Paul Spoonley calls for the Govt to reduce migration 'a bit' to strike a better balance between incentivising migrants & unemployed locals to help grow regional NZ

By Jenée Tibshraeny

Massey University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor is the latest high profile New Zealander to call for the Government to ease back on the number of migrants it’s welcoming to the country.

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley says migrants are filling desperately needed skills shortages, stimulating the economy and contributing to regional development, but he’s concerned levels are getting out of balance.

Speaking to Interest.co.nz ahead of the release of his book, ‘Rebooting the Regions’, on September 16, Spoonley says: “Our traditional target has been a 1% net gain, which would be 47,000 [migrants]. At the moment it’s 69,000, so you could bring the numbers back a little bit and that would help… focus attention on what we need to do for locals.

“There’s a group of New Zealanders who are disconnected from the workforce in our regions, and they’re stuck in the regions.

“They don’t have the money, or the inclination, or the opportunity to go somewhere else for work. And if you left that, then there are some regions that are going to experience quite significant social – quite apart from economic – problems in the future.”

‘Migration is only part of the answer’

“If you then go to the migrant option, rather than developing the local workforce option, then you’re going to create further problems. They’re both part of the same issue and solution.

“There’s a tendency politically to play them off against one another, and there’s a tendency to blame immigrants, and they should not be blamed. They are responding to a demand that we have in New Zealand… we need them.

“…But we want to get that balance right. We certainly don’t want to favour immigrants in a way that then displaces or disrupts or disadvantages locals.”

Spoonley says the balance isn’t right.

“I think the policy settings and the way we select immigrants nationally is pretty good. It’s one of the best in the world. I wouldn’t for a moment agree with Winton Peters that we take migrants that have been rejected elsewhere. That’s simply not true.

“But the numbers are incredibly high. They’re at a historic high.”

Spoonley says we could “bring back the numbers a little bit” so that a better balance is struck between using both migrants and locals to fill jobs.

‘Population will always generate demand’

Overall, he maintains migrants play a key role in giving regional New Zealand the boost it needs, in the face of Auckland’s growth.

“Ultimately employers will stay in regions if they’ve got skilled labour supply. If they’ve got people they can employ that will in turn generate jobs in the future. You want that cycle, you want the people to stay, or people to be attracted and you want the jobs to be generated in that region.

“So population will always generate demand and you need people in that region to respond to that demand.

“If the population stagnates or goes into decline, there are a whole lot of industries, but also service that will then disappear. You need a certain number to generate demand for a hospital or a school – that’s employment as well in those regions.”

More incentives needed to boost regions

Spoonley says we need more incentives to attract migrants to the regions.

He commends the Government for increasing the points migrants must earn to come to New Zealand, from 10 to 30, if they live outside of Auckland.

Yet he maintains the Government could go further by requiring migrants to stay there for three to five years, for example.

“I think over that time, migrants would say, ‘Ok Napier or New Plymouth – it’s not a bad place. I don’t have a big Indian supermarket that I could get in Auckland, or a lot of Indian restaurants or the Sikh temple, but it’s pretty good and I’ll stay there.”

Furthermore, he says those in the regions need to develop better strategies to attract and keep migrants.

“I get very concerned about regions that are based on a small number of industries. So white gold, or black gold, or gold.”

Spoonley says regions at the mercy of industries that go through booms and busts, will also go through booms and busts, and suffer major job losses.   

“We need a very proactive, very aggressive regional policy to address those, because those are big changes that are occurring across the world.”

For example 40% to 50% of the jobs we’re doing now, won’t exist in 10 years’ time.  

Elephant in the room: ageing population

The other reality is that our over-65 population is about to double, and a large portion of retiring New Zealanders are in the regions.

Spoonley says: “When I was growing up, you’d expect 10% to 12% of the population to be over 65. We’ve already got towns that have 30% of their population over the age of 65. That age group is becoming much more dominant.

“What compounds the problem of course, is in some regions, the fertility [rate] is dropping and young people are leaving, so that ageing population becomes ever more dominant.

“There are challenges in terms of providing them with services. How do you provide a dementia ward in many regional/rural parts of New Zealand? It’s going to become an even greater issue in the future.”

Spoonley acknowledges the difficulty of funding new infrastructure projects in towns where high portions of residents are on pensions and can’t afford the higher rates necessary to develop their communities.

‘Places grow and die, so that’s not unusual’

Asked whether we should simply give up on dying communities, Spoonley says: “Places grow and die, so that’s not unusual.”

He says the Government isn’t providing as many incentives to attract people to the regions, compared to in Australia and Canada for example.

“We do that a little bit, but not enough really.”

We have to make a call: “Do we try to keep people in jobs in those regions, or do we allow them to continue to contract and possibly eventually die? It’s a big policy question.”

Spoonley says 60% of our population growth over the next couple of decades will be in Auckland.

“The growth in Auckland is understandable. It’s based on service sector jobs, it’s based on a big city economy, and we need that big city. So having a vibrant, internationally connected Auckland is actually important for all of us as New Zealanders.”

Councils have to ‘get their act together’ around the amalgamation debate

Asked about the political will to make the necessary changes to ‘reboot the regions’, Spoonley acknowledges the National Government is “very much in favour of migration and you can see why”.

Spoonley credits Regional Development Minister Steven Joyce for releasing a package aimed at creating 5000 additional jobs in the Hawke’s Bay. Yet he’s interested to see how it’ll be achieved.

On a local government level, he doesn’t understand why councils in Wellington and the Hawke’s Bay turned down opportunities for amalgamation within their regions.

He says they’ve opted for local democracy at the expense of a more cohesive strategy moving forward.

“They’ve got to get their act together in terms of getting a vision for that region and driving that vision forward in terms of delivering on economic ambitions, economic goals and population goals.”