Little confirms Labour would cut 'tens of thousands' of immigrants – and picks on students

Also addresses charter school mess with Willie Jackson, promises move against negative gearing.

Labour leader Andrew Little confirmed his party would cut immigration by tens of thousands. He said those numbers would come from cutting thousands of student visas and works visas. He singled out work visas for labourers and “low-quality courses.”

After previously saying Labour would scrap negative gearing, Mr Little told The Nation he’ll make an announcement about it tomorrow at the party's Congress in Wellington. He says all Labour’s housing initiatives will be implemented in the first term.

At the party's conference last July, the leader said a policy against negative gearing was in the works. Criticising the current setup, he said, "The way this works is investors are able to write off any losses they make in property investment against the rest of their income for tax purposes. That means other taxpayers pick up the tab – it's effectively a taxpayer subsidy for speculation."

Mr Little said he is “personally in favour” of a tourist levy and the party is looking at it.

He also says Te Reo would not be compulsory in schools under Labour’s first term but denies that’s a snub to the Labour Maori caucus.

Willie Jackson, recently named at No 21 on Labour's list, is heavily involved with Te Kura Maori o Waatea, a charter school based at Nga Whare Waatea Marae in South Auckland. But Mr Little still skirts around questions over how this clashes with Labour's policy to eliminate charter schools.

TRANSCRIPT: Patrick Gower talks to Labour leader Andrew Little on The Nation

Patrick Gower: Andrew Little, thank you so much for joining us. Now, I want to start with immigration. You’ve said you want to cut immigration by up to 50,000. Now, everybody is wondering how you’re going to do that.

Andrew Little: So what I’ve said is we do need to reduce immigration. We’re a country built on immigration. We’re always going to need talents and skills from other parts of the world, so that’s the starting point. But right now we’ve got numbers coming into New Zealand that is putting real pressure on our cities, particularly our biggest city, Auckland. And we see it with the lack of housing, we see it with the pressure on transport and traffic, we see it with overcrowded schools and hospitals, so we have to cut immigration. I’ve said we have to cut in the order of tens of thousands, and, well, that’s a policy in a few weeks’ time—

Yes, but what I asked is you have said you want to cut it by up to 50,000. How are you going to do that?

So, what I’ve said is we need to cut in the order of tens of thousands, and we will be working out the work visas and the student visas.

Let’s get back to that pool of up to 50,000, where you said—and I’ll use your words, you said you wanted to get to a target of 20,000 to 25,000 net immigration. It’s 71,000 at the moment; that means by up to 50,000. Do you stand by that target of 20,000 to 25,000?

What I stand by is we have to reduce it in the order of the tens of thousands. Look, we can quibble—

So you’re backing off that target, aren’t you?

No. No, I’m not.

You’re backing off the target of 50,000.

I’ve been very clear about we have to reduce in the order of tens of thousands, because the problem with what is happening at the moment is the numbers are putting pressure on our biggest cities.

Let’s take ‘tens of thousands’. That means reduce it by 20,000.

Yeah.

How? Who? How? How are you going to do it?

So, when we announce of policy in a few weeks’ time, you will see we have a target. It is in the area of work visas. We’re issuing 42,000 work visas a year. Some of those are for roles and occupations that I know we can actually staff from inside New Zealand.

Okay, which one? Name one. Name one role or occupation in those 43,000 work visas, actually, that you will cut.

So, we’ve seen work visas issued, for example, for labouring work, and we have, you know, 6000, I think, categorised as labouring work.

That’s 6000. You need to get to 20,000.

And we have 15,000 unemployed labourers in New Zealand. So there’s the work visas. There’s also the student visas. So we know that some of the visas being issued to students to study here are for what I would describe as low-quality courses. They’re less about education and more about the right to work that goes with it. So—

So how many would you look to cut out of the student visas? Thousands, obviously.

Yeah, and I think when we announce our policy, you’ll see the numbers are in the—

You’ll cut thousands of student visas?

When we announce the policy, you’ll see where the numbers are coming out of. But we can achieve that requirement that I think we do have right now if we’re going to do a good job – not just for New Zealanders who are here already but for those who are coming here – in the order of tens of thousands.

So over 20,000 – you will confirm that in this policy and that will include thousands of students?

Yes on both counts, yeah.

Yeah. Thousands of student visas will be cut? Because that’s a $4 billion industry, Mr Little.

Very important. Very important to a lot of tertiary institutions, but we know that some of the courses that students are getting student visas for and the right to work that goes with it are pretty poor quality, to be honest. And that’s what NZQA and TEC are now finding is that some of the courses that students are now studying are actually not that good courses, so we think there is scope to make a change there.

Sure. But getting back to the work visas, and even if we’re looking at this number of 20,000, being generous, employers, be it a truck operator in Northland, a hotel operator in Queenstown, a farmer in Southland, they all say you can’t do this – that they need the people. What’s your message to these guys? Are they making it up?

No. Of course they are concerned. They’ve got their businesses to run; they want people there to work for them. We will work with business and business organisations as we work through our particular plan on cutting those immigration numbers.

The service industry’s saying it needs 200,000 workers by 2020, and you’re talking about cutting tens of thousands out of the work visas. Where are they going to come from, Mr Little? Who’s going to do the jobs?

So, and in addition to cutting those immigration numbers, we’ve got to look at the 90,000 young people who are not in work, education or employment in New Zealand. So there’s real scope there. I’m not prepared to write them off and think that they haven’t got a future and we haven’t got a future for them in New Zealand.

And nobody’s writing off the NEETs. Nobody’s writing off the NEETs, but you know you can’t turn a NEET into a nurse overnight, or you can’t take someone from Northland and slap them in Queenstown overnight. You know that.

That’s right. So, that’s right. So managing immigration—This is all about managing immigration better. It’s about accepting that the numbers that are coming in at the moment, regardless of where they come from, just the sheer numbers are putting huge pressure particularly on Auckland, and Auckland cannot cope any more. So we need a breather. We’ve just got to take a bit of stock, and we have to phase that down, and we’ve got to work on those who don’t have work here at the moment or skills – a bit of time to ramp all that up. But I’m confident, if we look closely at the numbers—

These employers are just—

…if we look closely at the numbers, we can do a better job at managing what we’ve got at the moment.

These employers are just going to say, ‘We don’t have the time. We’re running a business here. We don’t have time to convert a NEET into whatever is needed. We’ve got to get going.’ So if you’re going to do this cut, do they have to accept there’s going to be some pain?

We’ve got to reduce the numbers because the pressure, particularly on Auckland, is just too bad.

So the employers have to accept that they’re going to have a bit of pain while they find workers here. Is that what you’re saying?

And so we manage it. It’s not about day one, you shut the doors and that’s it; nobody else comes in. It is about managing it sensibly and carefully and properly, and we’ll work with business and business organisations and put the rules together so that we can manage immigration better, take the pressure off, take a bit of a breather, build the houses, fix the traffic congestion—

Okay. I want to turn now to housing – the Housing Affordability Measure that was out this week that shows government’s own official stats. It’s worse than ever. KiwiBuild, your solution to this, does it need to get bigger?

Well, we are strongly committed to the 100,000 over 10 years—

Do we need more now? Do we need more now?

We still have—KiwiBuild still assumes that house building that’s going on at the moment is going to go on. There’s a lot of commercial building going on at the moment too. But we’re committed to that 50,000. We know that the shortage of housing at the moment is about—

It’s not keeping up. I mean, do you need to lift that policy?

So, I think that a combination of measures that we do – immigration measures, the house-building measures – a bit of a ramp-up process there as well – that we can fill the gap that is there at the moment. It will take us 10 years to do that. And, look, if we can do more, if we can do it faster, yeah, we will. But we can build more houses, and we can ramp up so that we are building a lot of houses in a single year – affordable homes that we can get young couples to get their first home.

Sure. Let’s look at those measures. Negative gearing — that’s where a landlord effectively makes a loss on their property, writes it off and avoids some tax. Is Labour going to get rid of that?

We’d have a policy on that. And I’ll be announcing some measures around that tomorrow.

First term — is it gone? Is negative gearing gone? Is this a first-term thing?

All of our housing initiatives are first-term initiatives. They’ll be stuff we can do as early as possible, as quickly as possible, because the housing situation now is in crisis.

So no more tax write-offs for landlords in the first term?

Well, I’ll talk about what we’re doing with negative gearing tomorrow; I have a specific policy announcement to make about that. But we are going to level the playing field and make it easier for first home buyers to get their first home.

I want to look now at the Department of Conservation. Lots of talk about it being underfunded, and we’ve seen some moves by the government this week to up infrastructure. The government doesn’t want a tourism levy — a levy on tourists to help pay for this. Would a Labour government look at that?

We are looking at that. I’m personally in favour of that. I think it’s the most efficient and effective way of raising the revenue we need to do to support the regional councils and those other local communities to build facilities to accommodate the tourists who are coming here.

So we’re talking, like, 50 bucks at the border. Is this the sort of thing that you’re looking at?

I don’t have a figure in mind. There’s the concept of having a levy that you collect when you buy your airline ticket or pay over the border. There’s about setting the amount.

Is this a first-term thing as well, Andrew Little?

Yeah, because again, the amount of tourists coming here — three million in a year — is putting huge pressure on cities and towns and villages all around New Zealand, as well as our conservation state, and we need investment quickly into getting those facilities up to speed.

So a tourism levy in the first term under a Labour government. I want to turn to something else now — social investment. National’s big idea, the prime minister’s big idea, it’s all about social justice. It’s Labour territory. They’ve got into your space. They’ve got into your face, effectively, and taken your ground.

Except we still have 90,000 young people not in work, education or training, 60,000 people who can’t get hospital treatment at their local hospital because the hospital says they can’t afford it. There’s a whole heap of things. Schools are overcrowded.

We all know the problems. But the question is they’ve got in, they’ve got the language, they’ve got the ideas that are meant to be yours; they’re owning your territory.

The reason I don’t agree with that is they talk about social investment. They talk about a lot of numbers. They talk about a lot of data, and they’re very data-driven. But what they’re not connected to is the lived experiences of a lot of New Zealanders. That’s what they’re missing. That’s why they’ve missed the housing crisis.

But let’s look at the politics of this. It’s like you’re getting boxed out, you know. They are going to build houses as well. They have social investment. They’re leaving you very, very, very little space.

You look at the issue of mental health, and it’s just come up this week. And I’ve picked up that mental health issue as I’ve gone around the country over the last few months. I’ve picked that up solely just by talking to so many people, thousands of New Zealanders and their families. And yet, when the government is presented with a petition or stories of 500 people about their mental health issues, we have a minister of health who dismisses it, says they’re all sort of anti-government protestors.

How big do you think this mental health is as an election issue? How big do you think this is?

Every public meeting I’ve gone to, and it’s come up. And if I haven’t initiated it, somebody has raised it. And it’s amazing, the response that I’ve got. Everybody is saying if it’s not them or their family, they know a family who is affected by it who just can’t get a lot of those front-line sorts of services that they need. And you’ve got a government with all its data-driven analytics and its social investment approach that has completely missed the boat on it. That’s the problem with the social investment approach — it’s not connected to the real lives on New Zealanders.

I want to turn now to some of your own problems in the last couple of weeks — the list issue, the Maori prison policy on the hoof, the charter schools debate. It’s been a debacle. It has been a debacle. I mean, where’s the discipline?

We’ve got an amazing list.

I know all this. You know, we know all this. But it’s been a debacle. It looks like a debacle. It feels like a debacle. Where’s the discipline?

There is a huge amount of discipline. It’s that discipline that has allowed us—

It’s not discipline when a senior MP announces policy on the hoof. It’s not discipline when a low-rank list MP diverts the conversation to about seven or eight charter schools around the country. That’s not discipline.

Well, you’ve got a bunch of MPs who are very passionate about the ideas that they’ve got, but we’re very clear—

No one’s hearing them. No one’s hearing them. It must be frustrating for you, mustn’t it? It must be frustrating for you.

Well, you know, you can say that, but what I see is—

But is it frustrating for you for this to happen?

No. The reason why is—

Because it should be frustrating. You should be saying to me, ‘Yes, it is frustrating.’ You’re trying to be prime minister. You’ve got four months to go. Of course it’s frustrating.

I know what you’re saying, Paddy, and look, at one level, you could say that, but what I also look at is the state the party is in to fight this election campaign. I look at the spirit that the party delegates around to fight this campaign. I look at the level of organisation that we’re in.

And that’s great. And that’s great. But people aren’t seeing that. People are seeing you talk about Willie Jackson and charter schools all the time.

So, we’ve got a campaign. We’ve got four and a half months before the general election.

Te Reo Maori, the language, you’ve been in favour of that as compulsory. Do you still want that?

I have a personal view about it, but the party’s policy is to accept that there is a huge capacity shortfall at the moment. That’s what we’re going to focus on building, you know — the number of teachers we need—

So will it be compulsory in the first term?

No. No, no. I’m not saying it—

So this is another thing for the Maori MPs, isn’t it? You know, it’s not really mana-enhancing, is it, to have the list issue, the Maori prisons thing dismissed out of hand and then the charter schools, which they like as well. It’s not exactly mana-enhancing for the Maori in the party, is it? Now Te Reo Maori, that’s in the ‘never, never’ as well.

So, what’s mana-enhancing is that we will have, after the 23rd of September, the single largest representation of Maori MPs in a single party in the history of New Zealand politics. That’s New Zealand Labour.

But they keep sort of getting slammed down right now. That’s what people are seeing.

On Te Reo Maori, we have a commitment on building capacity. We will get underway with that straight away. But even our Maori MPs know you can’t say, ‘Right, that’s it. We’re going to make Te Reo compulsory,’ knowing that, you know, it’s going to take a few years to get the people, train them up, get them ready to teach Te Reo Maori. They know that.

Do you feel as if time is running out? Do you ever, sort of, look at everything that’s happened over the last couple of weeks and feel that, ‘Time is running out for me.’?

What I do look at, Paddy, is the preparation and the level of organisation the party now has, the state that the caucus is in — focused, determined, getting ready.

How can you say that, though? In all honesty, how can you say that? Because that’s not what it looks like. That’s not what people see. How can you say that?

I can say that with great confidence because that’s what I see. As the leader of the party, I’m engaged with every part of the party. I get around the country.  I see what the local party organisations are able to do. I look at the number of people and, actually, the sort of people who are turning up to our public meetings — people who are saying, ‘We’ve had enough of what is happening now. We’re looking around for something different.’

Here’s my last question. We’ve only got a few seconds left. What’s your one big idea for New Zealand? What’s Andrew Little’s one—? What’s the one big idea, the big new idea, that you’ve got for New Zealand?

The one issue we have to get right because it’s important for families and communities—

An idea. Not an issue. An idea.

Well, the idea is we’ve got to actually get people owning their own home, in their own place, in their own space, so that they can…

But that’s not new, is it?

…have their families, build strong communities. Well, Labour is about that. Labour is about…

Yeah, but I asked for something new.

…people having the chance to stand on their own two feet, having those things that enable them to do that. We are the party of those basic social foundations, and that’s what’s—

Do you want this job? Do you want to be prime minister of New Zealand?

Too darn right, I do, because too many people are missing out, too many people are struggling and doing it too hard at the moment, and it doesn’t have to be that way. You know, we’re not a poor country. We’re an affluent country with great people, with great ideas, but too many people are finding it too tough because you’ve got a government now asleep at the wheel. You’ve got to change that if we want to make a difference for New Zealanders.

Andrew Little, thank you very much.

 

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