An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

The changing face of Auckland

Opinion piece by Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Massey University (September 2013).

When changes were made to New Zealand’s immigration policy in 1986 and 1987, who would have thought one of the major outcomes would be the linking of New Zealand to Asia in such new and fundamental ways? It marked a change in the traditional economic focus, away from the United Kingdom and Europe and towards Asia. The launch of the Government’s China and India strategies in the past two years was one indication of the geo-political shift. But arguably the most profound outcome has been demographic.

Young Auckland performers at the Lantern Festival


Most of New Zealand’s immigration history has been completely dominated by arrivals from the United Kingdom – 98 percent at one point. The 1986-87 immigration policy changes produced a very significant shift in the way that New Zealand recruited immigrants. This change was confirmed in the early 2000s, with an explicit focus on “economic” immigrants. 

Just prior to 1986, about two-thirds of permanent residents came from the UK. A decade later, the proportion dropped rapidly. In the last year or so, it has fallen to 16 percent. But if all visa categories are combined, immigrants from the UK are now easily outnumbered by those arriving from just two other countries: China and India (about 30 percent of permanent arrivals). Add in other source countries in Asia, notably the Philippines, and the proportion goes much higher.

The effect is easily seen in the numbers of New Zealanders who are of Asian descent – and it is particularly noticeable in Auckland.

In 1991, a little more than 5 percent of Aucklanders were Asian. In 2006, the figure was 19 percent, and by 2021, it is likely to be around 27-28 percent of the city’s population (about 450,000 people) – six times the 1991 population. It has been – and will be – an extraordinary level of growth. Asian communities are easily the city’s fastest-growing. Unlike the Pasifika communities, which are now two-thirds New Zealand-born, Asian communities will remain predominantly immigrant for some time yet.

People, as much as trade, have changed New Zealand’s connections with Asia. These are mobile and skilled migrants, supplemented by the considerable number of temporary residents who might be in New Zealand as tourists, workers or students. The demography of Auckland is beginning to reflect the city’s new connections with Asia. 

The question that needs to be asked again and again is whether the city and the country have truly begun to appreciate the benefits of these new demographic links. The answer is almost certainly no. 

There are some good reasons for this. There is always going to be a lag when the present and future are so different from the past.  People and institutions will need time to adjust to this new Asian Century and New Zealand’s place in it.  In many cases, we are also talking about residents who are still new to the country, whose culture and languages are different to what is currently dominant locally, and who often operate in quite specific immigrant worlds. 

The effect can be seen in the labour market, where Asians are still not getting jobs equal to their qualifications and experience.  Mainstream media coverage of Asian communities remains limited, although it has improved.  Auckland – and New Zealand – organisations still struggle with how best to use the connections and knowledge Asian communities have with their various homelands. A demographic presence has yet to be translated into tangible economic advantages.  And there are some barely considered outcomes; for instance, changes to Auckland’s demography are going to have some major implications for our national sports. 

But the disconnect will not last. Already, Auckland is beginning to see the arrival of New Zealand-born or raised children of Asian migrants in our schools, tertiary institutions and the labour market. They are often very high achievers. These Asian New Zealanders are beginning to challenge what is and has been done. A group like Future Dragonz has questioned why there is a “bamboo ceiling” in terms of jobs.

One other important change has been the arrival of the super-city. Many of the old territorial authorities were often reluctant to recognise the significance of their growing Asian communities, much less develop policies to ensure their inclusion. The new Auckland Council is less timid and is beginning to make more of the skills of the city’s Asian residents.

For the moment, the pace of change domestically creates a degree of frustration. Yes, Auckland can lay claim to being more of an Asian city in terms of its population (comparable to other Pacific Rim cities like Vancouver, San Francisco or Sydney) but it remains a lost opportunity in terms of a range of economic benefits. My own sense is that this second decade of the 21st century will be the transition decade and things will be quite different in the 2020s. But we need leadership, informed discussion and a willingness to provide welcome to these Asian New Zealanders.

Views expressed in this article are personal to the author and are not to be taken as representing those of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

September, 2013