When in late April the Productivity Commission released its draft report on a transition to a low emissions economy, I took them to task for completely (and presumably consciously and deliberately) ignoring the role of New Zealand’s immigration policy in driving up New Zealand’s emissions – albeit they acknowledged that “population growth” was a factor. Perhaps more importantly, they didn’t address at all the possibility that – however we got to where we are today – cuts to the target rate of non-citizen immigration might offer a more cost-effective way – less damaging to productivity and the living standards of New Zealand – of meeting the sort of carbon reduction targets governments commit themselves to. I suggested that they were playing politics, trying to keep onside with a new government.
That still seems the most plausible explanation for the complete silence. If they thought my argument was wrong, or had some modelling suggesting that other abatement strategies offered lower-cost adjustment, they could readily have reported those arguments and any such evidence. But they just stayed silent.
The only real justification for having a body like the Productivity Commission – funded by your taxes and mine – is that they are at sufficient arms-length from ministers, and don’t just play political games, to say the uncomfortable, or to address the politically unpalatable issues and options. Having a longer-term focus, if they don’t get traction today, they might tomorrow.
We should hope that even government departments would do that – offering the sort of free and frank advice that Chris Hipkins was calling for yesterday – but too often they just won’t (and as I saw that last year when I OIAed MfE and MBIE and found that they’d offered no advice or analysis at all on the immigration/emissions/low-cost abatement nexus). But it is inexcusable when an independent body like the Productivity Commission just rolls over and takes the path of least resistance. As I noted in a post when the draft report was released
In the short run that might make it more likely they get a hearing from the government. In the long run, that sort of approach to issues won’t stand them – or the cause of good policymaking and analysis in New Zealand, already enfeebled enough – in good stead.
As I’ve said before, convinced as I am of my own arguments, I’m not complaining that the Productivity Commission doesn’t reach the same conclusion I do. My complaint is that they haven’t even been willing to address the issue, when they know that it makes a real difference. Confront the issue, look at the evidence and arguments, analyse and test them, and reach your (well-supported) conclusions (and leave the goverment to decide policy, sensible or otherwise). But don’t just pretend there is no issue: that is a betrayal of your mandate from Parliament.
Submissions on the draft low emissions report close tomorrow. I put in a brief submission this afternoon.
There isn’t much new in it, but I ended this way
There probably won’t be off-the-shelf modelling exercises from other countries you can simply look to in evaluating such options [low target immigration options] (and you are now under self-imposed time constraints, having failed to consider the issue in your draft report). But in a sense that is the point of this submission. The issues facing New Zealand in meeting emissions reduction objectives are different from those facing many other countries and we need analysis that takes specific accounts of the issues, options, and constraints that New Zealand itself faces.
In conclusion, I would urge the Commission to begin to take seriously the role that rapid immigration policy led population growth has played in explaining the growth in New Zealand emissions since 1990, and the possible role that modifications to our immigration policy could play in facilitating a reduction in emissions, consistent with current or possible alternative official targets. No doubt technological advances will offer options for relatively painlessly reducing emissions to some extent. But those options will be available to all countries. As official agencies already recognise, New Zealand faces some specific challenges that are quite different to those other advanced countries will be dealing with. We make it much harder for ourselves to meet the emissions targets our governments have committed to if we persist with such an unusually large non-citizen immigration programme. The aim of a successful adjustment to a low-emissions economy is not to don a hair shirt and “feel the pain”. The aim should be to make the adjustment with as small a net economic cost to New Zealanders – as small a drain on our future material living standards – as possible. Lowering the immigration target looks like an instrument that needs to be seriously considered if that goal is to be successfully pursued. In particular, you cannot legitimately ignore the issue – in what looks disconcertingly like a reluctance to tackle controversial or politically awkward options – and still lay claim to being the source of independent fearless advice and analysis that is really the only good argument for having the Productivity Commission in the first place.
Leaving them with the visual reminder of the cross-country correlation between population growth and growth in total emissions (which relationship exists even just for agricultural emissions)
and that, in New Zealand, with birth rates well below replacement for several decades, immigration is increasingly the main reason why the population is still growing much at all.
And immigration doesn’t appear to be making New Zealanders better off (higher productivity) just…..more congested, with higher house prices, and with more emissions that other (themselves costly) tools have to be adopted to offset or abate.