Immigration is needed in New Zealand but we need to optimise it: James Shaw, co-leader, Green Party

Immigration is needed in New Zealand but we need to optimise it: James Shaw, co-leader, Green Party

Last year, the Green Party came up with a population-based immigration policy, fixing the immigration numbers to one percent? Can you explain that?

Shaw: Without getting into the numbers, we want to make sure that people coming into New Zealand have got a place to live and aren’t being exploited. There’s quite a lot of evidence at the moment, the way that the government is currently managing the immigration settings that new migrants into New Zealand are being quite badly exploited in terms of pay, in particular, paying conditions. It takes them quite a long time to lift their living standards. And also because New Zealand has historically had quite low population growth. Our construction centre and planning around infrastructure like public transport has been geared to quite low rate of construction. So what’s happened is that in the last couple of years we’ve had a very big spike and that’s not just the people coming into the country, its also a function of New Zealanders not leaving the country, and New Zealanders coming home. So we’ve had this situationwhere it’s been very bouncy. It means we haven’t been able to accommodate people. So what we’re looking at doing is saying we’d like to try and smooth the peaks and the troughs. So that in years where like historically its been quite low like you might relax it and allow more people in, and then another years, just tighten it a bit so that the construction centre in particular can respond to a plan for the level of demand.

So is the housing crisis because of immigration?

Shaw: No, not entirely. There’s been significant population growth but actually the housing crisis is a function of many things, one of which is our failure to manage capital gains. You’ve got people who are trading houses as financial instrument.

Is one of the factor increasing migration?

Shaw: It is increasing population which is partially due to migration.

So why are you putting a number on migration as one percent?

Shaw: It can be any number you choose. The idea is to smooth the peaks and the troughs and to make it predictable. We were simply saying 1% of the time because historically our population growth has been 1% so our construction centre and all of our planning has been geared up for 1% growth in the population and it hasn’t been able to respond quickly enough to deal with essentially a doubling of demand in a very short period of time. It takes about 5 years to plan out the investment for housing and transport and so on, so what you could do is say for example if it was 1% then you have it at that level for few years and then you might increase it but the point is you would have some predictability. So what we’re really trying to do is to build some predictability. That’s the underlying principle.

You sound like Labour leader Andrew Little, who says there's no magic number on immigration and that it depends on circumstances?

Shaw: I haven’t spoken to Andrew and the Labour party about immigration policy so I can’t really comment for what their policy is. I think he’s also looking to build more predictability so that we’re able to make sure that people have got houses to live in when they do arrive. And so what the Green party has said is that we’re currently going a having a look at our immigration policy. It’s one of those things where we’ve never really commented much on the debate. Part of that is because the way that we approach it is we really want to take a humanitarian led approach so we’ve been for example very strong on ensuring we take our fair share of refugees coming in from other countries. We’ve been very strong on the rights of the Indian students who are being exploited, and so on. The problem is that there are voices in New Zealand who have really banged on about immigration

And hijacked the entire immigration agenda? Such as New Zealand First?

Shaw: Yeah, that really annoyed me because my whole point is that we’ve got to get away from the conversation about being anti-immigrant and you know the kind of things that Mr. Peters has tended to be associated with in the past. But at the same time you’ve got to have a way of managing what the numbers are.

And at least be able to talk about the issue, without being labelled racist?

Shaw: I would like to be able to do that but it’s incredibly hard in New Zealand and I think perhaps because he and others have been going on for 20 years about this. Maybe we should have been responding earlier saying there’s another way to talk about this. It has made it very difficult to get into that conversation and say what would a well managed program look like, because at the moment we don’t feel that it’s doing anyone any good and particularly actually people coming into this country.

So, in your opinion, do migrants add any value to New Zealand?

Shaw: Yes. First of all, I lived in London which is one of the most diverse cities in the world so I really appreciate particularly the cultural diversity and the vibrancy that comes to a country when you’ve got a very rich multi-ethnic kind of society. But all of the evidence shows that immigrants add more to the economy than they subtract. And they tend to start businesses, they tend to be much more productive, depends on the category and job type they’re in.

That’s economically. And culturally?

Shaw: Part of my problem with the way National has been managing immigration is that they’re really using immigration to boost economic growth GDP growth. But they’re not doing it in a way that’s particularly high quality. GDP is simply an activity, all it does is describe economic activity. So the more people you add in, more activity you get, and it looks like things are growing. But actually GDP per capita is not growing. It’s actually low compared to the rest of the OECD. That’s because the productivity of the whole economy isn't actually doing their role. They’re actually using immigration to cover up the deficiency in economic growth.  

And you have criticised them about this in the past.

Shaw: I have. I think it’s a very simplistic, it’s actually a dishonest way of doing it.

When we had a chat with your Party's immigration spokesperson Denise Roche, we agreed that some of Green Party's immigration policy statements need to be updated. What do you have to say to that?

Shaw: Denise is actually leading a review of our old policy. As I said before, we haven’t really talked about immigration a great deal, and that policy hasn’t been updated in a very long time. So it is actually up for review at the moment.

About knowing about the Treaty of Waitangi, English tests, and all?

Shaw: Everybody in New Zealand should actually understand the Treaty of Waitangi. But I don’t agree with the idea that people should pass a language test before they enter.

All this should be a part of living, integrating and growing up in New Zealand?

Shaw: Precisely. When I lived in London I became a British citizen over there and this is very early on, they’ve changed the system now, but they had a sort of a citizenship exam. It was quite educational, so it start to build up a sense of how things work in Britain. It was pretty easy for me I have to say as an English speaking New Zealander but it wasn’t really a barrier for people. It was something that people did as they were going through the process.

So by the time ,we have elections in September, will the Green Party have a proper immigration policy reflecting your views, as the co-leader of the Party?

Shaw: Yes. Denise is trying to get it through as fast as we can. I have to say that Green party policy processes can take a while because we have all these rounds of consultation and we like to go to members and talk to members and stuff like that.

Coming to the ethnic communities representation in the Green Party, why don't you have any?

Shaw: In the last 6-12 months I’ve put a lot go effort into recruiting people who would stand as candidates. In fact I’ve just come from this weekend the candidate list ranking conference in Wellington. We've put a lot of effort into increasing our ethnic diversity, particularly from Eastern and Southern Asian countries. But we’ve also had our first Latino candidate for example as well. The members of the Green party vote on the list so I can’t say what will happen but I’m very confident that we will have at least one Asian in a very winnable list position, possibly two, or even someone from the Pacifika community as well because we don’t have anyone from the Pacifika community as yet. I’ve actually been quite embarrassed that the Green party has, I mean we’re good when it comes to Maori, 4 out of 14 of our MPs are Maori, but all of the remaining eight are Pakehas. And that doesn’t look like modern New Zealand. So I’m very committed that we do diversify our caucus particularly in terms of ethnicity but also in terms of professional background and so on.

What do you have to say about the international students issue that keeps cropping up? Some are now calling it “education trafficking”?

Shaw: Yes it is the institutions and the government. We’ve been here before. In the 1990s again another National government allowed for this huge growth in English language schools and we were bringing in 10s of thousands of young kids, mostly from China and East Asia, to come over here and learn English, and they were living in terrible circumstances, really bad housing, and a lot of cowboy operators in the market place. It has exactly the same thing that has happened again, and for the same reasons, because the government was able to say all contributes to economic growth but actually those kids were getting exploited. They weren’t getting a quality education and in the end the entire sector collapsed because the reputation of New Zealand as a destination to go and learn English fell through the floor because of these dodgy operators and we see a lot of the same behaviour happening here. in fact some of these institutions they barely even qualify as an education institution and they’re promising people that come over here with pretence to get an education and we’ll put you on a citizenship pathway. But there are some good operators as well and you’ve got to be able to sort the good from the bad. But I think government has opened a whole can of worms here and they are really exploiting.

Do you think, if the issue is not solved, such deportations will keep happening?

Shaw: That’s absolutely right. You’ll keep seeing cases like these coming up over and over and over again and they keep blaming the students who are being exploited, not the operators and not themselves.

What about exploitation of migrants by employers?

Shaw: Steven Joyce loves migrant workers because they get paid below the minimum wage and it keeps wage rates down, and again, it helps him to say that the economy is growing. But it’s only as a result of a proper exploitation. So we really need the policing of employers.

Increase the number of labour inspectors, you mean?

Shaw: Yes, we’ve got so few labour inspectors. Under 60, for the whole country - which is crazy. They can’t possibly be able to get around and to see what’s going on. And of course people are in a very precarious position so they want don’t want to blow the whistle on their own employer even if they’re only earning 2/3 dollars now because they could lose that and then they could find themselves out on the street or deported from the country.

If you look at the data, people often say, and this is part of the anti-immigration argument, that they come over here and they’re taking our jobs. There is no evidence for that at all. None. What we find actually, where there’s suppression of wages, it’s actually for the migrants themselves. They actually struggle for the first 10 years to get to the point where they’re earning an equivalent amount to what a Kiwi worker would be earning. It’s a total fallacy.

But businesses say they need migrant workers to survive. Will opposing immigration substantiate Green Party's anti-business image?

Shaw: We don’t want to stop immigration. Look I travel around the country talking to businesses all the time and one of the overriding messages I get from the people is that they don’t have access to the kind of workers they need, construction is one of the big ones, and of course if you’re going to get the construction sector to gear up for a higher population growth, actually you need to bring in to support that. But we've also got a bunch of categories which are mismatched, so we’re not managing it effectively. We’re bringing in people that don’t have the skills we need and we’re not bringing in people who do have the skills we need. If you look at it that way, you say it’s not only just a matter of volume, it’s a matter of saying what are the skills we really need and can we be more responsive.

Lots of business leaders express this concern to me and I believe them. In most of the sectors we’re talking about, in construction particularly, but also in agricultural industries as well, where it’s quite hard to get people from New Zealand to go and pick fruits.

To summarise canwe say immigration is important and needed in New Zealand but you need to optimise it. Or how would you put it?

Shaw: I couldn’t put it any better than that. You need to optimise it and you need to manage it well so that people actually have a place to live when they get here so they aren’t subject to exploitation. The way we’re managing it at the moment is the opposite of that. It’s an incredible exploitative and dishonest way of managing it.

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