What is going on with residence approvals?

Late last year I did a post using some data from the near-final version of MBIE’s new immigration statistics dashboard.   The dashboard is now on general release (here) and I should take the opportunity to commend MBIE on the initiative (even while wishing SNZ would now take the key time series and include them in their Infoshare database).  It takes a while to really work out how to make the most of the dashboard, but it means that administrative data (all the information on visa approvals –  and declines) that used to be published in readily useable form only annually and with up to an 18 month lag, is now readily available within 10 days of the end of each month.  For anyone trying to keep track of what is going on around the impact of immigration policy settings –  and recall that the late lamented PLT data was never any use for that –  it is a huge step forward.

And so lets have a look at a few charts, using data to the end of February.   Here is the number of residence visa approvals (and declines), actual monthly data and with MBIE’s “seasonally adjusted trend” (more trend than seasonal) through the data.

Res 1

Recall that the “target” rate of approvals is around 45000 a year, an average of 3750 per month.   The trend in actual approvals has been running (increasingly) below that level for the last two years.   For the current financial year, approvals are running at an annualised rate of under 35000 –  lower than at any time in the last 10 years.   Interestingly, it isn’t that more applications are being declined – in percentage terms, the fall off in declined applications has been larger than the fall in approvals.

I’m at a bit of a loss to know quite what is going on.  There was a slight reduction in the approvals “target” (they like to call it a “planning range”) late in the term of the previous government, but that was the difference only between 47500 per annum and 45000 per annum, nowhere near enough to explain the fall in actual applications and approvals.

I’d heard in several places that a big part of what was going on was shifting more residence visa processing back onshore.   Here is some relevant data on that

res 2

Clearly something has gone on, but (a) for a long time the overwhelming bulk of approvals were granted onshore, to people already in New Zealand (on other short-term visas), and if (b) offshore approvals have dropped away sharply, offshore declined applications have dropped to almost zero.  So I’m no clearer now than I was previously.

The points system is supposed to serve as a rationing device –  a quasi or shadow price. If there are lots of good applicants then, in principle, with a bit of lag the points threshold should be raised, so that we winnow out the lower quality (in terms of how the scheme is set up) applicants.  And, on the other side, if applications are dropping away sharply then, all else equal, the points threshold should in time be lowered and we’d find ourselves taking less-good quality applicants, who would otherwise not have qualified for residence.  But applications and approvals have been well down for two years now, and nothing has happened to the points threshold.

I’m mostly pleased with that –  part of my argument over the years has been that too many of the people we are bringing in (even under the skilled migrant headings) aren’t that skilled at all, and while they are benefiting themselves (and good luck to them) it isn’t doing any good for New Zealand.  Changes made late in the previous government’s term –  tightening up a bit on the one hand, and additional points for regional jobs on the other –  won’t have changed that picture.  But……..keeping the target unchanged (which is government policy, what Labour campaigned on and New Zealand First accepted in the coalition deal, looks a bit empty if the target is going to be persistently undershot (more so than, say, undershoots of the inflation target, since immigration approvals are an adminstrative act, directly under official control).  I’m a bit curious why no journalist seems to have been grilling the government about quite what is going on.  Is this the immigration equivalent of “opportunistic disinflation” –  they’ll take the cuts in immigration approvals if they come, but won’t do anything active to bring them about (or reverse them).  One can imagine there might be some blowback –  except among the handful of open borders people –  if standards for getting residence visas were lowered further.

It is noteworthy too that the fall in residence visa approvals has been concentrated in the streams (business/skilled) that were supposed to be the focus of the immigration programme.   That is so even though, for example, parent visa approvals are still suspended altogether.

res 3

I’m left puzzled about quite what is going on.  The number of people here on shorter-term work visas has still been rising strongly (and most people who get residence were already working here), and if the number of students is now flat, the numbers aren’t falling and an increasing share of the students who are here are in better quality, university, courses.  Quite possibly, a smaller proportion of those doing university study are interested in staying long-term than of those who were doing the PTE courses (often mainly as a pathway to work and possible eventual residence).

res 4

And finally, for those interested, here is what has been happening to residence approvals for our two largest source nationalities.

res 5

The next two biggest source nationalites –  UK and Philippines –  have also fallen away a lot, the former part of a long-term trend decline.

Overall, there are more questions than answered, but it is great to be able to do these sorts of charts quickly and easily.  Many fewer people who meet our quite low immigration standards now seem to be applying, or getting, residence visas, and that despite the apparently quite tight labour market.

Given announced government policy –  a continued high target – that should be a concern to them.    Some questions should be posed to Mr Lees-Galloway (although I can imagine that he would much prefer not to have to face them).

 

 

Terms and conditions surely?

With various media reports around – and numerous annoyed locals –  about Wellington public transport operators failing to deliver contracted services (cancelling services) because they haven’t (note the choice of word) recruited and retained sufficient drivers, perhaps it is time to haul up from the archives a couple of posts I wrote early last year on these and related issues.  Those posts were focused on bus drivers, while the latest stories feature both buses and commuter trains.  I see that, once again, there is talk of overseas recruitment.

This was my first post, sparked by reports that one company was wanting to recruit abroad to fill its vacancies.

Extracts:

What prompted this post was the story this week about a bus company – Ritchies –  wanting immigration approval to recruit foreign bus drivers.  Bus drivers don’t make the list MBIE released of occupations for which there were more than 100 (so-called) Essential Skills visas issued last year, but these occupations were some that did.

Essential skills visa approvals 2016/17
Truck Driver (General) 400
Winery Cellar Hand 396
Waiter 345
Sales Assistant (General) 320
Personal Care Assistant 289
Massage Therapist 259
Baker 231
Painting Trades Worker 220
Builder’s Labourer 185
Kitchenhand 181
Fast Food Cook 118
Farm, Forestry and Garden Workers nec 116
Bar Attendant 102

On the face of it, such roles don’t seem notably more (or less) taxing than being a bus driver.  It is a responsible role, but not one requiring huge amounts of skills or training (according to the story I linked to above 6 to 8 weeks training suffices).    It isn’t the sort of role one naturally thinks of when officials and ministers talk about skills-focused immigration programmes.

The case Ritchies make is that they can’t find locals –  New Zealanders, or people already here –  to fill new roles.

Auckland Transport awarded Ritchies Coachlines the contract to run buses on the North Shore from September.

But the company said so far it had not been able to find enough drivers locally and had asked Immigration New Zealand if it could bring in 110 of them from overseas to plug the gap.

And I’m sure that is correct.  If you pay low enough wages, it is hardly surprising that people with other New Zealand options aren’t lining up to work for you.

At least on the union’s telling

“The problem with Ritchies is that they pay over a dollar an hour less than the industry so their retention rates are minimal. People get trained up then they’ll go to other bus companies where the rates are better. Again Ritchies brings it upon themselves.

On the face of it, it looks like another case of a service contract won largely on the basis of (assumed) low labour costs.

The company more or less acknowledges the point

Mr Todd said the company would continue trying to recruit locally but only had until late June before it would need to look overseas for drivers including in Fiji, Samoa and the Philippines.

He admitted the $20.20 an hour it paid drivers would be difficult to get by on in Auckland but said this was the budget it had to work with.

“Lets face it, any job in the world, if you pay enough, you’ll get people to do it but…those costs will have to be passed on.”

I don’t really see the specific company as the bogey-man here.  They are operating in an environment –  bidding for public contracts –  where the overall level of funding seems to implicitly rely on access to very cheap labour (in this case, according to the company, from Fiji, Samoa, and the Philippines –  the jobs presumably not being attractive to bus drivers from the advanced world, since New Zealand is now a low income advanced country).

The same goes, more or less, for some other public-funded industries. Rest-homes, for example, rely heavily on immigrant labour from poorer countries: the existing level of rest-home subsidies constrain their options pretty severely.  No individual firm has a great deal of market power.  But the overall market is nonetheless skewed by policy choices successive governments have made about access to immigrant labour to fill what are mostly quite modestly-skilled roles.

It is why we need not small tweaks at the margins –  should or shouldn’t bus drivers (waiters, kitchenhands, or whatever) be on the approved list – but an overhaul of the entire immigration system.

But as part of that we should:

  • establish a strong presumption against use of unskilled immigrant labour (which mostly –  although not entirely –  competes with and tends to drive down returns to domestic unskilled labour), and
  • get ministers and officials out of the game of determining which specific roles people can and can’t hire short-term immigrant workers for.

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

 

And this was the follow-up post from a couple of weeks later.

Extracts

In a typical market, there aren’t sustained physical shortages –  the price adjusts.  If in this case the price (driver wages) wasn’t adjusting –  if anything there was a suggestion Ritchies would be paying less than the previous operator –  it suggested the plan was to close the gaps another way (bringing in more relatively unskilled people from abroad.)    Ritchies has moral agency in that –  they made a choice to bid that way, and should live with the consequences if it doesn’t work (if, for some reason, MBIE turns down their application to bring in relatively unskilled workers from abroad).   But I didn’t want to focus on the individual company, since they are responding to incentives set up by various arms of government –  Auckland Transport offering the contracts, and even more so MBIE (as part of the New Zealand government) in making immigrant labour relatively readily available for what are really quite unskilled roles.    And it isn’t as if Ritchies is the only company operating this way.   Another operator has won most of the bus routes in Wellington, to take over in July, apparently operating on very similar assumptions about access to new immigrant labour.

I had some comments directly from people involved in the industry, on both sides.  In substance they were making quite similar points.  As one observed, demand growth (in this case for bus drivers) can always be met by expanded capacity (immigration) or higher prices (or wages).  They went on to argue that the ability of some companies to import drivers meant they won contracts, and that it was as clear a case of immigration driving down wages as you could find.

Of suburban driver jobs, I observed last week

It is a responsible role, but not one requiring huge amounts of skills or training (according to the story I linked to above 6 to 8 weeks training suffices).    It isn’t the sort of role one naturally thinks of when officials and ministers talk about skills-focused immigration programmes.

One driver confirmed that training story noting that his employer

…took me on with just a car licence. They spent about 8 weeks training me up and paid for the costs of getting a heavy traffic licence and a P endorsement (essentially a “fit and proper” test.)

In terms of (price-based) evidence of labour market pressures, this driver observed that over five years or so his basic hourly rate has increased by only around 1 per cent per annum (if so, that would be less than the average rate of CPI inflation, so a reduction in real wage rates).

There seem to be a variety of ways to spin the story as to how much bus drivers are being paid, and what the new entrants (Auckland and Wellington) are offering or planning to offer.   …..[But] there doesn’t really seen to be much dispute that the new operators –  claiming an inability to find sufficient local labour –  are not offering drivers more than the current operators.  Indeed, the general sense seems to be that pay for equivalent effort would be less than at present.

And in a typical, well-functioning, market, when demand exceeds supply –  and not just for a day or two  –  the price of the product or service in question will rise (not fall).   Quite how much the rise will be will depend on the elasticities of supply and demand –  maybe a lot more potential drivers would emerge for slightly higher wages (or maybe not), and maybe bus patronage would drop away sharply with slightly higher fares (wages are by far the largest component in bus company costs) or maybe not.  But you wouldn’t expect to see the relevant price –  bus driver wages –  under downward pressure when there is incipient excess demand for drivers.

(It is not as if the outgoing operators have had abundant labour.  As one correspondent noted “Go wellington have about 340 drivers for the current contract but even with huge active recruitment and training from scratch they only get 100 new per annum which is as many as they lose”.)

In fact, the way the bus driver labour market exists seems to be possible only because our governments –  present and past –  have opened up a channel through which supply can be increased, at or below the current price.  Open up incipient excess demand at current –  or lower –  than prevailing wages, and then get in workers on a (so-called) Essential Skills visa.

Bus drivers aren’t an occupation that appears on the official “skill shortage list” (if they were there would no further labour market test involved for any firm wanting to hire foreign labour).  Occupations such as bricklayers, plasterers, bakers, and jockeys are on the list.   But not being on the list doesn’t mean bus companies can’t hire foreign drivers.  There are just more hoops to jump through –  which is why employers who think they might have multiple vacancies (like the bus companies) are strongly urged (by MBIE) to seek an “approval in principle”.

MBIE’s employer guide is here.   You’ll see that for unskilled or modestly skilled jobs, part of the required test is to check with WINZ as to whether there are New Zealanders seeking work they can refer to the employer.   Bus drivers are in that category…….

That looks mildly encouraging.  You can’t just offer the minimum wage (for a job in New Zealand typically paying $5 an hour more than that) and expect to get your approval in principle to bring in foreign workers.   But if your wage contract is a little different from other operators (perhaps base rates are a bit higher, but other payments are lower?)  or even if you can find one other company somewhere in the country paying the same overall rate, you have to wonder (based on total numbers approved if nothing else) how rigorous MBIE is in enforcing the test.  And why, for example, it isn’t given more prominence in their guide to employers?

Because, you see, MBIE is really keen that firms hire foreigners.    In fact, they have whole website pages devoting to extolling the virtues of immigrant labour –  so much so that one has to wonder whether they really see themselves working in the interests of New Zealand citizens.    Employers are told

“Hiring migrants is a great way for you to maintain and grow your business”

And then the first item under that “Why hire migrants?” employers are told

Migrant workers can do more than just fill a gap in your staffing. They bring with them an international perspective and connections, provide support to up-skill local employees, add diversity, and generally can help businesses to stay ahead of their competition.

The “international perspective and connections” being oh so important for bus drivers, bricklayers, or even the cafe or retail managers or aged care nurses (occupations topping the work visa approval list).    There is no hint for example that there might be any disadvantages –  eg lower returns to New Zealanders in similar occupations, or the simple fact that, in aggregate, migrants add more to demand pressures (including for labour) than they do to supply in the short-term.

If we are going to have government officials administering something like a mass market Essential Skills visa scheme, and deciding who does and doesn’t get approval, surely a key aspect of any labour market test should be something along these lines?

“has the effective wage or salary rate for this occupation risen materially faster than wages and salaries more generally in New Zealand over the past couple of years?”

If not, how can you seriously use the term “skill shortage”?    Even if wages in a particular occupation have risen faster than the norm, it takes time for locals to respond and shift occupations, so one wouldn’t necessarily want to jump at the first sign of a bit of real wage inflation in a particular occupation, but if after a couple of years the pressures were persistent then some sort of Approval in Principle for temporary migrant labour –  at wages at or above those now prevailing in the domestic market – might make some sense as a shock absorber.  But MBIE seems perennially averse to markets adjusting in ways the generate higher real wages, even though that outcome is one core part of what we look for from a successful economy.  Successive Ministers of Immigration –  from both main parties –  seem to buy in to the story, and believe that central planning by them and MBIE bureaucrats is going to work better than the price system.  It wasn’t a good system in the Soviet Union, and it isn’t here.

I can’t see a reason why we should be giving Essential Skills visas for suburban bus drivers, and we shouldn’t be creating a system where firms are encouraged to bid in the expectation that they can use that system, rather than pay a market-clearing wage for New Zealand resident workers.

More generally, I don’t think there is particular merit in a system in which officials are picking and choosing which firms can and can’t hire short-term workers.   As I noted in my previous post I favour something along these lines

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

If an employer really can’t find a local hire for a modestly-skilled (or unskilled) position, they’d be able to get someone from overseas, but only by paying (to the Crown) a minimum annual fee of $20000.  It is pretty powerful incentive then to train someone local, or increase the salary on offer to attract someone local who can already do the job. If you can’t get a local to do a job for $40000 per annum, there might well be plenty of people to do it for $50000 (and still cheaper than paying the ongoing annual fee for a work visa employee).

There are lots of operational details that would need to be refined, but as a starting point it seems like a pretty attractive system.  In the current situation, if bus companies really can’t find New Zealanders to drive, they could hire foreigners, but would have to pay an additional annual fee to the Crown of $20000 for each approval (but also wouldn’t otherwise have to jump through bureaucratic hoops, legal fees etc).  I’d be really surprised if there were any bus drivers then on Essential Skills visas or –  reprising the list from my previous post – kitchenhands, waiters, or massage therapists.  But, you never know.   If the market price adjusted that much that it was still better to hire a foreigner, that price adjustment might be a pretty compelling argument for a rather more genuine “skill shortage” than what we have now.

Perhaps in the end, MBIE won’t allow the bus companies to hire immigrant labour to fill the vacancies.  I’d welcome that, but the bigger issue isn’t any particular role, but how the system as a whole is designed and operated.

That’s the end of the extracts from last year’s posts.  There are lots of words there, but surely the bottom line is that for any modestly-skilled occupation for which there isn’t a sudden totally unexpected change in demand (and the number of people wanting to use public transport just doesn’t fluctuate that much), persistent “shortages” tell you more about the wages and other terms and conditions being offered than they do about any real sense of unavailable labour?  People will typically pursue the best opportunities available to them.  Make bus (or train) driving somewhat more attractive –  which is what the market signals are suggesting should happen –  and some more people will be interested in, perhaps even keen on, driving a bus or a train.

And lets not allow the immigration system to be used to avoid responding to domestic labour market signals, especially in non-tradables parts of the economy.  There is a place for immigration –  a reasonably generous approach to refugees, and an openness to some really highly-skilled people who might want to settle here (probably quite a small modest number given distance, modest income relative to other advanced countries, and the revealed preference experience –  only a small proportion of our actual migrants have been particularly highly-skilled).

(And, to be clear, the overall wage effects of high immigration are ambiguous, in part because in aggregate immigration boosts demand more than supply in the short run, and there are repeated waves of migrants, and thus repeated short-runs.  I am not one of those arguing that immigration policy is driving wages systematically down.  This post is about the impact in specific localised markets, and even more about the rules regarding labour market tests.)

Immigration data: some questions

For several years now I’ve been complaining about the inadequacies of MBIE’s administrative immigration approvals data.   It really should have been easy to have this data readily available (including in SNZ’s Infoshare platform) very quickly: we manage it, for example, for building approvals.   But it hasn’t been.

For a long time, the public was supposed to be content with the annual Migration Trends and Outlook publication.  It had a lot of interesting and useful data but (a) it was only available on an annual basis and (b) the lags were quite long.  They also made available gigantic spreadsheets which might have been readily useable for those with programming skills or the right software, but for humbler analysts required a significant investment of time to extract the simplest numbers.  And then those spreadsheets themselves were withdrawn –  they discovered, belatedly, some privacy issues.  They in turn were replaced with big PDF documents in small fonts where you could find some of the data updated each month, but still with an annual focus (thus they report year to date data, rather than monthly data).

There is progress afoot.  MBIE has spent a lot of time and resource developing a Migration Trends Dashboard which will, when it finished, finally get us to the point of having timely, useable, monthly data, seasonally adjusted where appropriate.  The sort of standard we’ve long expected for other major statistical series.   I’ve been invited to a couple of consultation sessions with them as the product has been developed and although the dashboard has not yet been formally launched they’ve told me they have no problem if I run some graphs here from the dashboard. (Because it isn’t yet officially launched, and it doesn’t yet work with all browsers, I won’t link to the dashboard here, but if anyone really wants the link to have a play with the data, email me –  address in the “About Michael Reddell’s blog” tab.)

This is the sort of thing that will be readily available: residence approvals by application stream.

R1 Residence Decisions by Application Stream (1)

This is calendar year data, so note that the final observations are only for 10 months.  But even if you scale those numbers up (by 6/5) what is unmistakeable is how sharp the reduction in the number of residence approvals granted in the business/skilled streams –  centrepiece of our economics-focused immigration programme –  has been.    I wrote first about this development a couple of months ago, somewhat puzzled by quite what is going on –  given that there was a small reduction in the residence approvals target last year, but nothing subsequently.

Unfortunately –  I guess it is still a prototype –  the November numbers haven’t yet been loaded in the Dashboard, so I had to go back to the more timely –  if less wieldy –  big PDFs, where the data is in financial year (to June) format.

residence approvals 2018.png

I’ve annualised the five months of data we have for 2018/19 to date.  At present approval rates we are on course for a slightly lower rate of approvals in 2018/19 than we had in 2017/18 –  both below official announced target (centred on 45000 approvals per annum).    Those would be the lowest number of approvals this century to date.

I remain a bit puzzled quite what is going on, and I’d have thought someone should be grilling the Minister of Immigration for answers.  There is an official target and it is not even close to being met.

Here is an update of a chart I ran a couple of months ago of the nationalities of those granted residence approvals (again the 2018/19 numbers are annualised).

residence approvals by nationality

What is striking is the reduction in the number of Indian and (even more so) Chinese approvals.

As I noted in the earlier post

I’m puzzled.  And, of course, I’ve spent years calling for a reduction in the residence approvals target, so in one sense I’m not unhappy to see the reduced numbers.  But I also strongly favour open and transparent policy, and there has been nothing announced suggesting that we should have been expecting –  or that the government was seeking –  such a large reduction in the number of residence approvals being granted.

And the number of points required to get residence is supposed to operate as a quasi-price: if too many “good” applicants are applying, the logic is supposed to be that the points threshold is raised, and if not many applications are coming in, the points threshold is supposed to be lowered.  But I’m not aware of any steps having been taken –  lowering the threshold –  this year.

One possibility is that although the government was not willing to openly take steps to reduce the inflow of (permanent) migrants, they (or at least parts of the government) were not unhappy if the inflow declined anyway.   And even among those champing at the bit for lots of migrants –  one might think of the Prime Minister –  perhaps there is some unease that announcing a reduction in the points threshold might reawaken a debate about the relatively low-skilled nature of many of our (notionally) skilled migrants.   These, after all, were the top occupations for the skilled migrant principal applicants from the most recent Migration Trends and Outlook.

Main occupations for Skilled Migrant Category principal applicants, 2016/17  
   
Occupation 2016/17
Number %
Chef 684 5.7%
Registered Nurse (Aged Care) 559 4.6%
Retail Manager (General) 503 4.2%
Cafe or Restaurant Manager 452 3.7%

And finally, a couple of other snippets of what we are better able to see with the new Dashboard.   This chart shows the number of first-time student visas granted to people from each of the two largest markets, China and India.

student visas FSV

I’d been aware that Indian student numbers had fallen sharply, although the numbers there appear to have stabilised.     The China market, however, is much more important for our universities and I hadn’t been aware that the number of first-time visas for PRC students had also been falling away for a couple of years now; so much so in fact that almost the whole of the boom has reversed.    No doubt the Vice-Chancellors will be even more concerned to keep pressure on the government not to say or do anything that might upset the regime in Beijing, no matter how egregious it is.

That chart is about flows –  first time arrivals.  The stock of foreign students takes longer to adjust, but here from the Dashboard is a chart of the stock of full fee paying student visa holders in New Zealand.

Counts by Full fee paying

And last of all, this is the stock of people in New Zealand with current work visas.  Whatever is going on around residence approvals, the number of people with short-term work visas continues rise pretty strongly (although, interestingly, when I dug down a little, the number of people here on working holiday visas has fallen back a bit from peak).

Counts by Total (Work)

When it is finished, MBIE’s new dashboard will be a significant step forward.  Even now we are beginning to get more information, on a more timely and accessible basis.  That is welcome.  But the better data unables us to pose some as-yet-unanswered questions including (particularly) just what is going on with the centrepiece of our immigration policy, the residence approvals programme.

(And while I’m awarding ticks –  well half-ticks anyway –  for this data, we shouldn’t lose sight of the loss of the data about the comings and goings of New Zealanders.)

UN Compact on Migration

Various readers have commented in recent weeks on the United Nations Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration, due to be signed next week by as many governments as can be mustered in support.   I’d had a quick skim through it and decided not to write about it here, as not only was it a non-binding political declaration, but most of it seemed more relevant to countries dealing with substantial illegal migration (and with migration mainly from very poor or disrupted countries – again, not the main situation in New Zealand).   And, as I pointed out to various readers, who needs the United Nations for immigration policy and practice to cause problems at home.  We have successive New Zealand governments, cheered on by the business and political “elites”, to do that for us.

But when I saw yesterday that the National Party –  as pro-immigration as they come – had indicated that (a) it would not support signing, and (b) it would withdraw from the agreement when it returned to government, I thought I should take another look.  It would, after all, be unusual to find myself in more of a middle-ground position on immigration issues that the National Pary.  Then it emerged that the current government has still not yet decided whether to sign up.   My suspicion remains that National’s stance is more about positioning relative to New Zealand First –  the contest for provincial votes –  than anything of substance.

Overseas, I was aware that the United States and Australia had decided not to sign, as well as a few eastern European countries – including some places whose democratic credentials are no longer unimpeachable.    But when I went looking, I found this article suggesting the pushback in Europe is spreading.    Austrian and Italy have refused to sign, and governments in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands are under pretty intense pressure (from within).  In Holland, for example

The government ordered a legal analysis of the text last week to ensure that signing it will not entail any legal consequences. The Cabinet finally decided on Thursday that it would support the pact, but would add an extra declaration, a so-called explanation of position, to prevent unintended legal consequences.

So I reread the document, more slowly this time.  I can’t see any substantive need for the document –  it seems more about political rhetoric and framing than anything else –  and have long been deeply sceptical that the United Nations adds any value to anything much.   And, yes, the document has a pro-migration tinge to it (it talks of wanting to “promote” migration) and a rather “globalist” set of presuppositions (including the demonstrably wrong statement –  especially in the context of remote island states – that “no State can address migration alone”).   But that doesn’t mark it out from dozens of pointless international fora and international declarations.    And there is little doubt that the “elite” mindset, in Europe and its offshoots anyway, is mostly pretty strongly pro-immigration.

But it still isn’t clear to me quite what additional damage would be done by signing up to this pointless agreement.   Sure, even “non-binding” agreements will, at times, be used in domestic and international fora as a rhetorical stick to beat governments with if they ever look like stepping out of line with the mainstream.  But those sorts of arguments rarely deflect a government for long if it has domestic public opinion behind it in some direction or another (for good or ill).

There is some questionable economics in the document.  For example

Promote effective skills matching in the national economy by involving local authorities and other relevant stakeholders, particularly the private sector and trade unions, in the analysis of the local labour market, identification of skills gaps, definition of required skills profiles, and evaluation of the efficacy of labour migration policies, in order to ensure market responsive contractual labour mobility through regular pathways.

Or, alternatively, one could just let the market work it out.  When there are incipient skill shortages, wage rates tend to rise.  Same thing happens when, for example, bad weather creates a shortage of spinach or lettuce.    But, daft as the economics is, this stuff is the mindset of politicians and officials adminstering immigration schemes all over the western world. including New Zealand.  Recall that in New Zealand the current government is trying to get more actively involved in this sort of thing.

There are also totally vacuous bits, like the commitment to support and promote the United Nations International Day of Family Remittances.  Just what the world needs: another United Nations “day”.

Perhaps three clauses troubled me a little more.

There was this one

Enable political participation and engagement of migrants in their countries of origin, including in peace and reconciliation processes, in elections and political reforms, such as by establishing voting registries for citizens abroad, and by parliamentary representation, in accordance with national legislation.

I guess I can see what they are probably driving at (diasporas helping the reconstruction of the country of origin after say a protracted civil war). But, normally, we should expect migrants to commit themselves to their new country and its processes and political values and not be creating doubts about where their loyalties lie.  But in a country in which Jian Yang and Raymond Huo are MPs –  while still closely associating themselves with political interests in their country of origin –  and people like Yikun Zhang appears encouraged to play both sides –  it is hard to see how this particular provisions make things here any worse than they already are (around a small handful of our migrants).

And then there was this one

Promote mutual respect for the cultures, traditions and customs of communities of destination and of migrants by exchanging and implementing best practices on integration policies, programmes and activities, including on ways to promote acceptance of diversity and facilitate social cohesion and inclusion.

Which presents the issues as symmetric when they really should be asymmetric: the focus should be on encouraging the assimilation of the migrants, and ensuring their respect for the “cultures, traditions and customs” of the destination community –  just as when you go to someone else’s place for dinner you respect their practices, table manners etc.   One could also argue that encouraging “acceptance of diversity” and facilitating “social cohesion” are two contradictory, often mutually inconsistent, goals.  But again, flakey as all this stuff is, it is the way our bureaucratic and political “leaders” think and act anyway.  If the behaviour is a threat, it is hard to see that the UN agreement would be more of one.

Relatedly

Support multicultural activities through sports, music, arts, culinary festivals, volunteering and other social events that will facilitate mutual understanding and appreciation of migrant cultures and those of destination communities.

Quite what business this is of the UN –  or even of national governments actually – one has to wonder, but there is the “globalist” mindset for you.   And, again, it is pretty much what central and local governments do anyway.  I was interested that “religion” wasn’t on the list

And then, of course, there is Objective 17 (of the 23 in the document) which I have seen people express more serious concern about.

OBJECTIVE 17: Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration

We commit to eliminate all forms of discrimination, condemn and counter expressions, acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, violence, xenophobia and related intolerance against all migrants in conformity with international human rights law. We further commit to promote an open and evidence-based public discourse on migration and migrants in partnership with all parts of society, that generates a more realistic, humane and constructive perception in this regard. We also commit to protect freedom of expression in accordance with international law, recognizing that an open and free debate contributes to a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of migration.

If that isn’t muddled I don’t know what is –  let alone, unrealistic (in no conceivable world are “all forms of discrimination” going to be “eliminated”).

The specifics under that Objective include commitments to

Enact, implement or maintain legislation that penalizes hate crimes and aggravated hate crimes

So-called “hate crime” legislation is almost always bad law and bad policy.  Punish assaults or murders or whatever as that: bad and unacceptable acts, regardless of who they are committed against or why.

And this

Promote independent, objective and quality reporting of media outlets, including internet based information, including by sensitizing and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology, investing in ethical reporting standards and advertising, and stopping allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants, in full respect for the freedom of the media.

Again, muddled at best.  You want to stop any public funding to outlets whose views are “unacceptable”, while having “full respect for the freedom of the media”.   Since I’m not entirely convinced there is a good case for public funding of any media outlets –  and since the publicly-funded outlets in New Zealand are champions of high immigration and all “worthy” leftist causes anyway –  it isn’t clear what difference this might make in New Zealand.    And there seem to be some MPs –  particularly in Labour and the Greens –  who aren’t too keen on allowing free speech on such issues anyway, whether or not we sign up to UN non-binding declarations.

And finally under Objective 17

Engage migrants, political, religious and community leaders, as well as educators and service providers to detect and prevent incidences of intolerance, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination against migrants and diasporas and support activities in local communities to promote mutual respect, including in the context of electoral campaigns.

All very asymmetric –  nothing at all about engaging with communities that might be uneasy about high immigration, or the immigration of groups with values antithetical to those of the destination community.  Perhaps, in some respects, this commitment troubles me more than most.   “Intolerance” is not an offence (in principle or in law) and it is the perfect right of people to debate –  perhaps especially in election campaigns – the future composition of their society.   A Saudi Wahhabi, a Chinese Communist Party zealot, an American evangelical, and a French secularist are all very different sorts of people. In large numbers, each group transplanted to (say) New Zealand would make a material difference to the society and polity we have here.  Those debates matter –  unless, apparently like the authors of this document –  you regard all differences of culture, politics, religion etc as superficial rather than fundamental.

As I said at the start, there is no obvious need for this document.  And even if there were obvious gaps, the very fact that it is a non-binding political declaration suggests it could meet no substantive need.  But in a New Zealand context, there are policies and practices around immigration that are much more damaging and threatening, particularly to our long-term economic performance, and perhaps in other areas too.  Among them:

  • the immigration policies of the National Party
  • the immigration policies of the Labour Party
  • the immigration policies of the Green Party
  • the immigration policies of ACT, and
  • the immigration policies of New Zealand First

I think that pretty much covers the spectrum.

There is no conceivable universe in which some international declaration –  or even agreement – around immigration would be more liberal and (in our specific economic circumstances) more damaging than what our political parties have done to us all by themselves.

 

 

Thoughts as the immigration data disappear

Last month marked the end of an era.  In a country with larger and more variable migration flows (in and out, New Zealand and foreign) than almost anywhere else Statistics New Zealand released the last ever set of permanent and long-term migration data.  The numbers were only ever approximations –  because people changed their minds –  but they were (a) based on data collected from every person crossing the border, and (b) reported quite quickly (October’s data were released on 22 November).

As I’ve written about here previously, there is a new system being put in place, but the numbers it produces will have (on SNZ’s own reported estimates) huge margins of error each and every month, and it will be at least a year after the event until we can have even moderate confidence in estimates as to what was going in any particular month.   The issue arises most seriously in respect of the outflows of New Zealanders, for which –  of course –  there is no other administrative data, such as (say) visa approvals.  It is cavalier, another step backwards in terms of having timely data  –  whether for economic monitoring, or political and economic debate –  but perhaps convenient for governments and officials who would prefer the issues not to be debated (“just let us get on with our ‘Big New Zealand’ project”).

Even the total movements data –  which was part of understanding tourist inflows and outflows data –  is now going to be worse.  This is from the recent SNZ release

Removing departure cards means changes to the timing and composition of this release. Statistics on short-term movements (including the current report International visitor arrivals to New Zealand) will be published in a new international travel release, and long-term movements in a new international migration release.

Both releases will be published on the same day, up to 30 working days after each reference month. November data, previously published just before Christmas, will now be published in January, and December data in February.

From about 15 working days to 30 working days.  That is SNZ’s –  and the government’s idea of progress?   Then again, these are the people who seem to have stuffed up the latest Census so badly  –  and no heads, political or bureaucratic, have rolled.

But to mark the passing of the PLT data, here are a few charts.  Here is the quarterly annualised data by citizenship.

Last PLT 1

For all the talk in recent years about “New Zealanders coming home”, there was only a single quarter with a (tiny) net inflow.   The net outflow of New Zealanders is still modest by historical standards, but interestingly while there is a net outflow to Australia there is still a small net inflow (the gap between the blue and orange lines) of New Zealanders from the rest of the world.   If leaving for Australia has got harder –  and the headlines about New Zealanders’ rights in Australia more grim –  perhaps it is harder still in the rest of the world?   And, despite the fall in residence approval visa numbers (mostly granted to people already here), the net inflow of non-New Zealanders remains large.

We won’t have this timely data in future.

Migration data by citizenship is available. on an annual basis, back to 1950.  Here are the cumulative PLT numbers since then.

Last PLT 2

In the early period the net outflow of New Zealanders was tiny. For the 16 years up to an including the year to March 1965, the net outflow of New Zealanders was 10576, or an average of under 1000 a year.    In a normal country you expect to see an outflow of citizens: most people obtain citizenship by being born in a place (or naturalised in it), and some proportion of natives will always choose to leave –  whether falling in love, or simply preferring the opportunities some other place has to offer. But in normal countries –  especially normal advanced countries –  those outflows are typically small.   (Estimates, such as they are, of the number of American citizens living abroad, short or long term, come to less than 3 per cent of the total US population.)

Here is the same chart starting from the year to March 1966 and coming all the way forward to the year to March 2018 –  53 years of data.

last PLT 3

Over that period a net 968000 New Zealanders are estimated to have left –  from a country that in 1966 had a population of just under 2.7 million.

And, on the other hand, successive governments have brought in (because it increasingly has been a matter of conscious and deliberate policy) almost 1.4 million non-New Zealand citizens.  Even just in the last 30 years –  when it has all been conscious and deliberate policy –  the net inflow of non NZ citizens has been 1.1 million people (in 1989, the total population was only 3.3 million).

Even allowing for the 50 year span, they are staggering numbers (in both directions).   And perhaps what is all but unprecedented is that combination.  There are countries –  even in the modern era of largely controlled immigration –  that have had very large inflows (you could think of modern Israel or Australia in the 1950s. or Portugese settlers flooding back home in the 1970s, or the French settlers back from Algeria after independence).  And you can think of countries that have had very large outflows in modern times –  Cuba, or modern day Venezuela, Syria, or some of the eastern European countries after they joined the EU.  But I can’t think of a single case that parallels New Zealand’s radical population experiment –  a mass exodus of its own people (mostly to better opportunities across the Tasman, quite rationally), accompanied by such active large scale controlled inflows of people from other countries.  Some of the places people leave from en masse are hellholes (each of the first three of my list), but the countries in eastern Europe typically aren’t –  almost all of them now, for example, have average GDP per capita above that of the median country.

As a matter of economics, I think the policies pursued by successive governments have been daft and damaging, embarked on (and, worse, continued) in a cavalier manner that paid no serious heed to the ongoing economic underperformance and constrained opportunities of New Zealand.  Or even to how unusual New Zealand’s approach to population and migration was. I’ve laid the arguments for that case out elsewhere (eg here) and am not going to repeat them here.   I’m pretty confident that –  on narrow economic arguments – material living standards for the average New Zealander would today be better (probably materially better) had governments respected the signal in the behaviour of New Zealanders, and perhaps kept the average annual inflow of non-New Zealand citizens to, perhaps, 10000.  Over the full period that would have meant perhaps 900000 fewer non-NZ immigrants.

We’d have been smaller –  but small countries abroad do just fine –  we’d have worked more within the constraints of our natural resources, we’d have reduced the extent of the disaster that is the housing “market”, and more internationally-comparable real interest rates and a lower real exchange rate would have made firms operating in the tradables sector better-positioned to succeed from here.

But as I was thinking about the issue, another dimension occurred to me that I hadn’t previously given much attention to.  The component of the population that wouldn’t have changed much with a much different immigration policy is the people identifying as Maori.    Those people were 15 per cent of the total population at the 2013 Census, and for the sake of argument we’ll assume it is still 15 per cent now.     With a different immigration policy –  along the lines I sketched above –  the population now might only be about four million, probably less  (a net 900000 fewer migrants, but they have children and grandchildren, filling out a total population effect over several decades).  A Maori population that is 15 per cent of 5 million, would be almost 19 per cent of a population of 4 million.

This is all highly-stylised, and I’m not putting any weight at all on precise numbers, but it is a reminder that immigration policy –  going back many many decades (see Vogel on this point about his immigration policy) –  has been about reducing the relative importance (numerical weight) of Maori in modern New Zealand.  Sometimes that was intentional, and at other times probably mostly not, but effects (especially entirely foreseeable one) matter more than intentions.

Reasonable people might differ on whether this is a good thing, or even a legitimate topic for discussion.  Were one Maori, one might quite easily think it a very bad thing.  You might view the resurgence of things Maori in recent years as a “good thing” and wonder about the “what ifs” around a quite different path of immigration in modern times.  Not only would your people have been clearly the single largest non-European ethnic grouping, but your overall share in the population –  and claim on power, resources, and esteem would have been that much greater.

But it is quite possible that many others would see things differently.  Many other voters –  consciously or not –  might welcome large scale immigration partly because it can be used to relativise and reduce the position of Maori (“just another minority in the cacophony of voices”).  As someone who is sceptical of our immigration policy (over decades) for economic reasons, I’m genuinely curious as to how the liberal strongly pro-immigration voices in our society reconcile their enthusiasm for high rates of immigration and their regard for Maori (the Labour Party itself, with such a substantial Maori caucus, is the most group to wonder about, although one could wonder about the National Party too.)

Of course, if one were being hard-headed about the matter one might wonder what such an alternative society might look like.  A country that was, say, 20+ per cent (identifying as) Maori  –  with higher fertility rates than other ethnic groups –  and just a couple of per cent each Pacific and Asian (a plausible mix if we’d been targeting 10000 net non-citizen migrants for the last 50 years).  That would look and feel very different to today’s New Zealand.  One can see reasons why some –  Maori and non –  would have embraced such a mix.  But, realistically, one can also see reason why for some European New Zealanders it might have been more of an impetus to have followed the economic opportunities and gone to Australia.   Who knows which tendency would have predominated, and what  political dynamics might have emerged in the process, or what the economic implications might have been.  My arguments about the economics of immigration in the New Zealand context have tended to proceed as if there are no ethnic faultlines –  and remember my “for economic purposes, I don’t care in the migrants come from Birmingham, Bangalore, Brisbane or Beijing”.  But that isn’t so, and it may –  genuine uncertainty, at least in my mind –  matter even in thinking about likely alternative economic outcomes.  In my view, it is almost always better to let societies work these thing –  including competing interests and values – out themselves over time, rather than have governments might a heavy hand on the scales (as they do by large scale immigration programmes).

(Some earlier thought on immigration policy and Maori are here.)

 

Fortune for the favoured

The coverage in recent days of the first (branded) KiwiBuild houses –  one purchased by a young well-travelled couple, no children, she just graduating as a doctor, he something in marketing –  brought to mind the books I’d had sitting on a pile for ages intended for a post about the first Labour government’s state house building programme (we used to be told that the KiwiBuild vision was modelled on the earlier programme).

As for the KiwiBuild houses themselves, even the purchasers are unashamed in talking up their good fortune (at the expense of the taxpayer).

The owners of one of the new homes have compared their purchase to winning Lotto.

Couple Derryn Jayne and Fletcher Ross paid $649,000 for their four bedroom home, which they said is great value for money, compared to prices elsewhere in Auckland.

They had given up hope of finding a house on the open market after a year-long search.

Which, frankly, is a bit odd.  Of course house prices in Auckland –  and much of the rest of the country – are obscene, but even in Auckland you can pick up a first house for well under $649000.   I googled houses for sale in Clendon Park for example.  It mightn’t be a suburb entirely to everyone’s taste but my in-laws lived there until a decade or so ago.  And it is a first house we are talking about, where it isn’t obvious why the taxpayer should be assisting a lucky young couple into a brand-new four bedroom house.

Defenders of the government are quoted in the media.  There is an article in this morning’s Dominion-Post (which I can’t find online) in which, for example, Shamubeel Eaqub notes that

…the eligibility criteria were broad. “People also may not know how challenging it is to be a doctor without a private practice and with large debts.  I have heard stories of young doctors leaving places like Queenstown because they couldn’t see a way of ever owning a home there.”

Another person quoted in the article observes “even doctors have to start somewhere”.

No doubt. And no doubt it is quite tough for many people starting out, even professionally-qualified couples.  But lets just think for a moment about people rather further down the income ladder, typically without the sort of future income advancement opportunities that (many) doctors have.  Teachers and nurses for example, or motor mechanics, or retail managers, hairdressers, and so on.   If we “need” special lotteries to help favoured young professional couples into homes, how are people further down the income scale ever supposed to manage?  Ah, but, says the minister Phil Twyford, that is to miss the point: apparently KiwiBuild isn’t supposed to help low-income families, even though if there was ever a case for direct state intervention in the market it would surely be for those people rather further down the income scale; the sorts of people who not many decades ago could reasonably have expected to buy a basic first house.

An Auckland University economist (Ryan Greenaway-McGreevy) is also quoted in the article.  He argues, sensibly enough, that “it shouldn’t be a surprise that a new doctor could qualify. ‘Perhaps it speaks to how unffordable housing has become.'”

Which is, surely, the point.  Most people further down the income scale, and especially in Auckland, simply can’t afford to purchase a house at all, at least not without ruinously overburdening themselves. The economist goes on to suggest that KiwiBuild will lower prices for everyone.   Even if that were true, it still wouldn’t justify a lottery in which the favoured few pick up a house below market price at the expense of the taxpayer.  But, of course, there is little sign that it will be true –  many of the early KiwiBuild projects are just rebadging construction that was already going to happen, and over time there is no clear reason as to why we should not expect any specific KiwiBuild construction not to displace private sector activity that would otherwise have taken place.

And surely the evidence against that optimistic hypothesis is in the market prices.   If people really believed that whatever the government was doing –  KiwiBuild or whatever –  was going to lower house and urban land prices over time, then those prices would be dropping already, perhaps quite steeply.  Sure, Auckland prices seem to have gone sideways over the last 18 months or so –  after a huge surge over the previous few years –  but those in many other urban areas are still rising (in both real and nominal terms).   Over the last five years, the REINZ numbers now indicate that Auckland and non-Auckland house prices have risen at around the same rate (on average 8 to 9 per cent per annum).  CPI inflation is, by contrast, averaging under 2 per cent.   When nothing has been done to fix the land market, and most KiwiBuild construction is likely to simply displace private sector construction, none of that should be very surprising.  KiwiBuild is producing photo-ops, and Lotto-like wins for the favoured (and lucky) middle class few, but it is no fix  –  not even any material part of a fix –  to the dysfunctional housing market successive governments have delivered us.

And what of the first Labour government’s state-housing programme?  Actually, it didn’t do a lot for people at the very bottom either.  In the mid 1930s there was much talk of “urban slums”.   Ben Schrader’s history of state housing in New Zealand has a nice quote from a newspaper editorial written just a couple of weeks after the 1935 election, contrasting the newly built National War Memorial Carillion tower with the surrounding neighbourhood (in Wellington’s Mt Cook)

“The Tower was built right in the middle of Wellington’s slum area, and a stone’s throw away from it, men, women, and children are making a different kind of sacrifice.  They live  in squalor and dirt, in little shacks lacking even the ordinary comforts of existence.”

But the state house programme wasn’t for these people. They couldn’t afford the rents.  In fact, as Schrader records, one contemporary critic calculated that a worker would have to earn 20 per cent above “the weekly living wage (the amount the Arbitration Court determined was necessary to support a familiy in “reasonable comfort’) to be able to afford the rent on a state house.    In its defence, Labour argued that people moving into state houses would free up other houses for poorer people –   and in those immediate post-Depression years without the sort of tight land use controls we have today perhaps there was even something to that story (but I’m not aware of any evidence to confirm that conclusion).  But it certainly wasn’t a programme targeted to help those at the bottom (indeed, when later governments offered to sell state house to sitting tenants there was often a material wealth transfer to the fortunate minority).   And for the first decade or more Maori was also explicitly excluded.  Again from Schrader:

“This thinking [around separatism] was challenged in 1944 after the Department of Native Affairs surveyed Maori housing conditions in the industrial Auckland suburb of Panmure.  It found Maori crowding into tents and shacks made from rusting corrugated iron and discarded packing cases. Cooking was mostly done over open fires and sanitary conditions were primitive. Sobered by this and other similar reports, the government agreed in 1948 to build state houses for Maori.”

As for the photo-ops in an earlier age, everyone is familiar with the picture of Prime Minister Savage helping to carry the dining table into the first state house in Miramar, but Schrader records

“The Fife Lane function was so successful that a coterie of cabinet ministers repeated the furniture-carrying stunt at the opening of the first state house in each of the main cities.”

I wonder how more photos of Jacinda Ardern and Phil Twyford appearing with new KiwiBuild owners there will be?  And how people further down the income scale –  perhaps mostly Labour voters –  will be feeling about their own prospects of ever owning a modest house (not even a four bedroom brand new one) in one of our major cities.  That only seems likely if the government were to tackle the regulatory constraints on our urban land market, and despite the pre-election talk there is still as little sign of that so far as there was action under the previous government.  Very little.

(On a completely different topic, I’d just add my voice to the long list of those seriously troubled by the government’s decision to give residency to an imprisoned Czech convicter of dishonesty, and convicted and imprisoned for drug importing, and not even to be willing to explain why.   Personally, I can’t conceive any circumstances under which I would support giving such a privilege to a person with such a –  very recent – background, the more so when such a person comes from an EU country –  none of them is perfect, but none is Somalia or the People’s Republic of China.  There are plenty of decent and honest people who would like to live here, and we only take so many: why favour the Czech drug smuggler over any of them?   As with the extraordinary exercise of ministerial discretion under the previous government to grant Peter Thiel citizenship, these sorts of cases point to a need for much more openness and accountability.  If you want ministers to exercise personal discretion in your favour, you should expect all the details of your case to be published routinely, so that ministers can be properly held to account.  It simply isn’t good enough to have the Prime Minister tell us we should “read between the lines” and then refuse to go further.   Why would we be inclined to believe that ministerial discretion is being appropriately exercised in this case –  and that a drug smuggler with gang associations should be free to stay among us – when the track record (under both parties) inspires so little confidence?

I noted that there are plenty of decent and honest people who would be keen to live in New Zealand.  Stuff’s new article on the utter failure of the Immigration New Zealand arm of MBIE to take seriously the scams suggests that many of those who do get to live here probaby do so at the expense of the honest and decent ones.

[head of immigration advisory agency Carmeto] Malkiat believed most visa applications contained some level of exaggeration and misrepresentation, and significant number involved substantial corruption. There was now a generational pattern of exploited migrants in turn exploiting the next wave to arrive, he said.

“The reality is that if all immigration advisers speak up, 80 to 90 per cent of all applications are wrong, and should not be approved – it is a massive number,” he said.

“Most of the industry exists because of fraud. If there was no fraud, many advisers and lawyers would leave the industry [because they wouldn’t be needed].”

It was clear Immigration NZ was not equipped to deal with the widespread fraud that it was encountering, Malkiat said.

Former immigration minister Tuariki Delamere, now an immigration adviser himself, said he too had sent tip-offs to INZ but seen no action. “I sympathise with that adviser [Malkiat] doing that. Senior [INZ] staff have said to me they are understaffed and there are so many [cases to investigate]. I sympathise with them … but I am happy you are exposing it because the only way you stop [these frauds] is by prosecuting them and publicising it.”

Lawyer Alastair McClymont said he “used to tell INZ about them all the time as well – but nothing ever happened”.

Immigration New Zealand declined to comment on the complaints about its service.

That final line says it all really.  It is a disgrace.  Whether through these immigration scams or the political donations process, Labour and National in turn preside over the increasing corruption of the New Zealand system.    And yet their inaction –  and silence –  suggests they just don’t care. )

 

Australia: not even close to the most successful economy

In another useful reminder as to why I don’t subscribe to The Economist –  with a news, politics, and international affairs junkie 15 year old I’m tempted from time to time – it was hard to go past the heading of that magazine’s lead story this week:

What the world can learn from Australia: It is perhaps the most successful rich country

In the text, they make it clear that the “most successful” claim specifically includes economic success.

Okay, I’m happy to grant that Australia has done well around fiscal policy –  government revenue and expenditure as a share of GDP have been stable and moderate, and government debt has been kept low.   But Switzerland does about as well, and Sweden has much lower net government debt (large net assets), and both those countries manage productivity levels that are reasonably materially higher (almost 10 per cent more) than Australia.

Productivity is, in the old phrase, if not everything in the longer-term about economic performance then almost everything.  And here is a simple chart showing two comparisons, using OECD data which start in 1970.   The first line compares Australia’s real GDP per hour worked to the median of the top-tier group I’ve used in various posts and articles this year (the US, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and Denmark).   And the second line compares Australia to Norway.

australia performance

Did anyone in The Economist think of Norway –  not only does it have much higher average productivity (think oil and gas and few people –  and good institutions/smart people) but huge net government financial assets?

Average productivity in that frontier group of six is 20 per cent higher than in Australia.  In Norway it is 50 per cent higher.  And 50 years ago, Australia outperformed the median member of the six, and was level pegging with Norway.   Sure, the last 25 years or so haven’t been too bad, but at that rate of convergence it would take another couple of hundred years  (or more) to catch up again to the top tier group.    And even the very modest convergence has been supported by massive new natural resource developments.  Blessed with those opportunities if a country can’t do better than Australia has done, there looks to be something quite badly wrong.

And here is the ABS measure of real net national disposable income per capita, which takes account of (a) changes in the terms of trade, and (b) the portion of the GDP gains accruing to Australians.

RNNDI

They had a good 15 years, but there has been no growth in this measure of real purchasing power this decade.

What might be so very wrong?   Well, I’m sure there are plenty of micro regulatory things Australia  –  like every country –  could do better.      But what really stands out about Australia, relative to the other countries, is its rate of population growth.   Indeed, this is what The Economist really seems to like about Australia, lauding the country’s “enthusiasm” for immigration.   Whether one looks from 1970, or just over the last quarter century or even the last decade, Australia’s rate of population growth has materially outstripped those of the other countries.   In the last 25 years, Australia’s population (UN annual numbers) increased by 41 per cent, while the population of the median of those high productivity group of six rose by 13 per cent.    The difference isn’t wholly about migration, but immigration is the bit governments make choices about.

In a country with an export base almost entirely dependent on a fixed stock of natural resources –  farm products, mineral products, tourism – and actually with foreign trade shares of GDP among the very lowest in the OECD, it is bordering on the insane to be actively importing lots and lots more people (as successive Australian governments have been doing in the last 15 years or so).     It is a quite different matter in countries –  like most advanced OECD countries now –  that are trading the fruit of ideas, or that are tightly bound into sophisticated manufacturing supply chains.  But this is Australia –  one of the most remote countries on that planet which (like New Zealand) has failed over decades to develop many outward-oriented industries that don’t depend largely on natural resources (or immigration subsidies around export education).    The fruit of the (vast) natural resources is, to a first approximation, just spread more thinly.   Being based in a global city –  the ultimate ideas trading location –  in northern Europe I guess these considerations simply never occur to The Economist’s writers, who probably enjoy the beaches and the climate when they jet into Australia without troubling themselves over whether or not the natives are actually earning leading first world incomes.  Hint: they aren’t (any longer).

And thus I end up agreeing with The Economist. 

“Even more remarkable is Australia’s enthusiasm for immigration”

Truly astonishing in fact, in the specific circumstances of Australia.  The enthusiasm of Australian governments for high immigration to Australia is just as wrongheaded –  and more culpable –  as that of The Economist’s editorial writers.  All sorts of daft ideas have had their day over history.   This one –  at least in modern Australia –  seems based more on belief and ideology than any serious evidence that Australians themselves might actually be benefiting from the immigration.

(And that without even considering the house prices, traffic congestion etc –  all of which, immigration advocates will note, could –  in principle – be fixed separately, but of course in practice aren’t. )

UPDATE: A post from a couple of months back that made similar points, but with some different data and a longer time horizon.