Wrong- The Greens on Immigration

Last Sunday James Shaw, the Greens co-leader unveiled a bold new interpretation of Greens immigration policy.  Shaw attacked the government’s recent reduction in immigration numbers- but surprised many by saying that these cuts did not go far enough. He continued to say that under the Greens ‘sustainable’ immigration policy would cut immigration numbers by as much as two thirds.

In New Zealand, Immigration is the easy button for lazy politicians. The political mainstream uses the ‘kick a migrant’ technique to answer difficult questions. Housing prices too high?  Immigrants! (definitely not property developers who donate millions to major parties..)

Even so, this is an alarming turn for progressive politics. Only 4 months ago, James Shaw’criticized Labour for immigration scaremongering. Now he wants a dramatic reduction in migrants. Its an incredible U turn.

And it is based on bullshit.

Put simply, James Shaw is wrong in fact, wrong in principle, and wrong in politic.

Wrong in Fact

Shaw called for “sustainable” population growth. In practice, he said a Greens government would alter immigration intakes each year to set an annual growth rate “that would be at about 1% of the population, which is historically how fast New Zealand’s population has grown”. He blamed immigration for driving population growth higher than can be absorbed which he claimed is “having an outsize impact on house prices, on infrastructure and on wages”.

No part of this argument holds up. In the first instance, NZ historically having a population growth of “about 1%” is not true.


The rate of population growth from 1945-1965 was between about 1.8% and 3%. This time period had twice to three times greater population growth than James Shaw’s 1% target, but also maintained lower unemployment and a higher rate of home ownership. Real wages in the period were improving. Jame Shaw trying to use history to justify reducing immigration is nonsensical. Aotearoa has had periods of greater population increases without driving down housing or wages- whats changed? The answer is not immigrants, or population growth. What has dramatically changed in this period is the strength of unions to protect and improve wages and the political smashing of the welfare state under neoliberalism introduced by the 4th Labour government. By ignoring this, James Shaw is spreading lies. These lies do not lead to a reasoned debate on immigration or inequality- it only legitimizes the racist delusions that blame a decrease of the standard of living on migration.

Wrong in Principle

Secondly, James Shaw’s announced policy is in violation of Greens immigration policy as it stands both in its principles and any practical application. Greens policy in this area is largely a statement of principles. Even with this wriggle room, Shaw’s interpretation seems at odds with the Greens position.

His interpretation based on a 1% population growth figure seems to be an invention of  Shaw. As well as having no historical precedent, it is not mentioned in the Green policy. This aside, it’s implementation would mean an annual population increase of about 45,000 people, which after accounting for births, leaves somewhere in the region of 15,000-20,000 spaces for permanent migrants. Greens policy also calls for an increased refugee quota, provision for climate refugees, and for a relaxing of family reunion visas restrictions. How this squeeze between dramatically limiting the migrant quota and increasing refugee support would be managed is not elaborated on.

Importantly Shaw ignores wholesale the Greens commitments to migrant workers. Greens policy states that “We need to ensure that temporary migrants have decent working conditions and pathways to residency appropriate to their skills.” There are over 250,000 temporary work visa and student visa holders currently living and working in New Zealand- overwhelmingly they are working and paying taxes. The dramatic decrease in permanent residencies would stop very few people coming and working in New Zealand, as these visa categories would be untouched, but limit the rights of people who are already here and already part of our community from formalizing that and achieving residency. If James Shaw was serious about wanting to help increase wages, he would call for each of these workers to be given full work rights, including protection from deportation. Employers use these staff because the threat of withholding employer support from further visa applications it gives them an automatic leverage over their employees. This power imbalance is used to drive down wages.

At any rate, James Shaw cannot have it both ways. It is not possible to both stand up for the rights of migrant workers and dramatically cut access to migration. At some point Greens members will have to clarify this point of policy, but to allow Shaws position to stand would be in effect turning their back on migrants in New Zealand/Aotearoa.

Wrong in Politic

It might be enough to say the James Shaw is factually wrong and in contradiction with Greens principles in this matter, but unfortunately there is another important aspect to his error. This turn is politically idiotic.

I believe this is driven by a cynical view of political trends. I do not believe that James Shaw has a genuine distaste of migrants, but instead I think this is a cynical attempt to pander to an aspect of the electorate. Winston Peters and New Zealand First have been polling strongly, and James Shaw clearly sees this as an attempt to carve out some of this political space. Unfortunately, again, James Shaw is oblivious to the actual political concerns and opportunities for the Greens.

Rather than a nation of irreparable racists, opinion polling shows that Kiwis are actually much more concerned with poverty, inequality and housing issues than immigration. According to the most recent polls I could find, while 21% of respondents were concerned about inequality/poverty, and 9% of people were concerned about housing, only 3% of people listed their primary concern as immigration/refugees.

So rather than being dragged into the debate, James Shaw is actively ignoring the primary political interests of Kiwis to wage into a divisive debate on immigration. That may not be where other parties are putting their attention- but this should be a good thing for the Greens. By diverting to immigration, the Greens are missing the opportunity to be the only party actively campaigning for the primary concerns of Kiwis- inequality and housing. The opportunities to be a principled and exciting opposition are huge, and are now being missed.

James Shaw has always been quite open about his strategic vision of trying to win over ‘blue green’ voters. This appears to be an attempt to both pander to aspects of the electorate concerned about immigration, and to paint the Greens as a mainstream party who a have gone beyond the protest party and are willing to make the ‘hard calls’.  Rather than win over center voters, these kind of unprincipled stunts are more likely to have the opposite effect. It has made the Greens look inconsistent, made them look like cynical operators- like every other politician and political party. People vote Green in large part because they are seen to represent a political alternative. If in voting green you are going to get a more environmental version of Labour/National/Winston immigrant bashing, why bother?

In normal times this would be politically silly, but in a time where political alternatives are having a moment it is downright insanity.

Current international experiences should be giving the Greens enthusiasm to push an ambitious political platform. 

In the UK, the Labour Party has been reinvented. It is now the largest party in Europe with half a million new members who have joined, inspired by the socialist leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. In America, Bernie Sanders came agonizingly close to winning the Democratic Nomination for president by calling for a movement to take on the bankers in Wall St.

The NZ Greens should see this as their time. Instead, the political sock puppet that is James Shaw has seen fit to by himself invent a new history, invent a new policy and sell it to an electorate who aren’t much interested. 

The political space for an alternative is there.

12 thoughts on “Wrong- The Greens on Immigration

  1. I just wonder why you’d choose that particular tranche of time (1945-1965) to make your point. Surely it’s better to use the whole range of data.


    1. I used this time because it shows the inadequacy of James Shaws comments. Shaw says that population growth above 1% puts downward pressure on infrastructure and wages, yet the post war boom had significantly higher population growth with *the opposite* trend in wages and infrastructure.


      1. Aahh OK. I see. Thanks.


    2. It’s called duplicity or politics or, if you’re a stickler for accuracy, bullshit cherry picking. One might equally pick the 1924-44 period to conclusively prove Shaw’s argument.

      You might, if you were keen bung the data into a graph and chuck a trendline over it. I’d warrant that that would show mostly around the 1.25-1.5 mark over time. But nobody wants to see the truth. It doesn’t win elections.


      1. Between 1927-1947 (dont have figures for 24-27 so just moved the window up) the average is 1.2% growth. The Average growth for 1924-2010 is 1.4%. Population growth for the 90’s and 00’s was 1.3% which is less than the average. So no cherry picking, these are the facts. The purpose of the 45-65 window was this was a time of high pop growth, but also infrastructure expansion, home ownership and wage growth. So Shaw cannot be correct that pop growth drives down wages/standards of living- that claim is ahistorical. Not sure you understood the argument.


  2. The average over that time would be about 1% wouldn’
    t it


    1. The average from 1927-2010 is about 1.4%. This time frame was based on the figure i have available. Earlier would likely make the % higher, as it would start to bring in the massive colonial expansion.


  3. Hi Leftwin

    While you have full support in countering anti-immigrant rot, I think this intervention is perhaps too focussed on swaying the broad left and may be a bit misleading if we apply a critical Marxist lens – particularly to the question of economics…

    I think it is important to note economic conditions themselves matter quite a lot – not merely the bargaining power of labour. We have a world wide serious lack of profitability today. We *have to* account for that in socialist thinking otherwise we risk falling into the idea that we can do a New New Deal, as though capitalism can afford that in a period of such low profitability. A close analysis of the economy today actually shows that socialist arguments are correct – we can’t merely reform our way back out of this to a postwar period.

    That being said, bargaining power does have some role to play – I wouldn’t want to seem like I’m being a bit “Iron Law of Wages” about these things because I don’t think that is proper Marxism. Still good to see someone writing using actual data.

    The problem is not, in fact, merely political will – it is the nature of capitalist crises and the rate of profitability today. While I suspect the author knows that things can not be fixed purely through political will, it is important to include these small disclaimers – otherwise we as Marxists run the risk of promoting ideas in the class which we know have a real hard-ceiling limit on their feasibility. Reforms are worth fighting for, and capitalism can probably afford a slight improvement on some conditions. But ultimately, we have examples recently showing how there are real limits to what can be achieved without fundamentally changing the nature of the global economic system. Perhaps it is a crutch to feel that we always have to mention that – but it is better to mention it and avoid a misunderstanding, than to not mention it for fear of being divisive.

    Since this has been published, E Tu has shared anti-migrant worker sentiments on their Facebook page, joining the ranks of the Salvation Army, Labour Party, Greens, and of course New Zealand First. If any institutions which claim to represent workers are to be worthy of such a mantle, they need to show they understand that workers interests are as an *international* class and that we must be organised as a class regardless of what it says on our passports.


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