PoliticsApril 27, 2017

An ugly great can of Winston: the inescapable result of Labour’s immigration push


Winston Peters’ contemptible race-baiting rhetoric has hit a new low, but he’s able to go further than usually thanks to the party that gave us ‘Chinese-sounding names’ having already climbed half way, argues Keith Ng.

You can try to have a sensible debate about immigration – and you can say it’s not about race – but inevitably, someone is going to jump up and say: “Woah, woah, woah, it totally is about Asians, and anyone telling you otherwise are just bloody Asian immigrants!”

And inevitably, that someone is going to be Winston.

But here’s the thing. Immigration has traction as an issue because Labour made it an issue. And Winston can climb out further than he usually does because Labour has already climbed half way.

Labour seems to think that it can open a can of worms, and when the worms start crawling out, it’s not their fault – it’s the worms’. Maybe this would be true if Labour had painstakingly avoided fuelling xenophobia in their discussion of immigration. But they haven’t. They’ve done the exact opposite.

Instead of actually making this a debate about immigration policy, Andrew Little has made it about why immigrants are bad. In addition to attributing Auckland house prices to too many immigrants (which is entirely fair), Little has also been talking about how we issue 6,000 works visas for labourers, describing this as “rorts that allow low-skill people to get residency” (which is really not).

According to Immigration NZ’s 2015/16 data (which is presumably where Labour got its figures), 2200 of these labourers went to Canterbury. Many were scaffolders, steel fixers, and other labourers involved in the building industry. It’s exactly what the Essential Skill work visas were intended for: to bring in skilled workers to a part of New Zealand that needs it the most. It also illustrates why labelling all labourers as low-skilled is crude, wrong, and spectacularly ironic for a party called Labour.

Nine hundred were deckhands (mostly crew of foreign vessels), and another 900 worked on dairy farms. There were also around 1,000 cleaners, housekeepers, and kitchenhands. Most of these went to Otago, which has the second lowest unemployment rate in the country.

500 of these labourers went to Auckland.

I can’t read Labour’s mind, but here’s what I know: This group of 6000 is a small and pretty legit group, and they have absolutely nothing to do with Auckland’s house prices or infrastructure problems. This seems like rhetoric intended to blame a completely different set of migrants for a completely different set of problems.

Yes, it’s possible to have a responsible, non-xenophobic debate about immigration policy – but this ain’t it. Throwing in a bit of “immigrants are taking our jobs” – when the problem is supposed to be infrastructure! – and denigrating those migrants as low-skilled and rorters is the opposite of responsible.

The other key to having a responsible debate about immigration policy is: HAVING. SOME. GODDAMN. POLICY.

Intended or otherwise, Labour has created one hell of a vacuum. They’ve talked up immigration as a problem since last year, and last week they ramped it up to Very Serious Problem which requires cuts in the tens of thousands … but they don’t have any policy.

This isn’t a policy debate – this is a debate about whether an arbitrary number sounds aggressively-yet-responsibly big. Ten thousand? Not big enough! Fifty thousand? Too big!

And, sure, I guess that’s how politics works sometimes. But immigration debates are different. In the absence of actual policy proposals, there is nothing to consider except prejudices and gut feels. That vacuum is an invitation for the worst Winstons of our nature, and that is firmly Labour’s responsibility.

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