Labour tries to be anti-immigration without being anti-immigration

“This is a debate about policy, not a debate about immigrants,” declared Grant Robertson at Labour’s conference in May. The false dichotomy was as lost on Mr Robertson as it was on his party. He was, after all, talking about Labour’s policy on immigrants. He can’t shy away from the latter—his debate is about both.

Andrew Little, his leader, has been calling to cut immigration by “tens of thousands” since April. In May, he pared back his stance to merely “taking a breather” until infrastructure can “catch up”. But this month, Labour confirmed its policy: to slash the number of immigrants by as much as 30,000, a reduction in net migration of over 40 per cent.

Having been burnt by its “Chinese surnames” debacle two years earlier, and in a year where xenophobia in America, Britain and France have dominated world headlines, Labour is walking a tightrope, and it knows it. Hence the references to other issues in its policy document: infrastructure, housing, student visas, “genuine skills shortages”.

Don’t be fooled. Labour’s policy is about cutting down on immigrants first, and everything else a distant second.

Their policy’s concern about “low-value courses” being a “backdoor route for immigration” is, by itself, reasonable. But if that were really their worry, they wouldn’t be trumpeting—in bold italics, no less—that cracking down on these “will reduce net migration by about 9,000–12,000”. Similarly, prioritising immigrants to fill “real skills shortages” sounds sensible, but if that were really their motivation, they wouldn’t be emphasising the expected reduction “by 5,000–8,000”.

If Labour really wanted a “breather” on immigration, they would have included a sunset clause in their policy, or at least an indication of how long they think New Zealand needs to brush up its infrastructure. Instead, they say that immigration “should be a stop-gap, not a permanent crutch”—a vision that contradicts the very concept of a “breather on immigration”.

I don’t think they’re obliged to give a detailed infrastructure plan immediately; it can come later. But it’s telling that they’re more eager to blame immigration for “unnecessary pressures on our infrastructure” (three times in one document!), than they are to see investment in infrastructure as a means of improving New Zealand’s capacity to take advantage of population growth.

Credit where it’s due: The mechanisms they’ve chosen are better than the blunt tools advocated by their counterparts in other countries. Their desire to fix those loopholes might even be genuine, albeit secondary. It’s also comforting that they propose increasing the refugee quota.

But even taken at its best, Labour is trying to have it both ways. They’re slashing immigration to court voters who are anti-immigrant, with decorations to appease voters who aren’t. If you’re in the latter group, please don’t let Labour get away with it. They opened the debate by saying we don’t want so many immigrants, and wrote a policy whose main goal is to reduce immigration. Their rhetoric emphasising this has been consistent for months, and their line on foreigners has been consistent for years. Throwing in student visas and “genuine skills needs” now doesn’t remove that fact.