No change in National's immigration policy even if we partner with NZ First in future: Bridges

National Party's leader, and the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges sat with this newspaper last month, and talked about a range of issues.

National Party’s leader, and the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges sat with this newspaper last month, and talked about a range of issues. Below is the text of the complete interview. Readers can watch the video on our website and social media channels. (transcribed by Stevie Tiori)

Everyone talks about immigration bringing the 3C’s of culture, cuisine and celebrations to New Zealand. But do you think immigration also has some economic benefit to the country?

Bridges: Immigration is definitely economically beneficial for New Zealand. It makes us a stronger, more vibrant country because of the other three C’s. But it also economically incredibly important.

If you look at New Zealand over the last few years, outside of the global financial crisis and the earthquakes, we needed skilled people, we didn’t have enough in New Zealand.

By the end of the John Key Bill English government, we were creating 10,000 new jobs a year, and today even though the economies come off a little bit, the truth is we have full employment, low unemployment in so many areas; ICT, horticulture, construction, you name it.

So we need migration coming in. It is good, makes our economy grow, and therefore our country stronger.

If immigration is so important for the economy, can we say that the lowering business confidence is a direct result of government’s lack of clarity on immigration policy?

Bridges: I think plummeting business confidence, and in fact consumer confidence as well is because of a couple of things, one is bad low growth policies, another is very much the uncertainty created by all the working groups, and a lack of direction by the government.

In terms of those policies there are many that are bad and I think take New Zealand backwards.

One of them is definitely immigration policy incoherence.

During the elections last year, it was very clear that National was for immigration and more open settings because of the reasons you say, the three C’s but also the economic benefits that come from it.

The other parties - Labour, Greens, New Zealand First were for dramatically reducing immigration. What it fact has happened now is much less clear, and I think it would be a brave person who would try and tell us what the government immigration policy at the moment is.

But that means businesses find it harder to grow, they don't know what to do, and individuals can’t plan with any certainty around what they do.

Let’s get sector-specific a bit now. About industries like international private education, which have been huge dollar earners for New Zealand. Are these sectors getting affected?

Bridges: I feel very strongly that international private education has been good for New Zealand. Yes there’s always some issues and things you can improve.

What is also true though that it is has been a several billion dollar sector for New Zealand. One of the problems with this government is that, and I think they need to think about solving is, it’s easy to say “we won’t do oil and gas, we won’t do mining, we’re not sure about dairy farming any more, we’re not sure about private education”.

This is easy, what is hard is to find the things to replace them to keep the economy growing. So that New Zealanders have good incomes and lifestyles here.

Rather than what we are seeing now, when Kiwis are moving to Australia again.

We need all these sectors to grow so that we have a strong vibrant economy providing great opportunities to people here in New Zealand rather than in Australia or Asia.

See one of our long term problems is Kiwis leaving and in fact in big numbers. I’m 41 and it was only four or five years of my life that I have seen more Kiwis and Aussies coming here than leaving.

We closed that up during the last few years of our government, with a strong economy, and creating 10,000 jobs a month.

But now, as Statistics New Zealand told us, two and a half thousand net have left for Australia.

I want to lead a government that brings people back, from Asia and other parts of the world. Kiwis want to come back but they need good jobs, with good wages, lower taxes so they can afford to live here and have the life they have been having in Australia or Hong Kong, or Britain.

You acknowledge the benefits of immigration. So does Labour. But they say, it’s a coalition government, which they have with New Zealand First. So what will National’s immigration policy be like, if you form a coalition government with New Zealand First in future?

Bridges: You are right. Because the reality is, our system is MMP and this means compromise and agreements. But there’s a big difference between us and Labour, us and the Green Party, and us and the New Zealand First.

We are the only big party that has said we want to keep immigration going, and that we believe in open settings. We know that means stronger economy, better vibrancy, higher standard of living for New Zealanders.

They disagree with that. So for labour it was an easy issue. Because they want to see the numbers go that way.

It isn't true for us and we would make sure in coalition arrangements we were leading from the front. Actually if we have a partner who is five, six, seven percent of the vote that means they get five six seven percent of the say.

Not what you have now, where President Peter's gets the veto on all of these things. That’s not the way to do it. So I'm saying to you is, actually we’ll stay pro immigration, we're not going to change on that.

We think it’s important. It's required for the economic strength and vibrancy of New Zealand.

And we will make sure that any party we join will have the power of its numbers, and it's not the tail wagging the dog, which is the case now.

Coming to your colleague Nikki Kaye’s second language learning bill, which is being appreciated widely within the multicultural communities. But the question is why didn’t you do it when you were in the government for nine years? And will you do it when you come in the government next?

Bridges: No ifs, no buts. We will do this.

We will ensure there is money for schools around New Zealand, so that people get a second language for their children.

This is important because we know for children to learn another languages - whether it is Hindi or mandarin or Te Reo - helps in brain development, as well as develop cultural and economic competencies.

Communities across New Zealand are asking about your position on parent category resident visa. Because you stopped it when you were in government. You must have heard it yourselves a number of times during your travels. What’s National position on this? Will you open it if you come to power in 2020?

Bridges: I understand there is no easy answer to this issue. It is complicated.

I think the truth is, you know, there will never be a perfect fit between us wanting strong contributing immigrants with ICT skills and many other areas, and of course, the natural desire for those immigrants wherever they come from to have their family close to them. But knowing of course that if you are talking about an older immigrant, there will be real cost involved in that.

I don't have the perfect answer to what that balance should be. I understand the need for some compassion, but also some hard headedness on this on this issue. There will always be that tricky balance that any government won't get right from every new immigrants perspective. We will continue to look and think it through.

But I must be honest with you, I don't know the details of the policy, and you're right it's definitely something that has raised a lot from valued members of our immigrant communities.

Are you thinking of having a ministry of ethnic communities, instead of an office, which we have now? It might bring more focus to issues multicultural communities face in New Zealand, and people across the board want it.

Bridges: We will be open to that.

But I don’t think this in itself is the main issue. When I talk to immigrants from around the world, but certainly from Asian countries, they want to see a strong economy, with good settings, lower tax, that allows them to get ahead and do well, and National is the party for that.

The one that I hear a lot is the concern around law and order. And National is the party that believes in being tough on crime. If we have to make a choice between more criminals in prison rather than more victims on the street, our choice is clear.

So what I'm saying is there are several big issues that are important to our migrant community. National will stand up for them, whether it is through a specific minister and office, or whether it’s something short of that, it's worth thinking through.

You talked about crime. What’s National plan to tackle aggravated robberies happening in our dairies so often, which are largely owned by the migrant community?

Bridges: More police is an important part of it, as without the police you won't catch the criminals who are doing the robberies. So having more police is important.

But what I know right now, under this government, they have a plan to reduce the sentences, the parole in the prison. and what is the point of having more police then. If they going to do it - like take a fish out of the sea, catch it and then release it. That will mean more victims. So National is fighting hard to ensure we keep the three strikes laws. So for the most serious offenders, we don't soften up the sentences. Otherwise it will mean there is no deterrence for people who are considering the robberies. If you do the crime, you do the time. If you are talking robbery aggravated. That’s serious, intimidating, even if there's no actual violence. That person should go to jail. We won't soften up in the laws, and make sure there are fewer victims.

The exploitation of migrant workers has become a major issue in the last few years. Will National make it [exploitation of migrant workers] a criminal offence to introduce some deterrence in such cases?

Bridges: It’s an interesting point you make. I was once under National, the Minister, we called it then Workplace Relations, now it is called Health and Safety.

I am proud that I started that increase in the resourcing of the labour inspectors. This was to make sure, we were catching the secret underground exploitation of migrant workers. Because as you say, people who were once migrants themselves and are now established New Zealand business people, are the ones doing that.

What you say is an interesting idea, but I would challenge you a bit on it.

Because I think in truth if you were talking about migrant exploitation at the most serious levels, there are already criminal penalties, and the ability in those most serious cases to see them go to jail. I’m always open to look at whether we have the right criminal offences and penalties to match the crimes. because I think you're right. For serious repeat offenders, who are continuously exploiting migrant workers, and it cannot be, just like I said before, the fish that go away, tag and and release, it will need to be taken more seriously. Now if you were talking at the serious levels of what some would call slavery or serious labour law infractions, there will be criminal penalties warranting jail at the current time. They may not be used sufficiently enough right now.

But as I said, I would be open in the most serious cases, were there are not sufficient penalties to look at that.