Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has made two big pitches to the Pacific in the past two days.
But on one of the biggest issues confronting the Pasifika community in New Zealand, she appears to be stalling.
On Sunday, she made the formal apology to Pacific Islanders in New Zealand over the dawn raids from the 1970s, and yesterday the Government announced a relaxation of immigration requirements to allow in more Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers from Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.
However at her first post Cabinet press conference in three weeks, she was unwilling to make any commitment on an amnesty for Pasifika overstayers currently in New Zealand.
That contrasts with the Clark Labour Government who offered an amnesty after only a year in office.
The dawn raids were intended to round up Pacific island visa overstayers and send them home.
There are still many in New Zealand.
The Minister for Pacific peoples’ Aupito William Sio has made it clear he believes there should be an amnesty. Labour’s Pacific MPs support him.
But asked about the issue yesterday, Ardern was unwilling to make any commitment.
“The status of overstayers was raised some time ago,” she said.
“And so I’ve already set out for you our view that any consideration there needs to be more broadly considered.”
By that, she explained, she meant it should be part of the Immigration Review.
That was unveiled in May, and as a start, the Productivity Commission has been tasked with producing a report which takes a “system-wide view, including the impact of immigration on the labour market, housing and associated infrastructure, and the natural environment.”
POLITIK understands that there is caution around the Cabinet table about granting the amnesty.
That may be because of inherent caution within the bureaucracy or possibly, the way Australia reacted when the Clark Government offered a limited amnesty.
Ardern referred yesterday to the Labour Government’s amnesty in 2000 for about 7000 over-stayers, 3500 Samoans and Tongans and a similar number from other countries who were offered an amnesty.” Well-settled” over-stayers could apply for a $500 two-year work permit as a prerequisite for permanent residence.
But the Government had a strict definition of “well-settled.”
It defined well-settled overstayers as people who had been living in New Zealand for five years or more, had New Zealand-born children and were married or in a de facto relationship of at least two years to a New Zealand citizen or resident.
It was estimated at the time that around 14,000 Pacific island over-stayers would not be able to meet that definition.
Even so, Australia objected to the New Zealand move.
Australia’s then Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, threatened that New Zealand’s leniency could possibly lead to a review of freedom of travel across the Tasman.
Australia did tighten its citizenship requirements for New Zealanders and their ability to access various social welfare benefits in 2001 anyway, citing “backdoor” migration from New Zealand as a reason.
Ardern did not mention this yesterday. Instead she was left explaining why no amnesty was announced on Sunday.
“What I wanted to do was keep in check expectations that it would be a part of that apology because, as we’ve outlined, our view is it needed to be considered amongst all of our immigration settings,” she said.
“No decisions have been made. We didn’t think it appropriate to make an ad hoc decision without considering the wider ramifications. So that’s where that sits now.”
And it is likely to be “sitting” there for a while. The Productivity Commission final report is not due until April next year.
The Government has also been sluggish in relaxing the requirement for RSE workers to enter the country.
Ardern pointed out yesterday that of three contributory RSE countries, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu, only Samoa and Vanuatu have had any Covid cases at all.
Samoa has had a total of three, the last back in February, while Vanuatu has had a total of four, with the last back in April.
Ardern said yesterday that all those cases had been at the border, and none of the three countries had experienced any community transmission.
In April, at the end of the apple season, growers were asking for a return of the RSE workers.
Alan Pollard, chief executive of industry body New Zealand Apples and Pears, said the industry could not afford to go another season without the workers.
“We estimate that we need at least 21 weeks from a government decision to the time that the workers need to be deployed, so there is a real urgency to find a workable alternative solution,” he said.
Ardern was unable to say how many workers would come into New Zealand under the scheme announced yesterday, which would mean because their countries were Covid free, they could come in without having to into Managed Isolation and Quarantine(MIQ).
“While there are approximately 7,000 RSE workers currently onshore, there are normally over 10,000 onshore for the February-March peak,” she said.
“Some people here will go home before that peak, and there are also fewer working holidaymakers here than in previous years.
“One-way quarantine-free travel for RSE workers will help manage that shortfall.”
There was also an added bonus that because the workers would come in without needing to go into MIQ, they would free up some MIQ places that had been reserved for RSE workers.
But why has it taken so long?
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said that the Government had been talking to the horticultural industry every fortnight for the last six months “to make sure that we’re aware—and they’re aware—of what moves we’re making, and it was nice to be able to give them some good news.”
But the overstaying Pacific Islanders are going to have to wait for any good news on their plight.