Changes to English test is government's answer to immigration
LETTER FROM NEW ZEALAND: In the 12 months to last October, over 95,000 immigrants arrived in New Zealand. To put this figure into perspective, the country has a marginally larger population than the Republic of Ireland, writes Pádraig Collins.
Part of this inflow was 160 of the 430 mainly-Afghani refugees from the Tampa ship which Australia so adamantly refused to allow in 15 months ago.
Walking around New Zealand's biggest city, Auckland (same population as Dublin), for the first time in almost four years, it was obvious that there has been huge levels of immigration, particularly from Asia, in the intervening period.
Yet even in the regional city of Hamilton (geographically equivalent to Athlone; its population is the same as Cork's) there is a great mix of cultures and ethnic origins.
Perhaps these figures are not so surprising considering that the Maori, who comprise 15 per cent of the population, fully participate in everyday life in a way that Aboriginals have never done on the other side of the Tasman.
New Zealand's rate of immigration is likely to fall sharply next year though when a strict new English-language test for migrants comes into effect.
The Labour-led government denies that its crackdown has anything to do with pressure from Mr Winston Peters but few believe them.
Mr Peters, who is a Maori, is an MP and leader of the New Zealand First party. His party has some policies other than its anti-immigration stance, but that is principally what gets it votes.
An editorial in the New Zealand Herald said that the Prime Minister, Ms Helen Clark, is correct in saying that Mr Peters's regular comments on immigration do untold harm to New Zealand's reputation in Asia.
"Why, then, would she turn around two weeks later and hand him more credibility? It becomes very hard to assure Asian opinion that Mr Peters is a politician of little account in this country when they see the government bending to his pressure," the paper said.
Despite constantly using words such as "floodgates" and "swamped" in relation to migrants, Mr Peters maintains that "concern with immigration is not about racism, red-necks or bigotry - or any of the other daft slurs that get cast around".
He says that only his party knows that the Labour party "talks with a forked tongue over immigration".
"Who the hell gave you the right to do that to our country?" he said to Labour MPs. "Bring in half the refugees who are carrying HIV and all sorts of third-world diseases. Every New Zealand taxpayer will pay for the rest of their lives," he said.
Despite the scare-mongering, there are some genuine concerns about the course that immigration into New Zealand is taking.
In a country where, unlike Ireland and much of the rest of the developed world, housing is still relatively cheap, the prices in Auckland have escalated dramatically in the last few years.
Many, and not just in Mr Peters's party, are saying that this is due mainly to the fact that 60 per cent of all immigrants to New Zealand in the last five years have settled in Auckland.
According to Mr James Newell, of New Zealand's Population Association, this has the knock-on effect of increasing land prices. "If you want to sustain agriculture you can't allow the price of land to overtake the value of agriculture, which is very important to New Zealand."
Labour's Immigration Minister, Ms Lianne Dalziel, in announcing the changes to the English test for migrants, said that she had found fault with existing immigration programmes.
An investigation found that many took up immigrant visas to get around paying the excess university fees levied on foreigners.
It also found that 98 per cent of investor migrants put their money in New Zealand banks for two years to meet the criteria and then withdrew it.
A similar plan, the Long Term Business Visa, was designed to attract entrepreneurs. Ms Dalziel said: "In reality it attracted people to buy existing small businesses like dairies [small shops]...who would not have qualified under other categories, and it had no English test at all."
Mr Peters is claiming credit for the Labour Party's shift in its policy. "It has taken 13 New Zealand First MPs 120 days to bring this government kicking and screaming into the real world."
In response, Ms Dalziel said: "Our message to him is that the government's announcement is not aimed at reducing numbers. It is about ensuring that those who come under the general skills category are meeting labour force needs, rather than having a 30 per cent unemployment rate, as is the case at present," she said.
New Zealand First got 10.38 per cent of the vote in a recent general election and its 13 seats in the 120-seat parliament is a mandate that cannot be ignored.
Part of its election manifesto stated: "There is the need to keep a tight lid on immigration if we are to avoid New Zealand's identity, values and heritage being swamped."
Regardless of your views on immigration to Ireland, be glad that the debate is being carried out in a more civil and reasonable manner than in New Zealand, and that would-be anti-immigration politicians are restricted to a few hundred token protest votes.