The “brain drain” fear is back – or is it?


The “brain drain” fear is back. That old fear/fear mongering of New Zealand losing its best and brightest people – scientists, economists, entrepreneurs, among others – to overseas nations, including and especially Australia, is back.

Or is it? In which case it depends on who you ask. National leader Judith Collins certainly thinks the brain drain danger has returned. For years there was this idea that all of the brightest New Zealanders who could afford to leave were doing so. They were handing in their resignations, chasing up friends who had already left, checking their bank accounts and applying for visas to Canada, Europe, United Kingdom, United States, where they would being a new life working, making money and travelling. Far more serious than a Contiki bus trip that would go to a host of tourist hotspots before the travellers return to their countries of origin, we see people buying one way tickets to another country.

Perhaps the brain drain is simply a National Party attack vehicle to enable them to get at the Government’s economic policies. Perhaps, just as it was heavily used by her National Party predecessors during past stints on the Opposition benches, Ms Collins is using it now to try to gain leverage in a political environment that is not very friendly to unrepentant conservatism. Certainly I can recall former National Party leader Bill English using it during the early part of the 2000’s to criticize the leftist Government of Prime Minister Helen Clark. His successor in that role Dr Don Brash and later former Prime Minister John Key also used it.

In all of these instances it was about the Government’s anti-business attitude; their tax policy; how red tape will ruin New Zealand; how we cannot afford the Treaty of Waitangi settlement process; how our social welfare policy sucks up untold billions. Yet, the moment Labour are not in office, the “brain drain”, is suddenly no longer an issue.

But how seriously do people want to move to Australia at the moment? Since March, New Zealand has gained massive respect from millions of people around the world for its firm line on COVID19. It has seen political commentators who normally have little to do with New Zealand praising the country for its reaction. A response led by Government that for a change put science front and centre. Too often we do not give our scientific community the respect they deserve, and Labour, like National are guilty of using science when it suits them.

Since the Ardern Government began in 2017, new words not normally in political language – kindness and compassion – have entered mainstream political conversations. The 2019 mosque attack, the Whakaari/White Island eruption and now this have all combined to show that whilst Labour-led Governments can be a bit of a challenge to businesses, they address some of the social issues National are less inclined to. So whilst a brain drain is sometimes attached to Labour-led Governments, a social drain sometimes happens on the watch of National-led Governments.