Our Immigration Policy: Rationality, Stability, and Politics: Stephen Hoadley Discusses New Zealand's Approach to the Vexed Question of Immigration Controls

By Hoadley, Stephen | New Zealand International Review, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview

Our Immigration Policy: Rationality, Stability, and Politics: Stephen Hoadley Discusses New Zealand's Approach to the Vexed Question of Immigration Controls


Hoadley, Stephen, New Zealand International Review


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)

Divergent aims

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 that induce individuals to stay, emigrate, or immigrate. The disturbances and uncertainties that arise overseas and drive emigration and refugee flows, both legal and illegal, are broadly physical insecurity and economic deprivation. Neither is within New Zealand's power to change. All New Zealand leaders can do is to decide which of the aspiring immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers will be admitted. This in turn is a function of the government of the day's perception of New Zealand's human capital needs, on the one hand, and the government's commitment to international agreements such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and humanitarian principles such as family reunion, on the other.

Volatile market

Furthermore, immigration po-licy outcomes are the aggregate of an infinite array of individual and governmental choices. The migration process can be compared to a global market, with hopeful migrants as sellers and governments as buyers. …

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