Do You Trust Jacinda Ardern?
If you do you won’t be disturbed by a Bill amending the Immigration Act tabled in parliament this week allowing the government wide-ranging powers to change the way visas are, or are not, accepted and or processed. If you do trust the government, there is little to worry about.
Essentially, what the government is seeking to do is to be able to make decisions on groups of visa holders or applicants, en masse, rather than forcing people to file and then assess, individual applications. This means, as an example, they could say that everyone currently in New Zealand whose Visa will expire between ‘X’ date and ‘Y’ date, will not have to file an individual application, pay a fee or fill out an online form, they will be deemed to have a Visa until ‘Z’ date.
On the face of it, quite sensible.
However, as long as the Epidemic Pandemic Notice is in place, the existing legislation means that people whose visas expire, cannot become unlawful anyway.
Perhaps the government is only thinking beyond the EPN and the protection that gives to Visa holders. Perhaps, they are thinking that when the EPN notice is lifted they will need to be able to give people a ‘free pass’ to leave the country without being unlawful when they do.
Perhaps they are only looking at stopping people overseas applying for visas for a while.
On a more pragmatic and operational level, I suspect at least in part, they are only doing this because they have no plan to get the Department back to work any time soon. Those immigration officers at home who have been given laptop computers, and I understand they are still only being sent out now, almost seven weeks after lockdown started, have almost no capacity to process visas remotely. Over the past decade the Immigration Department has been trying to tack a new online Visa processing system onto an old software platform. I’m advised the cost so far has been $38 million and counting. (One assumes with the borders closed indefinitely they can stop spending $11 million a year ‘marketing’ NZ as a migrant destination and perhaps put that money toward building a proper IT system).
Covid-19 has exposed a dismal failure of planning and management. There has never been a Plan B in the Department, it seems, for anything, least of all a health emergency.
The Prime Minister continues to confirm, as excitement builds here about coming out of lockdown in a few more weeks and as talk of a “trans-Tasman Bubble” allowing quarantine-less travel between Australia and New Zealand grows, that the borders will remain closed for “a long time”. She is reluctant to put a date on it because of the obsession with ‘eliminating’ the virus from New Zealand shores. A ‘long time’ however is clearly not a short time.
Where I thought previously, based on her signaling, she might have been talking a few months, I’m more convinced than ever she is really talking about until a vaccine is created and made available not just to New Zealanders but the entire world. She just won’t come out and say it and our fawning media refuse to press her.[STOP PRESS: Around the time we posted this, the PM all but confirmed this is her thinking – no vaccine, no open border – she has not ruled out all travel to NZ however so more questions….]
Our Prime Minister is fixated it seems on not budging from her one priority which is to keep New Zealanders “healthy”.
And that apparently means the borders must be closed for a ‘long time’ despite whatever other recession induced health issues that might create.
This Bill, which I understand will be given one select committee hearing before being passed into law and likely coming into effect in the middle of May, also then gives the government the ability to effectively shut down Visa applications from for example, people who are not in New Zealand. Again, that has some logic – if you have an Immigration Department sitting at home doing nothing, an ancient IT system that does not allow them to work remotely, no airlines flying and a closed border, then what is the point in accepting more temporary visa applications into the system?
The fear our clients have of course is that the bill also extends to suspending skilled migrant, parent and Investor pool draws and suspending “invitations to apply for a visa’.
The government has already suspended selecting expressions of interest from the skilled migrant pool. The reason given was they had no one to process applications because they’re all sitting at home watching Netflix. I would take that at face value and not read anything more sinister into closing down the pool draws. They simply never had a Plan B that allows them to work remotely.
However I would be lying if I said I don’t have some concerns about this. In February this year, before the lockdown and Immigration officials were sent home, there was around 11,000 skilled migrant resident visa applications that had been selected, invited to apply and which had been filed sitting in a queue waiting to be allocated for processing. That ‘waiting’ was two years for the majority back in February. Embarrassing for the Department, shrugged off by the Minister and disruptive for NZ employers and their migrant staff seeking certainty.
Could the government use this legislation to tell all those people that are sitting in that unallocated queue that their applications are going to be returned, along with a refund? Is this legislation a Trojan Horse allowing them to get rid of applications currently in the system?
The bill does not talk of declining or returning applications, including resident visas, that have already been filed. That would suggest there is no plan to deal with the backlog using this amendment. Therefore, those people, including several hundred of our own clients, should be able to rest easy, it appears that they are not about to be shafted by this legislation.
If you are less trusting, this legislation might be that Trojan Horse but if it was, we would strongly argue that it is not necessary.
Logic would suggest that the backlog of Residence cases for skilled migrants should organically fall because there’s going to be a lot of people sitting in that queue right now who had jobs when they filed their applications who now don’t, or soon won’t. Numbers released by Treasury here suggest the unemployment rate has increased over the past six weeks from around 4% to 6%. And that is while there is still a relatively generous wage subsidy being paid out by the government to employers across the country. When that wage subsidy ends next month it is inconceivable that the numbers of people registering for unemployment will not jump significantly. Most Economists are talking about 9% or 10%. Some, even higher for the next two quarters.
It is interesting that in Australia where their wage subsidy has yet to be paid out, unemployment there is already estimated to be 10% with entire industries decimated. I can see no reason why New Zealand is going to be any different.
While most of our clients in New Zealand who are working have held on to their jobs, I suspect most employers are simply playing a waiting game and seeing what else the government might offer or how this economy is allowed to start coming back as the lockdown eases.
Logic suggests then the skilled migrant backlog will reduce significantly without government need to suspend or shut down the skilled migrant category. So maybe it’s as simple as that. They won’t need to use this amendment to deal with the backlog ‘problem’ they created.
At the back of my mind however is the prospect of the election coming up in September and given the Deputy Prime Minister holds a disproportionate amount of power despite his party only getting around 5-7% of the vote, it is not unreasonable to expect him and his colleagues to climb on their anti-immigration soapbox as they do every three years and demand more cuts. Could that extend to suspensions to programs like the skilled migrant category?
The fact that unemployment here is undoubtedly going to jump significantly does not mean skill shortages will evaporate. We are still 2000 teachers’ short for example. Our Universities still don’t produce enough IT skills and engineers. We are still short of trade and technical people.
Might we see a suspension of the skilled migrant category completely? No more filing of EOIs? No more selections? No more invitations? I think that is possible.
The silence from government in regard to their plan for immigration is deafening.
You can thank the upcoming election for that I suspect.
Silent voids are always filled with chatter and speculation. Never more so than now. The Facebook gossip grapevine is working overtime. Online migrant chat groups and forums (the ultimate in the blind leading the blind) are exploding with ‘What are they going to do?’ questions. There are tens of thousands of people in New Zealand holding temporary visas who have filed residency applications desperate for certainty. The government is providing none.
Are they going to throw people out as soon as there are airlines to fly them and borders are open here and overseas?
Whether they would be so heartless is the big question.
If you trust Jacinda Ardern (I would like to count myself among those that do but that does not extend to her NZ First coalition bedfellows), then you have little to worry about.
If you don’t, then given the Prime Minister keeps telling us we are ‘all in this together’ and endlessly ‘to be kind to one another’, I presume that kindness equally extends to those her Government invited to the country and she then invited to file residence applications and they can stay, no matter what the recession has just thrown at them.
And who is to say she will still be the PM after September? – this law change will be lying there waiting for someone less ‘kind’.
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