Backdoor entry to Australia?

In the various articles in the last few days on Australia’s decision to increase university fees for, among others, New Zealanders studying at Australian universities, there have been a few references to the fear sometimes expressed by Australian officials and politicians that New Zealand’s relatively liberal immigration policy might be being used by some material number of our migrants as a backdoor entry to Australia. Come to New Zealand, stay a few years and get citizenship, and then move on to Australia and the better-paid jobs that a more productive economy can offer.

It had some plausibility as an argument 20 years or so ago, when New Zealand’s immigration policy was much more open than Australia’s.  Any difference between the two countries’ immigration policies is much less marked now (they liberalised late in the Howard years).

It also hasn’t been an issue that I’ve paid much attention to –  it is, after all, mostly a matter for Australian policymakers.   But I thought I would take a quick look at the data SNZ has available on Infoshare.

Using the PLT data (with all its limitations) one can find numbers on the gross and net flows of New Zealand citizens between New Zealand and Australia, and also on the birthplaces (by country) of those making the move.  So one can easily work out what share of the New Zealand citizens moving to Australia (and coming back) were born in Australia and New Zealand, and what share were born elsewhere.  The data seem to be available only for the last 15 years.

Note that birthplaces don’t necessarily tie up closely with migration status.   I suspect that the bulk of Australian-born New Zealand citizens in these charts are the kids of New Zealanders who went to Australia for a few years, had a family there, and then came home.   And some portion of those born outside Australia and New Zealand will also be the children of New Zealanders, with citizenship by descent.   But the bulk of the movement of New Zealand citizens who were born outside Australia and New Zealand is likely to be people who were first given entry to New Zealand under our immigration policy.   Of course, some of the New Zealand born might be children born shortly after their parents arrived as immigrants, and thus in some sense also a phenomenon of the immigration policy.

Here is the chart for the net flow.

net flow to Aus

The Australia-born flow is small, and pretty stable, but has increased a bit in the last few years.   But the bulk of the action is in the New Zealand born line.

What of the non-Australasian born (our proxy for people who were policy-permitted immigrants to New Zealand?   That line looks like a very muted version of the NZ-born line –  many of the same fluctuations but on a much less pronounced scale.  Curiously, right at the moment more non-Australasian born New Zealanders are (net) leaving for Australia than NZ born NZ citizens.    Perhaps that might suggest there was something to the reported Australian concern.  But these are small net numbers of two quite large sets of gross flows.   So lets go directly to the gross flows.

This chart show PLT arrivals of NZ citizens from Australia (the much-vaunted people “coming home”).

arrivals from Aus

All three lines have increased in the last few years, with the largest percentage increase in the (small number) of Australian-born NZ citizens.   Non-Australasian NZ citizens coming back from Australia make up around 11 per cent of the total, and have done throughout the period we have data for.

non aus share

Of course, 11 per cent is a lot less than the foreign-born share of the population (around 25 per cent),  but that foreign-born population share has been increasing quite a lot in the last 15 years or so.

There is probably a lot more interest in the outflows to Australia.  Here is the same breakdown of NZ citizens by birthplace for departures.

departures to Aus

The numbers of Australian-born NZ citizens leaving for Australia has increased, but the numbers are very small.   And by far the largest absolute change has been in the NZ-born series –  outflows in the latest year to March are the lowest for any year in the data set.  But what of the non-Australasian born (the people who mostly initially came to New Zealand as immigrants?)

non aus share of departures

Somewhat to my surprise,  there has been quite a step up in the share of that group in the total outflows to Australia of NZ citizens.  In the most recent year, that share was 24 per cent, up from the around 17 per cent it had fluctuated around for some time.

Of course, as I noted foreign-born people make up around 25 per cent of the total population (that share may be higher again by next year’s Census).  So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the normal course of life, quite a few non-New Zealand born citizens will move to the better opportunities in Australia.  Some will be, for example, people who came as 2 year olds 40 years ago, and whose behaviour and motives are likely to be very similar to those of the NZ born.  The cold truth is that, typically, economic opportunities are better in Australia than they are in New Zealand.

And on the other hand, it is also likely that anyone who was sufficiently motivated to leave some foreign home and come to the ends of the earth (New Zealand) might, on average, be less settled, and more ready to move again,  than someone who had spent their whole life here.  That is an almost inescapable feature (not bug) of immigration, and doesn’t suggest any deliberate gaming of the system.

It is also worth pointing out that even if there is some gaming going on, the lags aren’t short.  The outflow of non-NZ born citizens in the last few years has nothing to do with NZ immigration policy in the last few years, because you have to have been here for five years to become a New Zealand citizen in the first place.  And, as I understand, when you apply for citizenship you have to sign a declaration stating that you intend to stay.  So, if there is the sort of issue Australians apparently worry about, it is quite a slow-burning story.

I don’t want to reach any strong conclusions (and I keep reminding people of the limitations of the self-reported intentions PLT data), but the twin facts:

(a) the foreign-born share of NZ citizens coming back from Australia is so much less than the share going to Australia, and

(b) the significant increase in the foreign-born share of NZ citizen departures in recent years

might suggest there is a little more of that sort of “backdoor entry” going on than I might previously have supposed.

If so, of course, it is totally rational behaviour on the part of the immigrants.  As I’ve repeatedly noted, and as I’ve even heard pro-immigration academics acknowledge, New Zealand isn’t a first choice for lots of migrants.  If they could get into Australia most would probably choose it over New Zealand (a bigger, higher income, country/market).  And they’d probably prefer the US, the UK, Ireland, and probably even Canada over New Zealand.   You take what you can get, and make the most of the opportunities that arise.  For those who become New Zealand citizens, access to the Australian labour market is one of those opportunities.

If we were genuinely attracting really highly-skilled migrants, that would be our loss and Australia’s gain, when they do move on.  But of course MBIE’s own data confirms that all too many aren’t that highly-skilled at all.  We don’t know what the skill mix looks like for those who later move on to Australia, but since the overall NZ outflow to Australia is often described as “looking like NZ” (in terms of skills/qualifications), perhaps it isn’t very different for once-immigrants who also move on.

I was planning to go on and write about how we should think about the option to move to Australia, and gradual changes that have made things tougher for New Zealanders doing so, but perhaps I’ll save that for another day.

And I won’t devote a post to the latest PR on Stuff from the MBIE-funded Professor Paul Spoonley.  Suffice to say that, relative to his piece in the Herald earlier in the week, he appears to have doubled down.    In that piece, even he thought some reforms were needed. But now…

Record immigration levels are not a bad thing for New Zealand, provided the current high standards for entry remain, an immigration expert says.

It was MBIE’s own data that showed that more than half of skilled migrant applicants couldn’t command more than $49000 per annum in the New Zealand labour market.

And while this time he avoids direct use of  the “xenophobia” slur, his case still seems to rest mostly on slurs and assertions.

But heading into elections, Spoonley said, it is important to call out prejudice in our leaders to avoid anti-immigration policies similar to the US.

“Let’s continue to debate immigration,” he said. “But let’s not stereotype or see one group or another as a problem.”

Instead of “xenophobia” now it is “prejudice” he claims to worry about.  Of course, he adduces no evidence, or examples, of such “prejudices”, or of how they are somehow driving the debate.  And as for US immigration policy, the immigration policy run under Barack Obama’s administration had its pros and cons (it wasn’t very skills focused), but the overall number of green cards issued per capita was around one third of the number of residence approvals we currently grant.

And, of course, the issue is hardly ever the migrants.  They are just people trying to make the best for themselves and their families.  The issue is, and should be, immigration policy choices made by our politicians, and by us as a society.


16 thoughts on “Backdoor entry to Australia?

  1. It is pretty clear from my posts that I’m in the Reddell and not the Spoonley camp. I do not think prejudice is a major problem in NZ at present but I do fear it could with our high immigration leading to the formation of micro-ghettos and of course a severe recession changes everything.
    However it would be wrong to say Prof Spoonley needs to prove the existence of prejudice in NZ; that would be like asking proof that it rains. So here are examples of prejudice: my wife applying for jobs with her unusual foreign name could not get an interview; changed it to Atkinson and all is OK. Our son who is lucky enough to have skin the colour of dark chocolate has twice told me he has had the ‘n’ word used against him. Once when he was about 6 had he asked me what it meant and then asked if the other kids were trying to be nasty. Then again ten years at a rugby game when his reaction caused him to be sent off. In North Shore Auckland the school kids walk home from college in mixed Maori, PI and Pakeha groups but the Asians tend to bunch together.
    My own prejudice is Maori: the first two Maori I met was in PNG long before my first trip to NZ; both were senior to me at work, both strong family men, both superb athletes, both good company. 20 years later it doesn’t seem to matter what I read about Maori’s and prison, drugs, family violence I can’t overcome an instinctive initial prejudice that Maori’s are just better than Europeans. Of course I fight that initial prejudice and reason returns me to ‘the God made us all equal’ principle.
    Prof Spoonley is right to mention prejudice but he is allowing fear of it to overcome common sense.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks. My point was not that there is no prejudice in NZ. All human beings have priors – we need them for getting through life moderately efficiently. Some are well-founded and reasonable, and others aren’t.

    But my point was really that Spoonley and his ilk (including the NZ Initiative people) seem to want to suggest that a public policy debate is all about “xenophobia” and “prejudice” – or “fear” – and barely at all about reasonable doubts about the longer-term economic payoffs to NZers. One could go so far as to suggest that one of Spoonley’s prrejudices is that any opposition to high levels of non-citizen immigration is the fruit of fear/racism/prejudice/xenophobia or whatever. I’m sure he’d pull back from that if challenged, but….


    • I fear all the racists are on our side. But so are all the clear thinkers.
      I once went to a Spoonley lecture and he is good at public speaking however he seemed to reduce multi-cultural to food and sport (and he was badly confused about sport – Shaun Johnson is half Asian and Michael Campbell proudly Maori but he told us Asians don’t play rugby especially league and Maori’s don’t play golf). He did say he didn’t have time to explain how we can be bi-cultural and multi-cultural. That is something I would like to know more about. Anyway the lecture seemed to avoid anything at all contentious and the questions were all from white middle-aged liberals like myself and they were all self-congratulatory. I went home disappointed.
      Is being multi-cultural actually a cultural attribute? NZ has a culture that is / was traditionally classless and ‘fair go’ and that attracted me. But current immigration policy is spiraling us into significant wealth disparities and a society where the poor are becoming desperate and many migrants blatantly exploited.

      By the way I your article is about immigrant churn to Australia not prejudice. It is an interesting subject I’ve not had time to read it closely – just time to pick on a minor point near the end. Have you considered age and countries of origin? I would restrict it to working age 20 to 50 and purely judging from my own citizenship ceremony suspect South Africans and POMs may stick to NZ and some China/Taiwan/Hong Kong may be fast to move to better wages.


      • SNZ don’t release the data to do that additional level of analysis you are after (well, at least not by age). I might have a look at the detailed birthplace data, but mostly i prefer to steer clear of the “which specific country do they come from”.

        I’ve long been clear that my unease about large scale immigration relates as much to the English or Scots as to anyone else (and in the post-war decades, when high immigration was just as problematic, most of the immigrants were British). There are potential cultural issues but my analysis is mostly economic.


      • On a quick look, your presumption about who is leaving again (having first become a citizen) might not hold up that well.

        As an example, over the last 20 years we’ve given residence to more Brits than Indians, and the PLT outflows to Australia by NZ citizens of British-born exceed those of Indian-born. And PLT departures to Aus of Chinese who had become NZ citizens has fallen away a lot (last year only 170 people compared with 450 S Africans and 600 Brits).


      • You are correct – once specific ethnicity or particular cultural trait is mentioned it can cause a reasonable debate to disintegrate. I will try harder next time but expect the odd reference to UK and PNG.


      • Not necessarily, your charts look at Australia in isolation of the rest of the world. Many perhaps actually go back to their own country of origin.


      • Yes, but this post was narrowly focused o that “backdoor entry to Aus” issue. Agree that not a few go back to their home country – altho I suspect mostly tha happens before they get citizenship.


      • Depends largely on the country of origin if they accept dual passports as legal. UK, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Phillipines, Germany,Tonga allow dual citizenship. For those countries it is highly likely that they would obtain NZ citizenship and passports before departing.


  3. In the meantime not a lot has changed ….

    While 25% non-Australasians might be representative of the composition of the NZ national population as a whole it will be a greater percentage for the Auckland population. However 25% of total PLT arrivals into AU from NZ is a lot mathematically and close top the 30% trigger point below

    “Phil Ruddock, Minister of Immigration in the Howard Government in 1996. By the end of the decade, concern was mounting about the proportion of New Zealand migrants into Australia who were born in third countries, which had climbed from 12 per cent in 1990-91 to 30 per cent in 1999-2000. The press reported that ‘The Federal Government is under pressure to crack down on Polynesians and Asians using New Zealand’s migration program as a stepping stone into Australia’. Ruddock stated that Canberra was keeping an eye on the proportion of New Zealand migrants born in third countries but that it was not yet a concern

    In September 2000, the public tone changed when NZ Immigration Minister announced an amnesty for overstayers who had lived in New Zealand for some time and were well settled with jobs and families.”

    Australia immediately closed the doors

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that quote, and the fascinating link.

      I wonder if the recent pathway to residence for the long-term modestly skilled work visa people in the South Island is seen similarly in Australia to that amnesty you mention?


  4. Michael
    I think that less skilled workers in NZ regardless of race or birthplace, have less bargaiming power in NZ because our unions are weak. They also have less bragaining power than skilled workers in general. Australia has relatively stronger unions, hence more bargaining power and higher wages and benefits for these skills. That could be a testable hypothesis.


    • The recent gender bias settlement by the government sure has given a large number of Phillipines health care workers in the retirement care business a massive boost to their incomes. This will certainly cause a ripple effect throughout the low wages industries and boost the Unions influence in the workforce.


  5. I see the Herald is back with their daily pro immigration puff piece; John Roughan this time and finishes with this :
    “We need someone to stand up and say immigration is good for an under populated, growing economy with an ageing native-born population and the potential to become an even better, richer, more cosmopolitan place.

    This has become a confident, outgoing country while others, including Australia, have been turning inward. But the world’s dark phase will pass, possibly tomorrow.”

    Apparently no one has been saying good stuff about immigration, Australia trying to protect their own but the French election will be the turning point from darkness to light.
    It really is getting quiet concerning; who or what is orchestrating this campaign to influence our thinking to this extent. Be interested to hear what the Herald would say to an approach from someone to offer an alternative (are we still allowed to use that word, I can’t keep up) point of view, one with some actual facts perhaps. I can think of the ideal person, how about it Michael.


    • David

      I missed seeing this comment. I haven’t asked the Herald, but I don’t expect they would agree. I imagine they would cover themselves with some line that I don’t hold any formal position and my views are no more worth running than anyone else’s. I might be wrong, but if they’d had any interest in a serious debate, they had only to ask.


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