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Thinking big: New Zealand's growing pains as population nears 5 million

Aotearoa is navigating one of the most dramatic demographic transitions in modern times – and without major social conflict

Written by Mark Broatch, Eleanor Ainge Roy and Harriet Sherwood. Republished from The Guardian.

One day in the middle of 2020 [next year], in a town hall or hospital, airport or immigration office, New Zealand will become a nation of 5 million people.

For so long this Pacific island country at the bottom of the world has been defined by its geographical isolation. The appeal of these volcanic rocks has always been their sense of frontier adventure; a sparsely settled nation where only the toughest survive.

But since 2012, Aotearoa has had one of the highest net inflows of migrants of any OECD country. The question now is how these rapid changes will reconfigure its society, politics and environment.

Approaching a population milestone

For most of its nationhood, New Zealand’s population growth was delivered, quite literally, by its mothers. In 1855, New Zealand’s women had an average of at least five babies. The birthrate quickly dipped below three before bobbing up again in the late 1950s as more young immigrants, largely from Britain, began to step off boats. The birth rate is now 1.8, below replacement level, but higher than the UK and Germany and well above the likes of Singapore, at 0.83.

New Zealand’s population growth has been a slow burn: it reached a million by 1911, topped 2 million in 1956, 3 million in 1976, and 4 million in 2006, driven largely by natural growth rather than mass immigration. But growing from 4 million to 5 million will have taken just 14 years, rather than the previous 30 because of a significant rise in immigration, according to Massey University sociologist Prof Paul Spoonley.

“[Net inflow of migrants] has been tracking at about the equivalent of 1.5% of the total population,” he said. “Most countries wouldn’t come anywhere near 1%. Between 2013 and 2018 – the two census points – the net gain from migration was 270,000 people.”

Many of the latest arrivals are from Asia, largely China, India and the Philippines, says Spoonley, and most have settled in Auckland. As a result, the broad “Asian” ethnic group is expected to rise across the country from 540,000 in 2013 to perhaps 1.4 million within the next two decades. The number of people with Pacific heritage nationally is also projected to grow in that time to 650,000 and the Māori population to more than a million.

Now at 1.7 million, Auckland’s population could reach 2.4 million within 30 years.

Auckland is regularly ranked as one of the most liveable cities in the world, but it is also one of the most expensive. The average cost of housing is nine times the average household income. And the city is overcrowded, being home to one-third of the country’s entire population.

“Infrastructural and service provision simply has not kept up with the rate of population growth,” Spoonley says. The city is “bulging at the seams”.

Beautiful views, unswimmable rivers

As a result of the rising population, New Zealand’s wilderness is under strain. Desperately needed housing is encroaching on forest and bushland, and hiking trails renowned for their isolation are becoming clogged highways of overworked city workers seeking a digital detox.

While New Zealand is famous for its birdlife, dozens of native species are now endangered thanks to introduced predators such as rats and stoats. Intensive farming practices are destroying the once pristine and potable water in rivers and lakes. Fertilisers and animal manure from the country’s 27 million sheep and 10 million cattle are making waterways toxic and unswimmable due to high levels of bacteria such as E coli and frequent algal blooms, among other issues.

Dozens of native fish species are also under threat of extinction from nitrogen and phosphorus, but it is not just farming practices that are to blame for the decline of water quality. Increasing rates of urbanisation have put pressure on ageing sewerage systems, and stormwater infrastructure regularly gets overwhelmed, resulting in faecal contamination and regular closures of popular Auckland beaches.

The message that New Zealand’s natural environment is being desecrated is yet to be heard by the global tourism market, with visitor numbers expected to top 5 million annually within years.

The numbers hiking its Great Walks, such as the Routeburn, Kepler and Milford tracks, have risen more than 30,000 in five years, from 80,000 in 2013 to about 112,000 today. Until last year, before a trial fee was introduced for tourists, foreign visitors regularly outnumbered locals.

“People come here looking for meaning, searching for some sort of solace. But the bush doesn’t just give that up. In the huts there’s so much squabbling and showing off. To me, Milford isn’t about tramping any more – at least, not how Kiwis know it.”

‘A dramatic demographic transition’

What impact has having so many new arrivals, many from countries other than Europe, had on race relations and national identity? Surprisingly little, says Spoonley.

“This has been one of the most dramatic demographic transitions that we’ve seen really anywhere and it’s been done without major social conflict. We had a very intense and quite angry debate in the 1970s and 80s about Māori rights and indigenous rights – so that possibly was the moment when we engaged in some of the more difficult conversations.

“And the second thing is that we are an immigrant population, so we don’t have those debates about national identity and threats from people who are culturally and religiously different that you would find in Europe. Some of that’s been dislodged by the mosque shootings in Christchurch but that major hostility is not something that’s been part of the New Zealand political and policy debates,” he says.

This is not to say racism, discrimination and protectionism do not exist. Asian house buyers have been blamed for the high cost of property in Auckland. In 2018 the Labour-led government passed a law banning many non-resident foreigners from buying existing homes.

One factor that might be lowering the potential for tensions is that New Zealand has a tradition of immigration and high levels of intermarriage. Dr Xin Chen of the New Zealand Asia Institute at the University of Auckland says it remains to be seen how immigration will complicate society and politics. For instance, about 75% of Chinese New Zealanders vote for the centre-right National party. Most live in cities, she says, which tend to be more liberal.

Strongly religious immigrants, meanwhile, tend to hold socially conservative views – in a country where the percentage of nonbelievers has now reached 49%. Winston Peters, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Labour government’s coalition partner, New Zealand First, says his party will campaign for a values test for migrants and refugees at the next election.

According to the Ministry of Health, New Zealanders are living longer than ever before, putting more pressure on hospitals and and the dwindling number of working-age residents to fund the state pension and support services. By 2050, up to 27% of New Zealanders are predicted to be over 65, compared with 15% in 2016. Some 83,000 people are over 85; by 2060 that figure is projected to be 383,000.

New Zealand’s older population is growing fast, and because more people are living longer they are also living with serious illnesses and disabilities. The average life expectancy for New Zealanders is 81.4 years, though it is significantly lower for Māori and Pacific Islanders. In 2013 life expectancy at birth was 73.0 years for Māori males and 77.1 years for Māori females. It was 78.7 years for Pacific females and 74.5 years for Pacific males.

Immigration cannot solve the problem of an ageing population, the demographer Dr Natalie Jackson says, because immigrants often quickly conform to the birthrate of the country in which they settle. Visa categories are geared towards business migrants and students rather than families. “Young people struggle to have children these days,” Jackson says. “Where you have family support, people will have children.”

Crowded cities, empty towns

Like many developed countries, New Zealand’s population is unevenly spread. In the South Island, some small towns are crying out for people and offering incentives such as cheap housing and a plethora of jobs. But in the North Island, which hosts both major cities and a more temperate climate, residents complain of congestion, unaffordable housing and a declining quality of life amid growing urbanisation.

Although many regions over the next decade will see their populations stagnate or decline, says Spoonley, each one, apart from the west coast of the South Island, gained people in the last census. Some of this is down to immigration, some to baby boomer retirement, and some to people seeking to escape Auckland, says Jackson. Economist Benje Patterson says more than 30,000 Aucklanders left in the four years to 2017, many of them older Europeans.

The pressures on Auckland have prompted suggestions that migrants should go to other, more rapidly ageing parts of the country and stay for at least five years on a bonded scheme, says Spoonley. Few serious policy adjustments have been made to make that happen, he says, though Jackson notes changes to the immigration points system mean you would get more if you go to a town outside Auckland. Prospective migrants gain points based on age, skills, education and other factors.

When the 5 million mark is reached, however, a few cheers are likely to be heard in the nation’s bars and at barbecues. Some will urge it on upwards. More people, sensibly managed, means greater opportunity, diversity, sustainable growth, staving off the demographic crisis for a little longer. Auckland is confident it can cope. The city has earmarked 15,000 hectares for future urban development and believes it can handle a growing population.

Ben van Bruggen, a Londoner in charge of Auckland council’s urban design strategy, says the region is the same size as London, which holds more than four times the population. “On that basis there’s still quite a bit of way to go,” he says.

In the capital, Wellington, a 25-year-old Māori woman, Krystal Clarke, has doubts about New Zealand’s demographic growth. Clarke was recently homeless – sleeping in her car with her partner, despite both being employed – and she wonders if New Zealand should grow any further if it can’t feed and house the people it has already.

“Every time I come out here for my break, it is Māori people especially who come up to me – do you have a dollar, do you have a cigarette? Why are we like this, why do our immigrant friends seem to be OK but we’re not? What’s been put in place for them to succeed that is not in place for our people?

“The Māori concept of manaakitanga is one of hospitality. But how can we be properly hospitable to our immigrant friends if we can’t even look after ourselves properly?”

The urban development minister, Phil Twyford, said New Zealand reaching 5 million people was a “significant milestone” as the country had always based its self-image on being a quiet, underpopulated country at the bottom of the world.

The country’s population growth was causing growing pains, however, Twyford said, noting dysfunctional transport systems and unaffordable housing as the country’s major issues in the North Island cities in particular.

Rebalancing the population so it was more evenly spread and attracting more migrants to the regions – “which have been neglected for decades” – would mean New Zealand could support 5 million people, and potentially many more.

“The bigger issue is that we’re facing pretty sustained and rapid population growth and we need to really lift our game in how we manage growth,” Twyford said.

“We’ve never really grasped the nettle around a population policy in New Zealand. We just sort of never quite got to having that debate. My personal view is that if we got our policies right we could easily accommodate a lot more people.”


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