Bernard Hickey: The team of five million rhetoric rings hollow for those locked in visa limbo

Amid increasing calls for the tens of thousands of temporary workers stranded here to be given pathways to residence, Bernard Hickey says the government risks being exposed as the Dubai of the South Pacific.


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Whaddarya?
Whaddarya?
Whaddarya?
Whaddarya?
Whaddarya?
Whaddarya?

These final lines in Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament were electrifying and frightening when I felt them being shouted and then whispered in the gloom of a Palmerston North theatre in 1986. I sat there transfixed, gripping my vinyl seat as the lights went down – a provincial teenager watching my first play in my first year away from home at Massey University. 

How could anyone ask those sorts of questions about who we were as a rugby-loving, staunch and manly country? We were farmers with pine trunks for legs and arms, never complaining or conceding. All leg drive. No mucking around. Just plain right. That was who we were. That’s who I was. Wasn’t I?

The play shook me from my moorings. How dare anyone ask the un-askable? How dare anyone suggest anything different than a simple provincial life based around the rugby club and the farm? How dare anyone suggest the values of a good hard ruck, mateship and a beer at the Fitz afterwards could be wrong. Like all the best art, Foreskin’s Lament seemed to pluck something essential and universal from the ether and change the way we saw ourselves and each other.

In the wake of the Springbok tour five years earlier and in the midst of an epic social and economic upheaval that had begun two years earlier, I was starting to ask that night: who are we? Who am I?

Whaddarya? – over and over again – was a lament that both shocked and galvanised me for decades to come.

Suffice to say I didn’t end up as the dairy farmer I should have been and never played rugby again. I now do yoga, dance to disco tunes on a Sunday morning and record podcasts about the political economy.

And I’m about to advocate for the mass granting of residency to Aotearoa-NZ to over 200,000 people who would have been seen as completely foreign to the nation in 1986. They’re people who we should embrace as us, just as prime minister Jacinda Ardern embraced our Muslim communities in the aftermath of the Christchurch terror attacks with the phrase “they are us”.

Jacinda Ardern at the Kilbirnie Mosque two days after the Christchurch terror attacks (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The PM struck a deep chord that 15th day of March 2019. It was the moment many embraced her in more than just a political way. It’s one of the reasons nearly two million people around the world follow her on Facebook and her “brand” globally is of a kind, competent and progressive leader the rest of the world would take in a heartbeat. 

“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home,” the PM said in the hours after the attack.

“They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence, which it is clear this act was.”

I’ve included the full quote, which the PM wrote on an A4 sheet of paper in the minutes after the attack and delivered later that day. It was a product of its time and particular circumstance, but it also suggested something broader and deeper that resonated with many, both here and overseas.

It said who we aspired to be, and who we thought we were. It affirmed that the nation’s leader would make that aspiration real. We were in this together, she seemed to say, and we felt heard.

A year later, almost to the day, the PM again seemed to bottle those national aspirations and self-beliefs into the phrases repeated over and over about “being kind” and a “team of five million”.

Watching those livestreams from the Beehive theatrette, I admit having some of those same electrified and galvanised feelings in those days in March 2019 and 2020 that I had in that theatre in Palmerston North 35 years earlier. A feeling that our PM was plucking something from the ether about our nation and who we were, and turning it into something real at a crucial moment. “We’ll get through this together because we’re kind and good people,” she seemed to be saying. I sort of believed it. For a while.

PM Jacinda Ardern at the press conference announcing the country would move to level four, March 23, 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

Months later, when I was working with other Newsroom reporters at the time to understand the awful plight of many temporary workers abandoned to their own devices by the government, those feelings had soured. I had also seen the rolling clustermess developing inside Immigration NZ around stalled residency applications, fudged residency planning ranges and the contemptible lack of communication with tens of thousands of people stuck in limbo.

I saw the way the government took nearly nine months to finally open up the welfare system to those here on temporary work visas who were not only thrown aside by their employers, but weren’t able to move into other jobs because their visas were tied to their jobs, employers and regions. In one case, a construction worker was thrown out of the country after he was forced to lie about his address to get grocery vouchers when he, his wife and son ran out of food.

I virtually pleaded with the PM and social development minister Carmel Sepuloni in one Beehive news conference late last year to display the kindness and strength talked about earlier to all the team of five million. Not to just the 4.7 million people who were citizens and official residents, but also to the nearly 300,000 people living here then who had work rights and were often staffing the front lines of the pandemic, protecting our elderly in care homes, staffing the service stations, supermarkets and dairies, and calving and milking the cows through the spring of 2020.

Yet the prevarication, the flip-flopping and endless extensions into a limbo-land of visa uncertainty were far from kind. We didn’t treat them as us. We treated them as second-class citizens. We acted more like the sheiks of Dubai casting aside the Indian workers on construction sites than the country we thought we were.

Now the situation is beyond dire and finally some of the bastions of business, economics, social activism and the opposition are standing up to call on the government to do the right thing, the sensible thing and the humane thing: to lift the now over 200,000 people out of their temporary visa hell in New Kafkaland.

Families remain split. People with work visas are giving up in frustration and leaving the country, never to return, and always to tell their friends and family and work colleagues about the fraud of a kind and cohesive New Zealand. 

Those temporary visa holders who are most desperate to get on with their lives and who see resources and job opportunities in the likes of Australia, Britain, Canada and (ironically) the Gulf states are leaving behind big holes in our medical and professional communities. The ones unable to leave are marooned from their families, unable to leave in case they can’t get back in, and unable to bring in family members to make their lives whole.

It is an awful travesty, and now this week we are seeing a collective howl of a protest and a demand to rectify it. In this week’s When the Facts Change podcast I talk to big business think-tankers Oliver Hartwich and Eric Crampton from the NZ Initiative, the opposition’s migration spokesperson Erica Stanford and immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont.

All have called for some form of amnesty or more certain pathway to residency. The NZIER called on Thursday for a blanket visa with work rights that last until at least the end of 2024 to give some certainty. 

Thousands of short-term migrants are trapped in New Zealand due to Covid-19. A series of ad hoc extensions to their visas have allowed them to stay. The government should apply principles of manaakitanga – hospitality, kindness, generosity, support – and issue these people with a one-off right to remain in New Zealand till the end of 2024. Clearing the backlog of permanent residence visas for people already in New Zealand should also be a priority. 

“We think that the government has not found a sensible solution yet to meet the needs of migrants lawfully in New Zealand when the most severe public health crisis in over a century hit,” NZIER’s principal economist Peter Wilson said in a research note. Wilson and his colleague Julie Fry have advised the Productivity Commission on their current inquiry into the economic effects of migration.

“A compassionate approach consistent with the principles of manaakitanga (showing reciprocal respect, generosity, and care for others) should be applied. It is not too late to do the right thing,” Wilson said.

I also spoke after the podcast was edited to Ryman Healthcare CEO Gordon MacLeod, who called for permanent residency for all those here on temporary visas. Over a quarter of Ryman’s staff in aged care and construction are here from overseas.

He says these people stuck with the rest of the team of five million through the lockdowns, protecting our elderly, taking the most health risks and being the furthest away from their families – many of whom have since suffered terribly from Covid.

The government is likely to offer some more certainty for some of the 35,000 in the most precarious positions as temporary workers applying for residency, but it is unlikely to be the full, kind and human response the people above are calling for.

So who are we? Are we the Dubai of the South Pacific? Or are we a team of five million that treats each other with the kindness we professed to?

Whaddarya?


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