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Immigration is shaping as a significant election issue. National has already been tapping the brakes with its changes announced in April, and now Labour has gone further, saying it wants to cut net numbers by 20,000 to 30,000 from the present 70,000. Winston Peters and New Zealand First can be guaranteed to continue to take advantage of the matter.

Generally, most New Zealanders have been in favour of immigration. After all, everyone came from immigrant stock at one time or another, beginning with the great Polynesian sea voyages several centuries ago.

These days, however, ambivalence, even opposition, grows. Older New Zealanders in particular are likely to question some immigration. There are fears of the country being swamped by different cultures, values and ways of life, and even that domestic terrorism could emerge.

Labour, meanwhile, with its announcements this week, is playing on the acute Auckland strains in housing and traffic congestion, claiming immigration is a major contributor to this. Labour has specifically identified what has long been known in tertiary education circles, the fact many of those coming for ''education'' are using it as a passport to permanent residency.

As leader Andrew Little said, an ''industry'' of low-value and ''sham'' courses has developed as a back door for immigration. It is far too easy to move from courses through to work and eligibility to stay.

This policy has engendered fears of collapse for many private training enterprises, particularly in Auckland, and that could well occur. In the short term, the economy and income from foreign students would be hit. But if courses are genuinely about education they should survive.

Immigration has been prone to scandal and abuse. Any loopholes are soon exploited, and official reaction has often been too long coming and too weak. Why, for example, was not something done years ago about low-value courses? Or was it easier to ignore as so much money was at stake?

New Zealand can be naive and over-generous, and has been on some family unification policies and their implementation. A large proportion of permanent residents come by this means. The period before parents of immigrants become eligible for national superannuation and free healthcare should be extended, while maintaining fairness across this category.

New Zealand should preserve compassionate and humanitarian threads to immigration, and does not have to be as brutal as Australia. At the same time, it needs to look after its long-term interests. That will include substantial immigration, but on its terms. In the South, for example, migrants are essential to fill many skills gaps. Christchurch was rebuilt on migrant labour.

Because of the relative strength of the New Zealand economy and because so many New Zealanders are returning home, migration is booming. But that flow can easily ease or even reverse. It was only as recently as 2011, for example, that net migration was only 3900. The record net outflow of 43,300 was in 1979.

All this points to how difficult it is for the Government to control migration flows. Ten years ago, for example, it seemed impossible to stop the brain drain to Australia.

It is a privilege to live and work in this country and New Zealand has the right to pick and choose its residents. A debate about immigration is welcome and appropriate, and some of the devil will be in the complex detail. Voters should be wary of any politicians exploiting underlying anxieties through proclaiming simplistic solutions.

Immigration settings have to be tweaked regularly and loopholes have to be closed. At the same time, it should be recognised immigration remains important for New Zealand's wealth and wellbeing.



Did Polynesians 'immigrate' within Polynesia?

The sea voyages were actually in this part of the world. Depending on where they started from, the Marquesans went furthest, in a different direction, to settle the islands later called 'French' Polynesia out East.

Origins are a matter of opinion. I have heard a theory, possibly humour, that Hawaiki was in the BOP.




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