Immigration, and the evidence of things not seen

In the biblical book of Hebrews, there is a verse that reads “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.

It seemed to be rather like that at the Pathways Conference that I attended part of in Wellington yesterday morning.  The Pathways conferences were established back in the 1990s and are held annually “to disseminate publicly funded research on international migration and demographic change”.  I hadn’t been to one before, and it looks like an excellent initiative, at least in principle.  The issues around immigration (here and abroad, past and present)  are fascinating and we (and other countries no doubt) need a “reasoned and deliberate” debate on immigration policy[1].  Funding enables the conference to be held at no cost to the participant, and enables academic and public sector researchers to discuss research results and immigration-related issues.  Given the significance of immigration in New Zealand, and the way it is seen as a significant “economic lever” (in the words of a senior MBIE official at the conference), we need scrutiny and debate.

There were around 120 attendees, but not a single member of the media.  That surprised me.   When I counted up the delegate list. almost 50 per cent were public servants (although I was a little surprised that no one from Treasury was there).

I suspect I may have been the only person present even mildly sceptical about the benefits of New Zealand’s immigration programme.  Certainly, none of the papers I heard, no comments from the floor, and none of the summaries of the remaining papers betrayed a shadow of doubt.      In fact, so certain of the direction of the argument were the organisers that they describe this year’s conference as being about “how New Zealand can better respond to these demographic changes in order to maximise the benefits associated with an increasingly diverse population”.  Perhaps there are such benefits, even net, but it would be better to demonstrate them, than simply assert them.  The tone of the conference –  supposedly about presenting publicly funded research  –  was apparent early on when the Minister of Immigration twice thanked conference attendees for all they (we?) did for “our migrant communities”.   And here I thought immigration policy was undertaken for the benefit of New Zealanders, whatever benefits there might be to the migrants themselves.

The contrast with the Australian Productivity Commission’s inquiry, which I wrote about last week, was striking.   There seemed to be no interest in questioning whether there were benefits, and if so who might be securing those benefits.  Nor much interest in innovative ideas (eg charging for migrant entry).  The Australian inquiry may well lead to no material changes in policy, but at least it should assure the Australian public of a serious and dispassionate analysis of the issues and options.

The Conference was described as being under Chatham House rules.  That seemed a little odd, at least in respect of the main presentations (as distinct from comments/questions from the floor), since the purpose was supposed to be about disseminating publicly funded research, to the public.    But the programme is on the web (see link) above.

I found the Minister’s speech rather unimpressive.  The organisers described it as a “keynote” but it was anything but.  Unfortunately, I can’t quote from it, but suffice to say he appeared unimpressed by anyone –  be it the Herald, or perhaps even stray bloggers (with long-outstanding OIA requests in for departmental advice on immigration targets) –  suggesting that waves of migrants were putting pressure on resources or infrastructure.  A keynote actually addressing some of the issues might have been interesting.  And although the Minister and MBIE seem keen to remind people of the weaknesses of the PLT immigration data, they omitted to point out that in recent decades net PLT immigration has understated (not overstated) the net number of people coming to New Zealand.

cumulative plt since 1990b

In fact, what was striking about the morning was how little there was to give a listener any confidence that the “economic lever” (New Zealand’s immigration programme) was doing New Zealand much good.  I went along to listen, and was prepared to be sceptical.  But I didn’t really need to be.  Because what I heard wasn’t very encouraging at all.  Listening to people discussing the problems of designing an entrepreneur visa, for example, I became more sympathetic to the idea of auctioning migrant places.  And anguished talk of concern about how many migrants were going into low productivity sectors, rather than “where we want them to go” had much the same effect, and a desire to reach for my copy of Hayek, on knowledge problems etc.  The central planning tone (no doubt unselfconscious) was quite disconcerting.

One of the MBIE papers is on the web.  It discusses some work on investor migrants –  who already, in effect, buy their way into New Zealand.  The aim of the programme is to import people with business expertise and entrepreneurial skills, presumably to boost productivity in New Zealand.  And yet in these surveys of people at various stages of the investor migrant process  (and  in which respondents must have been at least partly motivated to give the answers MBIE wanted to hear, even if results were anonymised), 50 per cent of the money investor migrants were bringing in was just going into bonds, and only 20 per cent was going into active investments.  We aren’t short of money, but may be of actual entrepreneurial business activity.  And 70 per cent were investing only the bare minimum required or just “a bit more”.  And these people aren’t attracted by the great business opportunities in New Zealand, but rather by our climate/landscape and lifestyle.  It doesn’t have the sense of being a basis for transformative growth.  As even a fairly pro-immigration academic observed, New Zealand isn’t exactly likely to be first choice for the sort of person who might build the next great tech company.

In much of the debate around immigration in New Zealand it seems that people can’t quite make up their minds what sort of immigration we want.  On the one hand there is considerable emphasis on highly-skilled migrants. I can see the logic of that argument, even if I’m sceptical of what difference it might make.  But on the other, there was repeated discussion of the role immigrants play in the aged care sector and in the dairy sector.  Such migration is no doubt good for the migrant (migration usually is) but the basis on which it assists in lifting per capita incomes, and medium-term productivity, for New Zealanders is much less apparent.  As one senior official put it to me recently, the logic of bringing in large numbers of people to work cheaply on dairy farms isn’t obvious.  It may just allow farmers to bid land prices higher, or perhaps compensate for the self-inflicted problem of an overly high real exchange rate.

So there wasn’t much to go on if one wasn’t sure of the benefits of immigration in New Zealand.  But if you went along already convinced then no doubt faith carried you through the accounts of the practical limitations of how our immigration programmes actually work.

And, of course, I know that this was just one conference, and there are lots and lots of papers on immigration.  But few or none of them show, with any confidence, that New Zealanders are securing economic gains from this substantial economic lever that successive governments have sought to deploy.  We need a reasoned and deliberate debate, perhaps with our own Productivity Commission inquiry.

[1] Readers may recall that that was Shamubeel Eaqub’s description of the sort of debate he wanted about immigration, at least before he responded to my analysis with the label “racist”, a slur he has still not withdrawn.