New Zealand should limit immigration post-Covid-19, says deputy PM

New Zealand should tighten its liberal immigration policies and concentrate on improving the skills of its own workforce following the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation’s deputy prime minister has said.

Winston Peters, who is also the country’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times that the pandemic had exposed the problems of building an economy on consumption driven by immigration.

“To bring in numbers on the basis of consumption is a flawed economic policy and was bound to fail and it did fail. And the moment Covid-19 turned up, which was always a foreseeable event, we then saw the need to upskill and train our people first,” he said.

New Zealand has one of the highest net migration rates among the OECD group of rich nations at 11.4 per 1,000 people in the year ending June 2019. That was more than triple the equivalent migration rates in the US and UK.

Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, has been a great advocate of a multicultural New Zealand and has been welcoming towards migrants who have settled in the Pacific nation.

Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, said high immigration put pressure on infrastructure, health and education Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, said high immigration put pressure on infrastructure, health and education © Hagen Hopkins/Getty

But her Labour-led coalition pledged to cut net annual migration when it came to power in 2017 by between 20,000 and 30,000 people a year. It had little success until Covid-19 struck in March, prompting Wellington to close its borders.

The debate about migration to New Zealand comes as conservative governments in the US, UK and Australia seek to restrict immigration, even as the Covid-19 pandemic closed borders and brought immigration to a temporary halt.

Mr Peters, whose New Zealand First party is lagging behind in polls, said almost two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product growth over recent years was directly linked to immigration. But he insisted that was unsustainable because of the pressure it placed on infrastructure, health and education.

Chart showing net migration per 1,000 people since 2013 in New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, UK, US and Germany

He said his party was not anti-immigration but wanted a more tightly focused policy that did not duplicate the record population increases experienced in recent years.

Since coronavirus struck, a surge in returning New Zealand citizens has helped push the country’s population to more than 5m for the first time. But demographers said the migration rate would probably drop sharply in the next few months because of the fall in foreign migrants.

“Net migration will go from close to a historic high in 2019 to almost zero in 2020,” said Paul Spoonley, a professor at Massey University in Auckland.

Mr Spoonley said if Mr Peters campaigned on a platform of reducing net migration to 10,000 — the number he specified at the 2017 election — he risked pulling the handbrake on New Zealand’s economy, which has been tipped into recession by the pandemic.

He said many industries relied on migrants, particularly the elderly care sector where about one in three workers held migrant visas.

Mr Peters did not specify a target number for net migration but insisted that the party wanted to attract highly skilled immigrants essential to wealth creation.

New Zealand First has suggested tightening visa restrictions and starting a public debate on population policy in an attempt to attract flagging public support.