will win the infamous “Middle New Zealand”, but Little has missed the point of how to appeal to them as well.
The Boring Economics Bit
Latte swilling Wellington lefties like myself tend to pretend that there are no problems with our system of immigration. That the system is never exploited or the wrong people are never let in. Worst of all, it is too easy for liberals to paint opponents of immigration as racists or xenophobes. They are not.
The essential requirement for being pro immigration.
To be sure, the racists and xenophobes love to jump on the anti-immigration train as much as anyone. When Donald Trump implies Mexicans are rapists, when Winston Peters says “two Wongs don’t make a White”, these blow a xenophobic dog whistle which only appeals to a vocal minority of voters motivated by race. But ordinary voters are not racist, including almost all of those concerned about immigration.
Winston’s reaction when told to stop being racist.
On the other side of the coin, it’s also too easy for the nationalists and populists to paint immigration as a negative, or the narrative that immigrants make a nation worse off through crime or poverty. These too are false. On economic grounds, immigration is a good thing. Immigrants do not steal jobs from New Zealanders, and immigrants pay more in taxes than they take in services- making our hospitals and schools run better in the long run.
In Germany, which let in over one million immigrants in 2015 alone, there was no link to unemployment for German citizens. In crime, the only change was a slight increase in people not paying parking tickets.
The Fijian who moves to New Zealand to help pick fruit in Hawke’s Bay does not rob the unemployed New Zealander of his fruit picking job. Instead, the fruit picker earns and spends his money in the local economy, while improving the productivity of the industry he works in. This spreads wealth and more jobs throughout the economy. Immigrants pay more in taxes than they take in services. Cutting migration takes services away from every New Zealander, not the other way around.
That is not to say in the short term, immigration won’t reduce wages, or strain infrastructure. But cutting it means we have less to help children in poverty, and less jobs for working class New Zealand. By not even acknowledging this, Andrew Little is running on Donald Trump’s lies.
It won’t win votes either
Defenders of Little’s stance on immigration may point out that whilst cutting immigration may not be economically effective, it will win votes. Despite his denial that the political centre exists, Little’s supporters argue he is trying to win over his mental image of it. As Labour strategist Matt McCarten pointed out, alienated urban liberals will go to “The Greens. And that’s fine, their votes stay on the left”.
This would be a great plan…. except the Greens have a stricter policy on immigration than Labour. Potential coalition partners New Zealand First and Gareth Morgan’s TOP have even stricter still. Like it or not, the alternative to Labour’s immigration policy is the National party, or their coalition partners ACT, Maori, and United Future. Essentially, Little’s policy is telling low income, working people, of Indian, Chinese and Pacific Island descent to hold their nose and vote for a National government which will do nothing for their well-being.
A clumsy number cutting approach will also struggle to win votes because it makes the crude assumption that voters just care about immigrants coming into their country. People care about whether they have a job, what they can afford, and the quality of their schools and hospitals. They care about immigration to the extent it impacts these. The answer to this is not no immigration, it is controlled immigration. This was shown by GQR Research in the UK, along with the 2015 election report from Labour pollster Deborah Mattinson where working class voters reiterated the need for immigration. What matters is a government being able to manage who enters a country and who doesn’t, and how they manage the necessary infrastructure. Cutting numbers isn’t about control, it’s about numbers.
The reason half the country voted National in 2014 was not because Labour was too lenient on immigration. There were a multitude of factors in Labour’s defeat. Little’s policy may appeal to a subset of voters, mainly in NZ First, but he will struggle to win them over due to his MOU with the Greens, his support for doubling the refugee quota, and his party’s brand as that of urban liberals and Chardonnay socialists. To win over rural NZ First voters, Little has a lot more to do than just cutting immigration.
A *cough* multitude of *cough* factors…
What should Andrew Little have done?
He could have been the candidate of controlled immigration. He could have taken on the companies that fraudulently sell fake student visas for profit, and embraced changes like the one National made earlier this week to bring in higher earning migrants, nor should they be afraid of stripping people of residency if they break the law.
If wages were being lowered, Labour could subsidise wages in the affected industry. This would make sure workers don’t miss out in the short term because of immigration.
Finally, Little could have taken the pressure off Auckland, adjusting the points system to highly discourage moving to Auckland instead of the regions. Towns all over New Zealand need more people moving there, especially skilled workers.
He could have attacked NZ First and the Greens anti-immigration stances as both morally cruel and economically irresponsible, while critiquing National as lazy and ineffective.
This would have positioned him directly in the political centre, yet could not be accused ignoring the problems around immigration. It is important to convince working class New Zealand that immigration under control, while not throwing working migrants under the bus either. With a clear platform of immigration reforms which were neither xenophobic, nor economically damaging, while embracing the benefits of multiculturalism and bringing in skilled workers, labour would look ready to govern.
Instead Andrew Little has fallen for the classic political trap of trying to yell loudly enough about how “OUTRAGEOUS” a political issue is until people vote for him. He is appealing, not to people’s principles, but to a warped view of “Middle New Zealand”. Little’s opposition to immigration will join his similar attitude to the TPP, a capital gains tax, a flag change, raising the retirement age and Nick Leggett’s existence, in a lengthy line of negative campaigning.
The fate of this campaigning style will be decided on September 23rd.