The Moxie Sessions: Waxed chutes and limbo bars: Immigration as a force for transformation


Julie Fry

Mayor of Christchurch Lianne Dalziel

As the physical renewal of Christchurch moves forward, so too do the conversations about the kind of city it will become. 

Immigrants are playing an important role providing skills needed for the rebuild. Should we also look at ways immigration could make a greater contribution – not just in Christchurch, but throughout New Zealand?

An invitation to discuss this point brought the Moxie Sessions to Christchurch.

Attendees agreed New Zealand needs to target a wider range of people: entrepreneurs, creatives and academics, and people who will make civic contributions, and there was emphatic agreement from all participants that using immigration as a force for transformation was a good idea. But there was a much greater diversity of opinions on how we could make this happen.

Compared with other countries, New Zealand has a high proportion of economic migrants who are employed. The heavy emphasis on job offers in our selection systems helps with settlement, but economist Julie Fry reckons we are missing a trick: “People who fill vacancies and fit in to society are important, but they don’t generally lead to economic transformation.”  

Ms Fry helped design the UK’s Highly Skilled Migrant Programme, which brought 25,000 top class entrepreneurs and job seekers into the UK between 2002 and 2008 (it has since been replaced by a points system).  

She argued that alongside our “fill-the-gaps” focused points system, New Zealand needs something similar:  “It worked like a waxed chute for the best and brightest, instead of a limbo bar. There was a cost recovery based application fee, and, at one point, the government’s specialist assessment unit was processing 90% of complete applications in a day. Some truly exceptional people who got fed up trying to get into the US went to the UK instead.” 

Investor, startup mentor, and technology innovator Julian Carver highlighted the importance of leveraging New Zealandness, “a combination of aspirational thinking and ludicrous naivety that sometimes means we can build the impossible on a shoestring” and building networks of trusted people offshore. 

Mr Carver emphasised that we don’t always need to move people to New Zealand permanently to make use of their talents. "Look at the Appreciation Engine, a New Zealand startup funded by New Zealand capital, founded by two Canadians after spending time here, and now based in Los Angeles.” 

Christchurch City Council is willing to take a punt on a more experimental approach. After the earthquakes, councillor Raf Manji, himself an immigrant from London, saw a lot of well-qualified, enthusiastic young people in their 20s, willing to give their time, but struggling to fill in the right boxes on the immigration forms. 

“One young woman from Kenya worked as a cook from 5am until 1pm – because working in a shortage occupation was what got her a visa – and then spent the afternoons doing what she really wanted to do, helping the recovery effort. She had a Masters in disaster recovery management.”

Mr Manji's solution? An open visa could make Christchurch a magnet for talent, bringing in a small number of bright, highly skilled young people “who are more mobile and more willing to take risks and less concerned about paying the mortgage.” 

Another possibility? The new global impact visa currently being explored by the New Zealand Government, a proposal that would bring in highly talented young technology entrepreneurs and start-up teams “who want to be based in New Zealand, employ talented Kiwis and reach across the globe.”

Selecting creative, entrepreneurial people who will create future impact is not easy. Open source advocate Dave Lane identified a key challenge: “One fundamental property of innovation is that we – by definition – cannot predict where it will come from.” 

Happily for policy innovators, immigration is not the only sphere grappling with how to choose the most suitable people from large numbers of contenders.  

Attendees shared lots of bright ideas, including network-based referral mechanisms, software (some online dating apps do a good job of matching people, admittedly in a different context) and more traditional sorting approaches. Kiwi Connect’s Yoseph Ayele mentioned Harvard University: it adopts a qualitative process using 26 staff which this year accepted 1990 students from more than 37,000 applicants.

Ministry of Awesome co-founder and chair Kaila Colbin suggested we could make more of sponsorship, to widen the pool of potential applicants and reduce risk.  “We could let pre-qualified existing migrants or citizens recommend one other person.” This led to an animated discussion about who to trust and how we could avoid a “market for sponsorship” emerging.  

Mayor Lianne Dalziel, herself an ex-Minister of Immigration, emphasised the benefits of transferring risk from the government to third parties, as we do with employer sponsorship. “Never underestimate the political pressure on the Minister of Immigration: bashing immigration is popular.” 

We will always have more people who want to live here than we can take, so setting volume limits and filtering people will always be an issue we have to manage. And we want to balance the need to train and employ existing residents against the “quick fix” that skilled immigration can provide.

More fundamentally, migration is about national identity and what kind of country we want to be. We don’t have a monopoly on the kinds of people that can help transform New Zealand into an ambitious, energetic, trading nation connected to the world from our spot at the edge of the earth. Making space for creative, entrepreneurial folks from elsewhere in the world would be a helpful addition to our immigration toolkit.

Julie Fry (@juliemfry on Twitter) is a consulting economist based in Motueka and New York. She is currently writing a book on the roles immigration can have in transforming the New Zealand economy with Moxie convenor Hayden Glass.

Every month, The Moxie Sessions brings together a small group of business thinkers to discuss ways New Zealand can take advantage of the Internet to boost its national competitiveness. For more, see In August, the Moxie Sessions called in to the Christchurch City Council to talk about using immigration as a force for economic transformation.

Thanks to mayor Lianne Dalziel, councillor Raf Manji and Christchurch City Council for having us, and to Alcatel Lucent and its ng Connect programme for the generous sponsorship that helps to make The Moxie Sessions possible.

If you are travelling by Air New Zealand this week, remember Koru Lounge wi-fi provides you with FREE access to NBR ONLINE premium content.

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