Gordon Campbell on nursing’s long road to residency

8da308ca8c8697bd267eThe reluctance to offer a direct pathway to residency to nurses never made any sense – whether that be politically, economically or in terms of the crying needs evident within the health system. Despite the glaring labour shortages in public health, the government has dragged its feet over the residency issue – even while more nimble-footed countries were continuing to outbid us for these skilled workers in global demand. Any pennies we saved in carefully restricting the influx of foreign nurses have been at the cost of burning out the nurses that we did have, and driving many of them away to better pay and conditions in Australia.

Belatedly, yesterday’s immigration announcements did go some way to addressing the skills shortages evident in the transport and education sectors as well. Subsequently, the political arguments over the inducements on offer to foreign nurses have quickly degenerated into intense bickering over the numbers. Is the more relevant measure the nurses who have applied to come here (4,500?) or the nurses actually arriving here? And is that figure 190 since July or 2,800 all year? Everything has been either been going swimmingly to plan – or the whole thing has been a bureaucratic nightmare, from which we are only now blinking our way into daylight.

The politics of the nursing/residency issue have been pretty clear. Yet again, the government has ended up arguing from a defensive crouch in ways that looked less like a coherent plan, and more like a final cave-in to overwhelming political pressure. Even now, offering a direct pathway to residency won’t provide an overnight solution to the shortages in nurses, medical specialists and other immigration categories addressed by yesterday’s announcement

For skilled migrants, other factors will continue to weigh on any destination decision. The sizeable wage gap with Australia, the relative (in)ability of partners to work here, the requirements around having a job offer beforehand etc. etc… Will all probably detract from New Zealand’s allure as a destination, especially once our low wages are measured in detail against our relatively high costs for food, housing and internal travel.

Still… At least having a more flexible pathway to residency will enable New Zealand to be a meaningful player in the global competition for skilled talent. For too long, we’ve traded on our past reputation as a safe, unspoiled place to bring up kids. These days though, the news to the contrary has got around. Internally, at least a long overdue major wage settlement will help us to retain the nurses that we currently do have. Reportedly, the final sign-off on that deal is being held up by disagreements over back pay. Hopefully, this back-dating dispute can be set to one side and resolved separately, without causing any further delay in implementing the new wage rates.

As an aside, the nurses’ pay dispute also reflects some of the wider problems we face. Decades of market-driven solutions have hardly served New Zealand well. We have been left with a low wage economy, predatory corporations with captive markets, major social deficits and serious shortfalls in housing and other forms of public infrastructure. Significant wage increases are now required to attract and retain the talent we need to boost innovation and to increase productivity – that is, if we still entertain any hopes of becoming a modern, high wage, tech-driven economy.

Right now though on that point, the economy seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place. The Reserve Bank for instance, continues to view labour shortages and wage increases as risk factors that are driving up inflation. Moreover, Immigration Minister Michael Wood indicated to RNZ this morning that we are experiencing monthly immigration inflows that on an annualised basis, would mean a 40,000 – 50,000 net migrant influx. If that’s true, such figures will put upwards pressure back onto house prices – and also require additional spending on education, transport, health and other forms of public infrastructure. You know, all the stuff National regards as wilfully sinful.

In other words, offering nurses, midwives and medical professionals a direct pathway to residence is a necessary first step, but that’s just the easy part. If we’re really going to make the most of the benefits and challenges offered by skilled migrants, we have to commit to the public spending required to turn New Zealand into a more desirable home for all of us. Yet right now, the party that’s leading in the opinion polls is all but demonising any form of public spending. Instead, it aims to waste the money on tax cuts for the wealthy and handouts to landlords. In the face of that reality, the tendency for the current government to dither before it eventually does the right thing seems like a far lesser evil.

Footnote One: Michael Wood is rivalling Chris Hipkins as the government’s most reliable Mr Fixit. Even so, the skillsets of both Hipkins and Wood seem largely confined to repairing the damage, and stemming the political bleeding from Labour’s self-inflicted wounds. Jacinda Ardern remains the only political operator in the Labour ranks who – on a good day – can get in front of an issue and convince the public of the merits of government policy. Labour won Election 2020 by daring to go on the front foot over Covid, but it has been on the back foot ever since.

Retirement Roll Call

After 2023, it seems that Labour will no longer be blessed with the talents of Poto Williams, Aupito William Sio, David Clark, Jamie Strange, Marja Lubeck and Paul Eagle – all of whom are retiring at the next election. All due respect, but none of those people would appear likely to leave Labour significantly worse off by their departure. Some in the party will probably welcome the departures of Williams and Eagle in particular – neither of whom might have survived a re-selection challenge.

The more interesting aspect of the announcement is that – at this stage anyway – none of the Cabinet heavyweights appear to have been swayed by the current polls into thinking that a possible future life in Opposition would be intolerable.

The Cool Ruler

Gregory Isaacs (1951-2010) was one of the reggae’s foremost smooth operators – a man blessed with a silky voice, sharp taste in clothes and a cool sense of personal style, at least until his problems with cocaine, weapons possession and jail time began to take their toll. Most of his teeth eventually fell out in the wake of his addiction to crack cocaine and other drugs, and this eroded the golden liquidity of his voice.

From better days though… “Night Nurse“ was the title track of his first album for Island Records, and it made Isaacs an international star.

I don’t wanna see no Doc’
I need attendance from my nurse around the clock
‘Cause there’s no prescription for me
She’s the one, the only remedy…