Most New Zealanders want an immigration policy that is rational, stable, and free from politics. But rationality, stability and freedom from politics cannot be achieved as long as New Zealand remains a pluralistic democracy open to marketplace transactions with the wider world. Furthermore, because of its impact on the economy and society and on New Zealanders' sense of nationhood, immigration is always potentially controversial. This conundrum is not unique to New Zealand, nor does it necessarily reflect a public sector failure. If expectations are adjusted to global realities, and policy settings are governed by political prudence and adjusted pragmatically within the guidelines of law and administrative best practice, the current policy institutions will suffice.
Let us remind ourselves why New Zealand has an immigration policy. The answer is apparently simple: to encourage immigration by the kind of people we want and to keep out those whom we do not. New Zealand has traditionally been a labour-scarce country, and attracting migrants to work the land and provide manufactures and services was central to the economic growth strategy. With modifications, it still is. (1)
But the apparent clarity of purpose of immigration policy and transparency of its administration begin to cloud as differences of opinion arise about prioritisation and operationalisation of goals. Upon close inspection immigration policy is found to have numerous aims, some congruent but others divergent and even conflicting. Table 1 summarises some of them.
Thus immigration policy requires constant attention by the government and the Immigration Service to harmonise their various aims, and to juggle their priorities, both domestically and internationally. Most of the time they cope, but when mistakes are made, management falters, and damage control fails, issues of immigration do erupt into the political arena. This is less a failure of leadership (although unwise statements can exacerbate the furore) than a cyclical inevitability. For immigration policy is inherently neither rational nor stable.
A rational policy arises out of clear and consistent objectives implemented lawfully by efficient administration and monitored by objective and precisely measurable criteria. The administration of immigration policy is generally lawful and efficient in New Zealand. Despite occasional well-publicised lapses, it is certainly no worse than in countries against which New Zealand benchmarks itself. But administration can be only as good as the guidelines by which it works and the monitoring by which it corrects the policy settings. If the political masters fudge or change the guidelines, or if monitoring is perforce more qualitative than quantitative because of unclear objectives or the inherent ambiguities of the endeavour, the best administration in the world will wobble. Table 2 sums up the handicaps immigration policy faces in attempting to achieve rationality.
Add to this the ever-changing international economic relativities …