The art of misdirection: NZ Labour and xenophobia

At the start of the election campaign, the Labour Party’s position on immigration was clear. Armed with a raft of new policies and an inflammatory vow to stop ‘tens of thousands’ from coming to New Zealand, Labour signalled loudly that reducing migration was one its key electoral pledges and governing priorities. With the recent turnover in leadership and accompanying guarded sound bites on immigration, one could be fooled into believing that the party has since softened its stance. Instead, what they have performed is an elaborate conjuring trick. Nothing has changed in substance but there has been a great deal of smoke and mirrors.

In June this year, Labour announced a raft of policies to reduce annual net migration by specific figures, cited at 20,000–30,000. This would be done through a combination of limiting student visas for ‘low value’ courses of study; removing post-study work visas from graduates below university level; regionalising the occupation list; and implementing a ‘Kiwis-first’ hiring policy for employers. The policies were justified by the party on the basis that record numbers of migrant arrivals were contributing to the country’s housing crisis, putting pressure on hospitals and schools and increasing road congestion, particularly in Auckland.

As many commentators have pointed out, these justifications are patently flawed. The record annual net migration figure of over 70,000 at present is actually comprised of nearly 60,000 people who are largely New Zealanders returning home or not leaving as in previous years, persons on working holiday visas and Australians moving here permanently. Consequently, the proposed policies only target some 10–15,000 immigrants, who are unlikely to be stretching the country’s infrastructure in the alleged manners.

Given the impotence of the policies to actually solve the issues that they set out to address, it is difficult not to view them as the culmination of the Labour Party’s xenophobic scapegoating over the past few years. We provide a more detailed analysis of these transgressions elsewhere, but the low-light reel includes the Chinese-sounding names debacle of 2015; the constant use of phrasing such as ‘low skilled people’ and students of ‘low level education courses’ who use work and study visas as nefarious backdoor paths to residency and citizenship; and repeated negative references to property investors from China, Chinese home buyers and Chinese and Indian restaurant workers. Notably, Labour has rarely made reference to Canadian, American, Australian or European property investors and land purchasers, who account for a majority of foreign direct investment and land acquisition in the country.

The departure of Andrew Little and the elevation of Jacinda Ardern in his place has presented an interesting problem. It was unclear how the newly refreshed party would approach immigration, given that it risked going against its own progressive and youthful rebranding, traditionally associated with more pro-immigration, pro-multiculturalism sentiment. The party’s generational change in leadership seemed like an excellent opportunity to update its backward immigration policy.

Unfortunately, this was not to be. The party has retained its immigration plans in full. However, reflective of the party’s newfound political adroitness, it has managed to obfuscate this remarkably well using a number of strategies. On the immigration reduction target, Ardern was quick to signal that she was ‘not fixated on a number’; a direct contrast to the constant parading of figures by Little. Apart from the hand waving, immigration has taken a visible backseat – reducing immigration does not appear on the list of Labour’s priorities for its first one hundred days in office.

In the leaders’ debates, Ardern cleverly flipped Labour’s tone on immigration by arguing that the reduced migration targets were for the supposed benefit of eventual migrants who needed to be better taken care of, leaving Bill English flustered and mumbling uncomfortably about the various migrant skills still required by the economy. Labour’s new ‘caring and sharing’ image is buttressed by deflecting from their immigration restrictions to the seeming generosity of their refugee policies, such as the recently announced ‘Immigration Pacific Plan’. On Labour’s own logic, it is unclear how a country supposedly unable to support any more immigrants could produce the infrastructure for all these refugees, but it certainly sounds nice.

Their recent moves amount to a brilliant misdirection. The substance of Labour’s anti-immigration policies remains intact but the whole package now appears decidedly softer, progressive even. Whilst it may be very good politics, it does not stand up to moral scrutiny, especially given the party’s recent history of repeated xenophobia and dog whistling. Not only has this been a near-complete reverse of their historical support of immigration, multiculturalism and immigrant communities, but it has also fostered a climate of racism and xenophobia, the likes of which Winston Peters would have responded to with glee. Over the past year, New Zealand First has doubled down on both racist policies and unabated rhetoric.

Such a state of affairs warrants a full-throated apology that goes beyond the sorry-not-sorry non-apologies the party has offered so far, including Ardern. These have rung especially hollow in comparison to the Green Party, which has offered an unequivocal apology for floating a cap on immigration last year. That crime now seems mild compared to Labour’s long list of sins. What is owed is something much more substantial than a sparkling smile and a nudge to look the other way.

All this is concerning, because unlike at the beginning of the election campaign, a Labour-led government is now a serious potential election outcome, and with a high probability that New Zealand First would form a part of it. Labour’s cuddlier take on immigration is, if anything, even more alarming because unlike before, it is difficult to gauge just how much of it the party would remain committed to in post-election negotiations; how much of it would end up being implemented. The alliance of an opportunistically xenophobic Labour Party and a consistently xenophobic New Zealand First could soon come to fruition, and that is a frightening possibility.


Image: Jacinda Ardern at the University of Auckland – Ulysse Bellier / flickr

Pasan Jayasinghe

Pasan Jayasinghe is a New Zealander currently working as a policy researcher in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He tweets at @pasanghe.

Sahanika Ratnayake

Sahanika Ratnayake recently extricated herself from one PhD program only to promptly fall under the sway of another program. She has done graduate study in New Zealand, Australia and the UK. Her non-academic work has appeared elsewhere in: The Pantographic Punch, Vice, Poetry NZ and brief.

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