Changing immigration policy with as little publicity as possible

For a government that has proclaimed itself the most open and transparent ever, sometimes it just doesn’t score that well on either count.    Take, as an example, the centrepiece of New Zealand immigration policy –  itself one of the key discretionary tools of economic/social policy –  the New Zealand Residence Programme.

On Friday someone overseas sent me a copy of the latest Immigration New Zealand Policy Amendment Circular, issued on 30 April.  As INZ describes it

We regularly review and update the Operational Manual. We publish these as Amendment Circulars. We publish the circulars when the changes have been approved and incorporate them into the Operational Manual on the day they come into force.

Second on the list of changes in the 30 April circular was this

New Zealand Residence Programme (NZRP) planning range

R6.1 New Zealand Residence Programme
R6.5 Allocation of places within the New Zealand Residence Programme
The NZRP planning range, which sets the upper and lower number for resident visa approvals, has been updated to 50,000 to 60,000 from 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2019.

That was both interesting and a little puzzling.  Puzzling because the new circular was issued on 30 April, already more than halfway through the period from 1 July 2018 to 31 December 2019.  And substantively interesting because the new target (“planning range”) was substantially lower than the previous target.  In annualised terms the previous target had been 42500 to 47500 approvals per annum and this new target was the equivalent of 33333 to 40000 per annum.    It was (is) by far the largest change in the planning range this century (until 2016 the planning range had been unchanged at 45000 to 50000 per annum for a long time).

Here is a chart of annual residence approvals going back 20 years

ann res approvals

As I’ve highlighted in a couple of posts in recent months, it is striking how substantially the number of residence approvals has fallen (a fall well underway before the change of government).   MBIE only publish monthly data for the last decade or so, and so here is a similar graph for that period but this time showing twelve month running totals of residence approvals, the last observation being the year to March 2019.

res approvals 2

Annual approvals in the last 12 months have been lower than at any time since 1999/00.

Broadly speaking, operational policy is supposed to adjust to keep overall total approvals within the planning range (most obviously by varying the points threshold applicants have to meet).  In this case, however, it appears that the target has been adjusted into line with the actual reduced number of approvals.  That, surely, was somewhat newsworthy, especially given the debate at election time on what the various parties (Labour and New Zealand First) were and weren’t promising around immigration.

The open and transparent government was true to its word to some extent.  When I went looking I stumbled on the Cabinet paper that was the basis for the decision.  That Cabinet paper had been released onto the MBIE website on 19 February.   Here is a copy of the paper itself cabinet-paper-new-zealand-residence-programme 2019

The Minister of Immigration appears to have intended that openness and transparency would prevail.  Among the recommendations in the paper were these

58 Subject to Cabinet’s agreement to these changes, I intend to issue a press release announcing the details of the proposals in this paper.
Proactive Release
59 I intend to proactively release a copy of this Cabinet paper under the Official Information Act 1982, with appropriate redactions, at the same time that I issue a press release announcing the details of these changes.

But I had a look at Iain Lees-Galloway’s page on the Beehive website.   There was nothing there.

So I went to the MBIE website (always something of a dog’s breakfast) and looked for any releases in February.  There was nothing there (or for March or April).

I checked Immigration New Zealand’s news releases page.  There was nothing there either.

But, as I kept digging, I did at last find something.  INZ has an email newsletter, called Korero, aimed specifically at immigration advisers

Kōrero is the Immigration New Zealand adviser-specific newsletter sent out as an email. Available every two months, Kōrero brings to you the latest news and information that affects you in your dealings with Immigration New Zealand.

And the February issue of this newsletter did contain the news about the residence programme.

It looks a lot as though Cabinet really didn’t like the idea of letting the general public know that they had been changing immigration policy.

But what of the substance of the policy?

In some respects, what the Cabinet paper is proposing –  and was apparently adopted –  is quite sensible.   The residence approvals programme planning range has always been an odd beast, because it encompasses all sorts of streams under which approvals can be made, each set up for a variety of different motivations.    And whereas when the residence programme was set up most approvals were granted to people offshore (and thus approvals regulated the number of non-citizens entering New Zealand to live), these days most approvals are granted to people already here (eg on temporary work visas, so that the overall planning range, at least on an annual or biennial basis, doesn’t even serve as much of a check on (for example) short-term pressures on housing or infrastructure.

Recognising all this, the government has apparently agreed that from 1 January 2020 each of the streams will be managed (or not) individually, rather than within an overarching planning range.    The residence programme includes, for example, non-citizen spouses (in particular) and children of New Zealanders.  We are never going to cap those flows, and management will mostly just consist of the tests to ensure that the relevant relationships are genuine.  And, on the other hand, if we think that (say) granting 15000 skilled migrants a year residence is sensible that is a decision that probably shouldn’t be materially influenced by how many New Zealanders bring back foreign spouses in any particular year.

On paper all that sounds sensible enough.  But, as so often, details can matter, and at present there are none.  There is nothing in the Cabinet paper giving a hint as to how many residence approvals in total (or by stream) Cabinet expects to be agreeing to for the coming years.   There is also nothing in the Cabinet paper evaluating, or reporting other evaluations, of the economic and social impact (benefits and costs) of the immigration programme to now –  it seems to be a typical MBIE document in which the benefits are more or less taken for granted.  The exception perhaps is this line (emphasis added)

In response to an overall trend of decreasing skill levels and remuneration amongst skilled migrant residence approvals, the previous Government tightened the requirements for the Skilled Migrant Category (ie the points system) and lifted the points level at which applications could be selected.

But even then there is no attempt to assess, or describe, the impact of those changes (or other changes which went in the opposite direction –  more points for regional jobs), and thus no attempt to assess why residence approvals have dropped off so sharply, despite reasonably good labour market conditions at present.

The other substantive part of the paper was a recommendation to change the objectives of the Residence Programme.  The paper reports that

The current objectives for the NZRP were agreed by Cabinet in 2001 and reflect an immigration context that was different from today. The existing objectives are:
24.1 Regulating the flow of foreign nationals wanting to come to New Zealand;
24.2 Prioritising among would-be migrants and avoiding the free flow from demand-driven immigration;
24.3 Trying to produce benefits to New Zealanders; and
24.4 Consistency and stability (market signalling around the number of residence places available in any particular year).

I was struck by the rather weak third objective (“trying to” produce benefits to New Zealanders –  very different from the upbeat MBIE rhetoric of a few years ago in which immigration was a “critical economic enabler” for New Zealand).  That list of objectives is very process-focused, and perhaps not unreasonable on its own term, but it provides no guide at all to ministers in actually setting the residence approvals planning range numbers.

The paper goes on to report that

The Government’s vision for immigration has changed and become broader. We intend to improve the wellbeing and living standards of New Zealanders, including through productive, sustainable and inclusive economic growth, by:
25.1 improving New Zealand’s labour market outcomes, including by filling skills and labour shortages and raising overall skill levels;
25.2 encouraging investment and supporting innovation and exports;
25.3 supporting foreign relations objectives and New Zealand’s international and humanitarian commitments;
25.4 supporting social inclusion, including through family reunification; and
25.5 protecting the security of New Zealanders and the border.

and thus

To better align the NZRP to this vision and focus on how to achieve it, I propose the following, equally weighted new objectives for the NZRP:
26.1 To maximise the contribution of the NZRP to the economic and social wellbeing of New Zealand and New Zealanders by:
 – attracting skilled workers and business migrants;
 – reunifying the families of New Zealand residents and citizens; and
 – meeting international and humanitarian commitments.
26.2 To manage overall residence numbers through controlling each of the individual components of the programme.

I’m pleased to see that the focus is clearly on benefits to New Zealand and New Zealanders, but there is still no sign that they have any idea at all how “attracting skilled workers and business migrants” is going to benefit New Zealanders in future when it hasn’t in the last 20 years (on their own metrics, immigrant skills levels are on average lower than those of natives, exports have been falling as a share of GDP, and business investment has remained weak).

Which brings us back to the target numbers, and the reduced “planning range” for the current period.  There is simply no explanation for why the government has chosen such a substantial reduction in the planning range, except –  and they more or less say this –  that it brings the target into line with forecast actuals.  But “forecast actuals” are a response to things including the rules of the scheme (eg the points granted and points thresholds).  It doesn’t have the ring of a particularly coherent policy.

Moreover, it is worth noting –  the Cabinet paper does –  that when the planning range was last approved around 60 per cent of visas were supposed to be for people in the business/skilled stream (principal applicants and their dependents).  60 per cent of 45000 would be 27000 annual approvals under the skilled/business streams (those which, as the paper itself claims, offer the greatest economic benefit).   But on the revised policy now in place only 51 per cent of the approvals are allocated to the business/skilled stream: 18700  per annum.  In other words, a 30 per cent cut in the number of skilled/business approvals.

Here are actual (12 month running totals) approvals under that stream.

res approvals skilled

In that sense, the new (temporary) policy simply adjusts the target to reflect the very substantial reduction in the number of actual approvals (again, to the lowest level seen since 1999/00).

My overall take?

  • I support, conditional on seeing details, a move to managing individual streams individually (so long as it isn’t a mechanism to obscure overall actual immigration policy),
  • I favour a substantial and permanent cut in the overall number of residence approvals granted, focused first on the (non-refugee) categories where there is no skill requirement, but also on the skilled/business side where (as MBIE themselves note) skill levels just haven’t been that high.  Doing so would be likely to enhance New Zealand’s medium-term economic performance.  The reduced target the government has adopted, if persisted with, looks to be a step in the right direction, but there is no indication as to whether they will persist with it,
  • but I also strongly support open government, and don’t like the idea of substantial reductions in the residence approvals targets being done on the sly, with no consultation and an (apparent) attempt to minimise the visibility of the change,
  • on which note, I hope that the government is planning some proper public consultation (not just, say, with business lobby groups) about the details of the new scheme, including the guidelines they will be adopting to manage the inflows of each of the individual streams and the overall number of residence approvals granted.  Lack of transparency can hardly ever be defended when it comes to the design of major instruments of economic and social policy.


8 thoughts on “Changing immigration policy with as little publicity as possible

  1. I appreciate the economic focus, but I also wonder how much consideration the Government gives to social cohesion when considering immigration and the religious / cultural mix of refugees we accept? My sense is none at all.

    Given the obvious problems with integration that some migrants from particular cultures exhibit, the lack of focus in this area appears to be an appalling oversight.


    • Hasn’t that been the whole thrust of Labour/Green policy: a “universal nation” where we confront the public with difference in a do or die manner? You won’t get them to admit it beyond admitting that diversity was an explicit goal and claims that diversity would be “of immense benefit”. [Burke 1986:330] – Springbok Tour – HART CARE – Marxism – race is a “re-ification” enabling capitalist exploitation – “the nation state is racist comes from natio (to be born)” . In Nigel Latta’s New New Zealand, Spoonley finishes with diverse Rangitoto College being the face of the New New Zealand (object of policy).
      They must (or ought to be) discovering human nature which is why they hate empirical social scientists like Jordan Peterson.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I”m sympathetic, altho

    (a) you won’t get this govt going anywhere near the arguments, and

    (b) if total residence approvals were reduced to say 10-15K per annum, most of the integration issues would be substantially alleviated, because the numbers involved (from problematic backgrounds) would be much smaller.

    Personally, I think the economic case is strong for allowing v little permanent immigration, other than partners (and dependent young children) of NZers so I mostly focus on those arguments/issues.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One feature you do not mention is INZ controlling numbers by sloth. I know of a recent application for permanent residency by the foreign partner of a Kiwi. They had a child together in 2016 born in Auckland. The father has been resident on firstly a years visitors visa and currently on a work visa. I can understand why INZ want to see that the relationship is genuine and likely to be long term so I have no problem with their refusing applications for Permanent Residency for say two years of living together in NZ but the application for permanent residency has just been made and the couple tell me that INZ told them it averages about 11 months to process the application. Obviously checking criminal records, X-rays, medicals, etc and confirming that the relationship is genuine takes time but not eleven months. If fact the application has been received but neither reviewed nor assigned.
    Something similar happened with my own family 14 years ago; back then we were told it would take 2 to 4 months to process but then Winston Peters asked an awkward question about Iraqi government members obtaining residency and our 4 months became 7 months.
    INZ could learn much from the NZ passport office which quickly scans any application on receipt to confirm all attachments and signatures are in place. [They have delivered a new passport in under 24 hours].

    On one hand I would like to congratulate our govt on a 20% cut in permanent residency and making a start at prosecuting some of the businesses with corrupt work practices. On the other hand I worry that the increasing the period of the work visa after graduation from one to three years may just be postponing a future surge. Similarly is slow processing INZ’s means of temporarily reducing approvals for permanent residency or is there a change in New Zealand’s reputation? We used to be the number one paradise country with rule of law and generous welfare system but now talented ambitious foreigners are looking elsewhere; at countries with better economic growth, more generous wages and no reputation for the widespread exploitation of migrant workers.


  4. I’ve never been convinced the “business category” was a useful criteria at all. Inevitably the country ends up with an individual and family who don’t integrate with the rest of us, who often create minimal useful economic contribution and are quite likely to continue their business focus in the home country. In effect using NZ as a scenic bolt hole and venue for English language learning for the kids. This category resident also are over represented in donations to political parties. Why they feel the need to do this is puzzling, but I suspect they come from corrupt regimes where greasing the palms of local politicians is the way to get things done. This is a custom we could do without importing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Barry: you may be right but there seems to be little evidence published so both enthusiastic supporters of our high rate of immigration and skeptics like us have few facts to change our opinions.

      If INZ statisticians are reading this they ought to supply the sum of taxable business profits declared to IRD by all ‘business category’ businesses created since 2000 and the annual sum of tax revenue from the Kiwis working for these businesses. Maybe the median too since it only requires one company similar to Xero to produce serious economic benefits for NZ.


  5. Bloody luxury. Australia’s real migration policy (not its fake-news migration ‘cap’) is buried in Appendix A of Budget Paper No. 3. The new target, 271,000-272,000, has only been topped once since 1901.


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