What New Zealanders thought of immigration and population issues

I got onto the New Zealand Election Survey when I was going through some old files and found a hard copy of a blog post Eric Crampton had run in 2011 on some earlier polling questions (including from previous NZES surveys) about immigration.  That prompted me to look up the 2014 survey to see if it had anything on immigration.

There is only a single question this time:

The number of immigrants allowed into New Zealand should be

Increased                                            10.7 per cent

About the same as now:                     37.4 per cent

Reduced                                              45.1 per cent

That seemed consistent with some other polling I’d seen.  Plenty of people seem to be happy with the current level of immigration, but a large number would prefer a lower level.

The 2011 survey, by contrast, had a variety of questions about population and immigration.  NZES uses many of the same respondents from survey to survey, and there was a very similar question to the 2014 question, producing very similar results.

Should the number of immigrants allowed into New Zealand be changed?

Increased                            13.1 per cent

Left about the same            34.1 per cent

Reduced                              44.5 per cent

But the 2011 survey also had four other questions about population and immigration.  The first was about the economy.

New Zealand needs more people to grow its economy

Agree                                    41.7 per cent

Neither/don’t know               26.1 per cent

Disagree                              29.2 per cent

The next was about skilled migration.

New Zealand needs to import more skilled workers

Agree                                  40.2 per cent

Neither/don’t know              18.3 per cent

Disagree                              38.3 per cent

Respondents were then asked about wider impacts

Immigration threatens the uniqueness of our culture and society

Agree                                   37.7 per cent

Neither/don’t know              21.3 per cent

Disagree                              37.8 per cent

And finally

A bigger New Zealand population would overstress our environment

Agree                                    55.4 per cent

Neither/don’t know               19.0 per cent

Disagree                              22.6 per cent

The first three 2011 questions seem broadly consistent.  People think that a rising population is good for the economy, and so don’t support (say) closing off immigration.  In fact, many think the current level of immigration is just fine.  The skilled worker question is potentially ambiguous –  do the people saying we need to import more skilled workers mean increasing the stock (which any immigration of skilled workers does) or increasing the flow (ie increasing the rate of skilled immigration beyond current levels)?

On the “uniqueness of our culture and society” question, opinion is evenly split.  In principle, and for some, losing “uniqueness” might be a good thing –  those emphasising the benefits of so-called “super-diversity” might have answered “agree” and still favour current or higher levels of immigration.

But, in some ways, the question I found most interesting was the environmental one, in which a huge majority think that a bigger New Zealand population would “overstress” our environmental.  Perhaps it is worded in a loaded way, but the margin is so large that can’t be the whole story.  It was a surprise to me –  personally I’m very fond of England’s green and pleasant land, even with 50m+ people.

Overall, there seems to be quite a tension among these respondents.  They believe a story that a larger population would be good for the economy, while worrying that it would “overstress” the environment.

The 2014 survey asked respondents about where they stand between protecting the environment and promoting economic development (thus skewing choices even in the way the question was posed).  22 per cent of respondents put themselves in the middle of the 7 step scale.  24.1 per cent leant towards “do more to encourage economic development” while 46.3 per cent leant towards “do more to protect the environment”.

Perhaps consistent with all this is the ambivalence about the current level of immigration.  A plurality want to reduce it somewhat, but perhaps mostly for environmental reasons.   A large proportion of people are comfortable enough at current levels, and a small proportion –  perhaps the strong believers in the potential gains (or libertarians simply focused on the likely benefits to the migrants  – favour a higher level of immigration.

There hasn’t been much of a public debate around immigration, but these sorts of results provide some small insights into what is shaping public attitudes to immigration.

4 thoughts on “What New Zealanders thought of immigration and population issues

  1. From what I observe, there is a paucity of quality data available, which in turn influences the quality of the responses

    “Strong believers in the potential gains favour a higher level of immigration” – and yet the thrust of your recent articles, and that of the Australian Productivity Commission says otherwise – so we are left in limbo

    Before the answer to those questions can be relied upon it is necessary for real data to be published in the public domain

    Liked by 1 person

    • It isn’t so much a matter of ‘real data’ – I don’t think anything is being hidden – but of how one makes sense of whole variety of data and perspectives. A better quality public debate, informed by an authoritative survey by, eg, our own Productivity Commission would be hugely helpful in that regard.


  2. Michael, I have read all your posts on immigration so far. I agree with you – and so do the respondents in this survey – that we ought to have more skilled labor to increase productivity, which would increase our economic growth and prosperity. However, you do not ask the question why do we get relatively less skilled emigrants. Immigration staff do not produce vacancies, skilled or otherwise. They only decide on the admission, or not, of applicants who apply for such jobs. Immigration NZ does not know economics as you do. Immigration is a bureaucracy. Vacancies are posted by the firms. Firms post less skilled jobs and they get matched with less skilled workers. Our firms do not seem to post skilled jobs so we do not have skilled applicants. Even if they do they are probably a small number of jobs. It seems that the problem might be in the NZ economy rather. An economy like Germany or the US…generates skilled jobs because they produce skill-intensive goods and services. We don’t in general. Can you solve this problem? I do not think it is about the immigration or the department of labor or whatever its called today.


    • I guess my solution is (essentially) the Irish one. Cut right back on immigration until we are producing the sort of stuff that attracts really highly skilled workers. DOing that would allow the real exchange rate to depreciate a lot, which will make competitive a whole new range of firms in the tradables sector. But I certainly agree that the issue isn’t with the operations people in Immigration NZ.


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