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Duncan Garner went to buy undies at K-Mart and came back in agony for NZ’s soul

Yesterday AM Show host Duncan Garner wrote a column for Stuff which started in the queue at K-Mart and ended asking about your grandchildren. Joe Nunweek dissects this strange creation.

Duncan Garner is a man who knows what he wants. A 3-pack of workwear cotton rich socks for $12. A seven-day rotation of fitted trunks. A five-pack of novelty trunks for the Kiwi holiday. “Routine stuff. Job done for another year. That was my aim. And besides, the new purchases were absolutely critical. I had held on to the old undies and socks for too long. Enough said.”

The novelty trunks say “LEGEND”, “THE BOSS”, and “STUD MUFFIN”.  Does this matter? You bet it does.

Garner picks K-Mart for these purchases. In the cement ocean of St Lukes, New Zealanders see the red ‘K’ as a beacon of home. It’s the Southern Cross in the suburban sky. Do we go to K-Mart looking for the madness of the great Bazaar of Ishafan? No. Do we look for a good deal on vacuums in an uncertain world? You bet we do. It’s our legacy.

But if the answer to “How long will it take to purchase these essentials?” is “Depends on the queue”, what’s the question? Seconds turn to minutes, but the queue is still spiralling, serpentine, into the reaches of the Home section. In the horizon, he can see a seething mass of human flesh, cards aloft at the ‘cash only’ self-service checkout.

Exotic accents cry for a price check. Our leaders, he muses, forgot to put the signs up. New Zealand for sale?

Garner, not designed and never intended to be inflammatory on race grounds, flimsy grounds, or any other grounds at all, is now at sea. An ordinary trip to the mall has become a nightmarish glimpse into our future. If he survives this, he vows, he will tell the tale.

Previously, Garner’s columns resembled the same stuffy midway of opinion you get from most of his peers – that is to say, 2.5 articles a year bemoaning the lack of a Greens-National coalition while waiting for the next poll to wing a narrative around.

The rules of Important Punditry – observe something (say, a poll saying National is up by 2) and write some sort of fan-fiction about why that must be – still apply here, because that’s effectively what he’s done. He’s extrapolated one data point (a bad day at the mall) into a frightening demographic collapse.

What’s all a bit weird, of course, is why this and why now. When people say racist things about foreign investors in the context of their buying up beachside land, there’s a kernel of relatability, because people like going to the beach. But no one has ever liked queueing at K-Mart, let alone seen the quintessential K-Mart experience as being under existential threat.

The experience of queuing at a K-Mart is a product of lazy automation and calculated retail design, not rampant immigration. At my nearest one in Melbourne, shoppers spiral Escher-like into a cordoned self-service hell-pen in the middle of the store. Once you eke past its narrow entrance, the bare minimum of low-wage staff are retained to help cancel the orders of shaky pensioners who double-scan their toasters. All creeds and colours are united in their suffering.

This is a good time to address the point of biggest contention – that Garner’s stated intention to be non-racist and non-xenophobic and outwardly pro-NZ ends up, well, racist, xenophobic and outwardly pro-K-Mart. Run this thought experiment – if he was held back from getting his new grundies by a queue of Pākehā, would this cool article exist? His epiphany – it could have been anywhere in South East Asia – is less a dog whistle than it is a loudhailer. People are moving to New Zealand every day, and they are “Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Syrian and many others”.

Plenty can be inferred about the waves of migrants he doesn’t mention – the approximately 13,000 United Kingdom citizens who migrate here each year, and make up our third-largest source country for residence approvals. Or South Africans, who aren’t far behind. Or the blossoming number of French and German working holidaymakers. Perhaps these arrivals are the good ones, the ones who see the traffic outside Sylvia Park and sacrifice their dream of affordable kitchenware for those of us who were here first. Perhaps Garner just doesn’t see them at all.

Then, the mighty pivot. Cosmopolitan elites like me can laugh off a wobbly at a long line, but can I laugh off stagnant wages, high house prices and… stolen dreams? Garner doesn’t think so, to the point that he spent an entire Saturday getting nude and mad online and screaming at people to read the article properly. “There are too many foreigners in my neighbourhood,” he is crying, “and homelessness is bad.” Disagree?  Wow, get a load of the homelessness lover over here, the big fan of transience.

Let’s give Garner the benefit of the doubt, though, even if he won’t give it to your garden-variety @kiwiissuesdiscusser_74. Flat wages and declining rates of homeownership are not good, and he’s right that the job of government is to look at these things and ask why, and to plan and coordinate. The problems of poor planning and failed cities are here already. But does any of these cohere with the great K-Mart snake?

I had the immense privilege of editing a personal essay by Pasan Jayasinghe and Sahanika Ratnayake last month. In criticising Labour’s immigration targets, they dissected the same 72,000 net migration figure as follows:

The reasoning behind such policies crumbles upon any close scrutiny. The record annual net migration figure of 70,000 the party actually comprises  some 37,000 New Zealanders returning home from time spent living overseas, and staying put; 21,000 on working holiday visas; 7,000 international student arrivals and 3,000 Australians moving here. In effect, Labour’s policies are aimed at the remaining 10-15,000 migrants at the margins of current net migration. It is difficult to believe that such a number is the main cause of the country’s housing crisis, health and education pressures and congestion, particularly given that most new migrants, and especially migrant students, are not in a position to afford either houses or cars.”

(Pasan and Sahanika’s whole essay is worth reading – the sum total of Garner’s rhetoric for migrants and their families is “us” and what we’re entitled to vs. “them” and what they’ll take from us. This is fucking hurtful, and they describe the harm felt with precision.)

As I write this, Garner’s last howl into the void has been an approving retweet. “It triggered #snowflakes who like to #Virtuesignal,” the fan says. “Sparked meaningful debate on real issue.” But see, this is the thing – I’d love meaningful debate on the real issue of migration, and I don’t think anyone’s shying away from it.

Instead, right now we get an endless conflation of the movement of people and the movement of capital, a blind eye turned to who’s exploiting whom (as someone who’s worked in this area, I’ll say it straight: some of New Zealand’s employers and tertiary institutions should be dragged in the papers day in and day out for treating vulnerable human beings as nothing more than revenue), and endless free passes to political parties of all stripes for fudging or refusing to collect valuable data.

Wading into this climate, Garner’s contribution is bold like ignoring the ‘OUT OF ORDER’ sign on a blocked public toilet and taking a shit anyway is bold. Arguably worse than the nativist bravado of a true believer, his writing here is a sort of sly, lazy aggression – it starts a fire and walks away. Even the queue-as-metaphor is both clunky and cruel – nobody likes a ‘queue jumper’, after all – and shouldn’t it be our turn first?

He ends lofty – “Will this make our country better for those living in it now? Your great-grandchildren will be so grateful.” Strong words forged in the fury Garner had when he got red-pilled shopping for undies.

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