Covid border opening, immigration, MIQ announcements a confusing mix

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
18 May, 2022

New Zealand’s border settings continue to confound. In November last year, even the cautious Ministry of Health advised the Government that MIQ no longer served any useful purpose. Yet it was almost four more months before the Government finally lowered the drawbridge to Kiwis marooned overseas.

Last Wednesday’s trifecta of border announcements has something of the same flavour.

Tourism procrastination

From Queen St to Queenstown, the retail and hospitality sectors are crying out for overseas visitors. Yet even after last week’s announcements, New Zealand continues to have some of the developed world’s most hostile tourism settings.

Australia re-opened to the world on 18 April. Vaccinated tourists can visit our Trans-Tasman rival’s tourism hotspots from anywhere in the world. And they can do so without the post-pandemic hangover of pre-departure Covid-testing. The same is true for vaccinated tourists to Britain, most of Europe, Singapore and Canada (though not the US).

In contrast, New Zealand’s precautionary (or should that be pedestrian?) approach to the resumption of tourism saw a partial reopening to visitors from countries beyond Australia at the start of May. But only to those from 60 visa-waiver countries. And even then, subject to a complex pre- and post-departure Covid testing regime.

Delaying the border re-opening until the population had a chance to be vaccinated was one thing. But New Zealand is now one of the most fully vaccinated countries in the world. The Government’s insistence on continuing Covid testing for all tourists until the end of July is simply a relic from the country’s anxious, pre-vaccination days.

The same is true of the restrictions on tourists and other visitors from non-visa-waiver countries. Under the newly announced settings, visitors from some of our largest tourism markets – including China and India – remain locked out until August.

For the time being, the restriction in relation to China is academic. That country is grappling with its own Covid restrictions. But shutting out Indian tourists from entering is a form of self-harm the tourism sector could do without.

No cost-benefit analysis supporting the ongoing restrictions has been produced by government officials. In a world competing for tourist dollars, and with Omicron now endemic in New Zealand, it should be. And if no case can be made out, New Zealand should take a leaf out of our Trans-Tasman rival and lay down the welcome mat to any and all vaccinated visitors immediately.

Restraining foreign students

The announcement in relation to students was equally muddled. Pre-pandemic, international education was the country’s fifth-largest export earner.

In 2016, Infometrics estimated that international students generated $3.8 billion in foreign exchange earnings and made an overall contribution of $4 billion to GDP. More recent pre-pandemic estimates have the figure at around $5 billion. Statistics New Zealand estimated that international students studying for fewer than 12 months spent $3.9 billion in the year to March 2019.

International students also provide a critical workforce for the country’s tourism and hospitality sectors. And they bring much-needed vitality, diversity and spending power to the country’s CBDs.

Wednesday’s announcement from Education Minister Chris Hipkins has cleft the international student market into halves. And the division has a whiff of misguided elitism to it. International students studying for degrees will gain work rights matching the length of their studies. But foreign students studying for non-degree courses will not be entitled to work after their studies finish.

Yet why a student studying for a BA in sociology at AUT is more worthy of a post-study work visa than a student studying for a New Zealand Diploma in Cybersecurity at Unitec is anyone’s guess. The same could be said of students studying for Diplomas in Nursing.

Hipkins claimed the new approach eschewed the previous approach of prioritising “volume over value” and would avoid “student exploitation.” Yet, no cost-benefit analysis has been proffered to support the new restrictions. Without it, the Minister’s comments are mere slogans.

Meanwhile, education providers are left weighing the costs of the new rules to a previously highly successful export industry.  

Immigration equivocation

That brings us to immigration generally. The Ardern Government’s hostility towards immigration is as surprising as it is destructive. Social democratic governments around the world are typically associated with pro-immigration policies. Anti-immigration policies are normally associated with the political right. Yet, in New Zealand these policy positions are reversed.

Regardless, the case for skilled migration is unassailable. New Zealand has both low unemployment and acute labour shortages. This must change. If it does not, labour shortages will strangle the economy.

International economic studies suggest migration is good for domestic workers’ wages. Immigration grows the pie. And it can work to the advantage of all workers, including low-skilled workers – especially given their advantages in language and local knowledge.

Meanwhile, a combination of Government policy and Immigration New Zealand’s ineptitude has been restricting the inflow of migrant workers despite the easing of pandemic-related border restrictions.

The construction sector alone forecasts a shortage of workers of more than 200,000 people. Other sectors reporting chronic staff shortages include hospitality, agriculture and aged care. Indeed, the latter sector predicts the collapse of supply due to “a near-catastrophic staffing crisis”. 

Against that background, last Wednesday’s announcement from Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi is welcome news. But there are good reasons why the response to the announcement was muted.

The first problem is Immigration New Zealand’s capacity issues. The Minister’s announcement included more resources for his Ministry, including much-needed improvements in digital systems. But, after several years of neglect, the scepticism about both the Government’s commitment to improvements and its ability to deliver is understandable.

Equally concerning is the incoherence of the Minister’s announcement. The cornerstone of the Government’s immigration reset is the so-called “Green list” of priority workers.  Migrants on the list will go “straight to residency.” Yet the list conspicuously omits nurses, teachers and midwives. When all three professions face acute labour shortages, the omission is inexplicable.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation – a group not known for promoting the supply of migrant nurses to compete with its members – led the criticism of the Government’s approach. “Absolutely flabbergasted,” was how the organisation’s president, Anne Daniels described her reaction to the reset announcement.

The Government was lauded for going “hard and early” on border restrictions at the start of the pandemic. As the country emerges from its shadow, too much of its decision-making has been soft and late.

With the after-effects of the pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine, buffeting the economy, the country needs urgency at the border. Not half-measures and muddled thinking.

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