It's clear that immigration will be a significant flashpoint for this year's election and recent changes announced by Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse don't appear to have done anything to change that.
Clutha Southland MP Todd Barclay, predictably, lauded the announcement. With immigration, and skill and labour shortages among the most common issues in his electorate, the South Island Pathway to Residence policy will be music to the ears of many employers. It means around 1600 migrant workers and their families who have been living in the South Island for more than five years will be granted an initial Work to Residence temporary visa, which would make them eligible for residence after two years provided they stay in the same industry and region. They will then be granted a resident visa, with conditions requiring them to stay in the same South Island region for a further two years. The new policy is scheduled to come into effect on May 22, with applications accepted for 12 months.
However, other parts of the announcement require closer inspection, such as how the proposed introduction of remuneration bands to determine the skill level of an Essential Skills visa holder might impact small business owners.
And there are many other issues within the immigration framework that still don't appear to have been addressed. Although seemingly small, they can be somewhat critical for many southern businesses. For example, working holiday visas that restrict employees to a maximum of three months with a single employer might be working well in supporting industries such as fruit picking, but make it extremely difficult for tourism operators in Fiordland who need a commitment closer to five months to see them through the busiest periods.
And then there's Monday's announcement by Immigration New Zealand that Invercargill has been chosen to join Auckland, Waikato, Manawatu, Wellington, Nelson and Dunedin as a refugee settlement location, with the first group expected to arrive later this year. It's been met with mixed response, including from the city's mayor Tim Shadbolt, who has been reported as saying his council has not been consulted sufficiently.
Despite our increasing reliance upon an imported workforce and a clearly expanding ethnic diversity in our communities, a cursory read of online forums reveals a concerning level of xenophobia still exists in the south. Perhaps that's not surprising when you consider that the 2013 Census revealed just 10.2% of people in the Southland region were born overseas (mostly England), compared with 25.2% for New Zealand as a whole. However, the Southland district figures tell a slightly different story, with 11.5% having been born overseas. For those born overseas who are now living in the Southland district, the most common birthplace was the Philippines.
Those figures are now three years out of date yet they clearly show just how vital immigrant labour is to Southland's economy, particularly in our agricultural and tourism sectors.
With the world so seemingly fragile and fearful these days, it's to be expected that Southlanders will also be wary of change. There's no easy answer. But we need to be careful not to confuse a natural caution, apprehension and naivety, with racism and hatred.
Southland is coming of age and, while we need to be open to and accepting of that, it's very clear that where immigration policy is concerned there is no 'one size fits all'. We must continue to lobby our politicians to ensure that immigration legislation works for all of those people we proudly call Southlanders — whether by birth or by choice.