Today is bubble day when it becomes possible for travellers from Australia to enter New Zealand without having to go into managed isolation.
But polling revealed yesterday on RNZ’s “Sunday” programme confirms what was widely suspected; that opening the border is a political gamble with only limited support.
There has been speculation that it was the Government’s own polling that has been making it reluctant to press ahead with a trans-Tasman bubble.
The xenophobia revealed in the polling may also be behind its reluctance to allow migrants to bring what is thought to be 5000 separated family members to New Zealand though there are indications that Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi may make an announcement today allowing some to come to New Zealand.
But it is likely to be only a partial solution. Many other would-be migrants are still stuck unable to enter.
For example, universities are still not sure whether they will get their missing international students back.
So far, visas have been issued and Managed Isolation places allocated for only a fraction of those supposedly able to come here during the second half of the year.
The missing students are already having an economic impact; the University of Waikato is cutting 11 jobs from its management school.
Division of Management Vice-Chancellor Matt Bolger said the change would partially offset the university’s expected financial loss, primarily driven by the ongoing impact of Covid-19 border closures on international student numbers.
At the University of Auckland, around 400 staff are believed to have taken voluntary redundancy driven in part by the absence of the foreign students.
But despite this, there is still only lukewarm public support for any opening of the borders.
Emanuel Kalafatelis, the Managing Partner at Research New Zealand, told RNZ Sunday with Jim Mora yesterday that only 49 per cent of a recent 1000 person poll supported opening the bubble with Australia, and 28 per cent were opposed.
People over 55 were more in favour, but a key demographic for Labour; those aged 35 – 54 were the least in favour.
That reluctance to support the bubble appeared to be acknowledged in a carefully worded statement from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last night acknowledging that the bubble would open today.
Ardern said the bubble opening would allow many friends and family across the Tasman to reunite for the first time in over a year.
However, she was careful to add: “Ensuring the safety of our populations continues to be a primary consideration in managing our borders. In this evolving pandemic, the risks of quarantine-free travel will be under constant review.”
Her statement about allowing friends and family to reunite is likely to be seen as a cruel irony by at least 1000 migrants who have been separated from their families for over a year even though those families had valid New Zealand visas to enter the country when the border was closed last year.
Another 4000 or so have their visa applications in the pipeline.
Erica Stanford, the National MP for East Coast Bays which has 47 per cent of its population born overseas, the second biggest migrant electorate in the country, has taken up the separated migrants’ cause.
She herself is the daughter of Dutch migrants and has brought a personal passion to her campaign.
“Some people left their babies when they were a couple of weeks out or three weeks old, expecting to be reunited within four weeks, and it’s been a year,” she told POLITIK.
“It’s just the amount that you have missed and that you will never get back is just awful.
“The thing that angers me is that we had the opportunity to reunite them.
“We had heaps of (Managed Isolation) MIQ Space left last year.
“We’ve got the bubble, and they just continually refuse to do something about it.”
Speaking at a Select Committee last Wednesday, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi, responding to questions about the separated families, seemed to acknowledge the feelings evident in the poll.
“The closure at the borders and the restrictions of people coming into the country are very much focused on keeping us in this room safe,” he said.
“And those of us outside of this room are safe.
“That requires some difficult decisions.
“And I acknowledge there has put some families in difficult positions.
“But behind that is making sure we keep everyone and New Zealand safe.
“We are making limited decisions about being able to let people in.
“But as you know, the bar is extremely high on that.”
Stanford argues that there is sufficient space within MIQ to allow the separated families in.
Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment figures last night showed 1233 vacant spots currently unoccupied, and 606 space vouchers were available before the end of April.
Faafoi acknowledged to the Select Committee that there were vacancies at present but said this situation would change.
“Demand will increase for New Zealanders coming back,” he said.
“And again, those are the kinds of things that we have to factor in when we’re looking at broadening out any exceptions to other cohorts.”
It was a different story in Palmerston North yesterday where Stanford spoke at a meeting of affected families.
“I talked to a lot of very desperate people that were there,” she said.
“These people had had enough.
“Their relationships are breaking down; their kids are having mental health problems; they’ve lost all their savings.
“It’s getting to a critical point.
“There were a couple of people there today that were pretty, emotional and pretty angry, talking about people that I knew that had attempted suicide and that we’re getting to that point.
“So that was the shocking part.”
Stanford said if the Government did announce some concessions for at least the 1000 separated migrants who had already been issued with visas last year, those visas would have now expired since they are valid for only six months.
Stanford asked whether the Government would now simply reinstate them or whether it would require that they go through the application process again, which could see them paying around another $2000.
“And then when you add on top of that the cost of MIQ, because you will remember for a family of four, it’s going to be twelve thousand dollars. because they are paying more than
“So those migrant families who are already stretched massively, and some of them in South Africa are living on food grants or living with their in-laws will have to come up with twelve thousand dollars for MIQ and then potentially have to pay for all of their visas all over again.
“I really do hope that the Minister is going to waive the visa fees or reinstate their original visas.”
Whatever the Government does, it will undoubtedly have Kalafatelis’s poll echoing in the back of its mind.