Do we need a Referendum on Immigration?

March 23, 2021
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DO WE need a referendum on immigration? That's a question we need to ask.

On last Sunday's Q+A, most of the panel and the interviewees seemed to think that New Zealand needed a larger population, built up by immigration. Or that immigration-fuelled growth was, at any rate, inevitable.

Indeed, why shouldn't New Zealand grow its population and its cities? By the standards of many other countries, we have the room.

And yet, New Zealand has a longstanding habit of failing to make sure that all the necessary transport links, pipes, wires, schools, hospitals, houses and jobs are in place, before the population is bumped up by immigration.

As far back as the mid-1970s, this failure to plan led to the rise of Rob Muldoon's brand of anti-immigrant populism.

Nothing much has changed since then. Except that the problem of too few houses, in particular, has got worse.

Do we need a referendum linking permitted levels of immigration to prior provision for jobs, housing and infrastructure, to force the New Zealand state to lift its planning game?

Learning from History

On Q+A, Oscar Kightley referred to the Dawn Raids of the 1970s as a sign of how backward New Zealand was in those days. Here's a planning map from a few years before the Dawn Raids, which held that there were too many "non-European" people living in the inner suburbs of Auckland, and that it would be desirable if they were dispersed.

From Development in the Auckland Region (Auckland Regional Authority), 1968

Today, such a map smacks of Apartheid, the actual Dawn Raids even more so. But were there also valid concerns about immigration back then, mixed in with the racism? 

Consider the following 1975 campaign ad, which helped to get Rob Muldoon's National Party into government that year:

There was a time when New Zealand's cities were quiet, and clean. People said they were nice places to bring up children. But the cities grew alarmingly. People poured in. Not just from the country, but from other countries as well. 62,000 in just two years. Nobody could build enough houses, so the price went up. And nobody could afford one. Soon there were not enough schools. Or hospitals. Then, one day, there weren't enough jobs, either. . . . Under National, immigration will be cut from 32,000 to around 5,000 people each year. . . .

You can view the ad at Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. Though offensive in places, it does make a point about not enough schools, roads, hospitals and houses being built to keep up with the population inflow. We have a similar situation today. The difference is that the shortfall is much worse today, especially in housing.

Now, you might still say that Muldoon won the election of 1975 by scratching a bigot's itch,  more so than as a result of any statistical argument. After all, New Zealand was a lot more white-bread in those days than now. At any rate, it was at the top. (Where there weren't many women, either.)

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon and members of the National Party caucus (ca. 1979) - Photograph taken by Ray Pigney for New Zealand Newspapers Ltd. Dominion post (Newspaper): Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP-Politics-National Party, from 1973-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22823072

But can we ignore concerns over immigration today? Simply because, in the 1970s, they were mixed in with racism and a certain degree of lingering colonial stuffiness?

A referendum, to help lift our planning game?

To get down to our biggest point of failure in New Zealand, one that was front and centre in National's 1975 ad, it is a fact some other states and countries do a much better job of making sure that the housing and infrastructure is in place, before the immigrants come in.

Countries like Germany, for example. Or even the state of South Australia.

Coastal real estate at Port Elliot, South Australia, in 2019. Qualifying first home buyers didn’t need to raise a deposit, either. Photo by Mary Jane Walker.

In view of the most significant failure of New Zealand governments in this area, isn't it reasonable that we should have a referendum?

Maybe not on immigration as such. That would be an exercise in thinking of a number, precisely the sort of thing that's too complicated to be decided by a referendum.

But certainly, on the issue of whether immigration can be allowed without putting in the infrastructure and other essentials, including houses, first.

A referendum, that might even be the only way to forestall a future Muldoon 2.0.

Or, to avoid a loss of all our most employable New Zealand-born young people, driven to emigrate by the cost of housing and snapped up by other countries.

Which, no amount of immigration could actually make up for.

By Mary Jane Walker with Chris Harris, PhD.

Note: Links to two previous blog posts on related topics are here, and here.


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