Time to ditch emergency powers and get back to normal

This week, the Road Transport Forum (RTF) appeared before a Parliamentary Select Committee to talk about immigration.

The Government wants to extend for another two years its emergency immigration law – the Immigration (Covid-19 Response) Amendment Bill – put in place in May 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic for one year.

There are a number of reasons the RTF is uncomfortable with this, which we have outlined in our written submission and which we spoke to in person at Parliament.

We have been contacted by employers whose good, hard-working employees have been put into immigration limbo because of the emergency powers in this Bill.

Our industry is not a big employer of casual migrant workers. We are doing everything to employ New Zealanders, including developing our own industry driver traineeship – which we will formally launch in Auckland next week. But we do employ people from other countries who are settled in the community, are valued by their employers who want to keep them here, and before Covid-19 struck, were on their path to New Zealand residency.

Since this Bill was put in place, their immigration status has been uncertain. We believe they will be put under further stress and duress for too long if these emergency powers are extended a further two years. They have been told by Immigration New Zealand they will have to give up their jobs in our industry and get different jobs if they want to progress with residency applications.

That is really concerning, because their employers cannot get other people to do these jobs that require specific training and skills. Some of these people have been here several years and the stress and uncertainty are taking a toll.

Underlying our concerns about individuals impacted by these emergency powers is a deep concern about the message conveyed by extending this Bill.

Emergency powers are only ever intended to be temporary – for the eye of the crisis, as it were. They extend broad sweeping powers to the hands of just a few politicians and they are beyond scrutiny.

The RTF contends that three years – the original year this Bill was put in place for, plus the two year extension – cannot be considered “temporary”. It’s the length of a full Parliamentary term.

We believe the landscape is very different to 12 months ago and the time for emergency powers has passed. New Zealand needs to be very clear about its Covid-19 recovery strategy and vaccine rollout. We are still somewhat in the dark on both.

While emergency powers are in place, we believe there should be ongoing policy development to be ready for when the sunset clause comes up – in this Bill, May 2021. We hope that has been happening, but again, the problem with emergency powers is no transparency. As the Bill is tagged “temporary”, it is not subject to the same level of scrutiny as normal legislation. There is no regulatory impact statement, no consultation with external stakeholders, no consideration of unintended consequences, and no economic assessment.

Decision making without a strong evidence base, for a long period of time, is a concern. As is a handful of people in power being able to make decisions without scrutiny, or question.

We weren’t the only submitters this week calling for more openness and transparency – the very things emergency powers exclude.

We also weren’t the only ones saying a two year extension to this Bill is too long. We believe six months should be enough to knock into shape the policy development we presume has been underway since May 2020, to inform permanent changes that will fix existing immigration laws.

Given that temporary can extend to three years, we want to know what guarantees there will be in place to ensure this Bill is not extended again.

We want to see a move back to normality, rather than fostering fear and exclusion for years to come.

We are uncomfortable with a Government that wants to pull up the drawbridge, fill the moat, and shut out the world while governing under emergency powers until the end of their term.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Border rethink required to meet skilled worker demand

Armed with the knowledge that managing Covid-19 in New Zealand is now a long-haul project, it is time for the Government to re-think its approach to the border.

As possibly the last place on earth to get any kind of mass population vaccination coverage – we don’t even have a plan for that yet – we cannot have the level of border closure we’ve got indefinitely.

Flexibility and clever thinking need to replace rigidity and rules that don’t always make sense. Appropriate levels of risk profiling need to be applied.

I do not want to start a barrage from concerned citizens saying we must keep our country closed off from the rest of the world for as long as it takes. We hear quite enough from them every day in the media.

I do want to start a conversation about the very real economic pain that is coming in 2021 as a result of a border closed for one, two, three years, or more.

We can both protect the New Zealand population and allow more people into the country, if we consider we are protecting the population from death and from overwhelming the public health system, not from the odd case of Covid-19 in the community. New Zealand is very good at contact tracing and shutting down any small outbreaks that might occur.

If you believed everything you read, you’d think we were being over-run by the sick from overseas. In fact, between March 2020 and December 2020 the number of people leaving New Zealand was 122,902 greater than the number of people coming into New Zealand (New Zealand Customs Services passenger statistics). We are losing population, not gaining.

We should also note the people coming into New Zealand are mostly New Zealanders, who by law, have every right to do so.

I know there are many people who will love that statistic because they think we can subsistence live in New Zealand. However, we are a trading nation and we need a regular flow of people and goods to maintain our standard of living. We also need people with different skill levels to power the productive elements of our economy. The truth is that the people departing from our shores are probably the very ones who will pick and box the fruit, oversee the COF of a truck, or be a retail worker. 

The flows of goods and people are being seriously impacted by the New Zealand Government’s stance. We have compounding supply chain issues that New Zealanders will be starting to see as they notice shortages, or no supply at all, of goods across the board.

We need to be focused on improving our ability to export and import, not slowing it down further and naively believing we can be self-sufficient. We need more people with skills than are currently available in New Zealand. Those people need to come from overseas.

Plenty of shade has been thrown at Ports of Auckland, as one of the main ports for goods coming into and out of New Zealand, regarding delays to the flow of freight. But to reach maximum capacity, Ports of Auckland need more skilled workers, particularly crane operators. Those skilled workers need to come from overseas.

This is not a situation that can be fixed by redeploying currently unemployed New Zealanders.

This is work that can take up to 18 months to acquire the training and skills to be competent in.

Importing a small number of experienced crane operators to work at Ports of Auckland would have an immediate impact on the supply chain by relieving the current extreme shortage of workers and the resulting congestion.

New Zealand needs to adopt a pragmatic approach to immigration if we are to trade our way out of the economic pain caused by Covid-19 around the world. We need our best “number 8 wire” innovative thinkers on the job to address our supply chain issues given our low population, distant location, and relatively small contribution to global markets.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum