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The Greens: We’re not dog-whistling on immigration, but we need to do more about the upsurge

The Green Party recently announced a new immigration policy with a net migration target of 1 percent of the population, including returning New Zealanders. In an essay published earlier this week, writer Thomas Coughlan criticised the policy, drawing a line between it and the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric in the USA, UK and Europe. Here, Green Party immigration spokesperson Denise Roche responds.

The Green kaupapa on immigration is focused on people.

We want all migrants to have positive resettlement experiences. We think our current refugee intake is irresponsibly low, and we need to plan for climate migration. We think Government needs to provide comprehensive language, financial and social support for new arrivals. Our MPs have campaigned for National to stop its plans to deport international students who were victims of visa fraud, and to take action against dodgy employers who exploit migrant workers.

We’re proud of this mahi. It’s at the core of what we stand for.

But if there is one thing we can take away from recent political upheaval it is that we need to be able to talk about political issues that people care about, even when they make us uncomfortable. Especially when they make us uncomfortable.

Immigration is one of those issues. And in that context I think Thomas Coughlan has failed to understand our responsibility to have an open and respectful conversation about immigration.

Members of the public hold flags as Navy ships sail into the Waitemata Harbour as part of the fleet entry to celebrate the Royal New Zealand Navy's 75th Birthday in Auckland on November 16, 2016. Photo: MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP/Getty Images)

Members of the public hold flags as Navy ships sail into the Waitemata Harbour as part of the fleet entry to celebrate the Royal New Zealand Navy’s 75th Birthday in Auckland on November 16. (Photo: MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP/Getty Images)

We need to talk about immigration because failing to do so means that we let that conversation be dominated by fear, intolerance and misinformation. It’s a sign of how much the conversation has already been captured by the anti-immigration bloc that any attempt to discuss the topic is automatically seen as dog-whistling to the same crowd. Recent events overseas have shown us exactly where that path will take us, and no-one wants that. It’s pointless to pretend that people who are worried about immigration will change their minds if we ignore them or dismiss them as racists in disguise.

And we need to talk about immigration because it is our obligation under Te Tiriti o Waitangi to consider what the arrival of tangata tiriti means for tangata whenua. The Green Party is proud to uphold Te Tiriti. It underpins all the work that we do. And like any political issue that we face, our discussion about immigration in Aotearoa New Zealand needs to reckon with our colonised history. The idea, then, that we shouldn’t dare talk about immigration for fear of politicising it just doesn’t reflect the reality of Aotearoa’s history and political context.

Nor do we think that this the best way respond to the ugly tide of xenophobic rhetoric in New Zealand and overseas.

The Green Party wants an immigration policy that can provide a decent standard of living for everyone; tangata whenua, New Zealand-born tangata tiriti and tauiwi, and people who have more recently arrived.

Net migration to New Zealand has risen significantly in the past three years. More people left than arrived in 2011. In 2013, net migration rose to 22,000 and it is predicted to end up at around 70,000 by the end of this year. The increase is largely due to a growth in people coming here on student and temporary work visas, and fewer New Zealanders leaving.

If we’re thinking responsibly about the future, we need to grapple with what this means for our ability to plan for a good quality of life for everyone here, and for those who will arrive in coming years.

We need to build up houses, public transport, schools and hospitals to a level where they are a good fit for the population. After eight years of National’s dismal under-investment, there is a lot of catching up to do.

It is obvious that there are not enough houses in Auckland. Even now, not enough homes are being built to keep up with population growth, let alone make up the shortfall.

There is evidence that some people who have recently arrived in New Zealand are being exploited. Some employers offer fewer jobs to immigrants, and pay them less for doing the same job as permanent residents.

National is growing our international education sector at an unprecedented speed, which has undermined the quality of services for students and left them vulnerable to exploitation.

Immigration is – categorically – not to blame for these issues. It is not the fault of the people who arrive to make a home in New Zealand or Kiwis returning home after a period overseas.

Bad Government planning is to blame. Leaving the provision of affordable housing to the broken market is to blame. Underfunding public transport infrastructure is to blame. Weak labour laws that don’t stop workplace exploitation are to blame.

But we know that not everyone understands or accepts those facts. And we also know that the reactionary right uses immigration as a weapon to drive fear and concern about jobs and security.

We don’t pretend it’s possible to plan for migration perfectly, but we do think a responsible Government should be thinking about how to set migration policy for the best outcomes, not least for migrants themselves.

In Government, the Greens would increase the refugee quota and prepare for people displaced by climate change. We would provide support for family reunification (not cut it like National is doing) and increase funding for settlement services and English language training.

And we would also ensure that temporary migrants have decent working conditions, good quality education, and pathways to residency appropriate to their skills.

It’s totally understandable to feel anxious when people start talking about immigration. We know that we have a responsibility to think about how people are affected by what we say, and we take that seriously.

We acknowledge that it’s a difficult conversation. But the Green Party has never shied away from difficult conversations.

Denise Roche is the Green Party immigration spokesperson.

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