This is a guest post by Daphne Lawless. Like all Guest Posts it does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Greater Auckland.
Greater Auckland often posts Guest Posts on Urban Issues such as Housing and Transport from all sides. We welcome all submissions and encourage people to submit on these issues.
When Andrew Little’s Labour Party put out its latest piece of Winston Peters-lite nonsense on immigration. I hoped to be able to oblige sooner. But the fact is, I’ve been too damned angry. Angry that Labour has simply abandoned not only migrant communities, but those of us who consider immigration to be a good thing on balance.
It was only a few months ago when the news was full of the plight of Indian students brought to Aotearoa/New Zealand, who were deported after their immigration agents were found to have used phony documents to get them into the country. These were people studying to learn useful skills, paying $30,000 for the privilege – a fortune where they came from. But at the same time, they were doing honest work of the kind that “native Kiwis” usually turn their nose up at – shift work in fast food and security. Although they sought sanctuary in an Auckland church and many activists rallied to their defense, they still had to leave the country.
Foreign students paying too much for substandard courses in this country, and finding themselves exploited by unscrupulous employers and shady immigration agents is a serious problem which must be dealt with. In a move worthy of Alice in Wonderland, however, the Labour Party has decided that the problem of foreign students being exploited is… to exclude them altogether. That’s “destroying the village in order to save it” levels of stupidity, or cynicism.
Labour’s immigration policy, released on June 12, proudly anticipates cutting 20,000-30,000 migrants to New Zealand every year by reducing the number of courses students can get visas to study in this country, and by making it harder for those students who are admitted to get work visas. So: Andrew Little wants to tell us that it would have been better for everyone if the Indian deportees had not been allowed into the country in the first place, and, if they had, they shouldn’t have been able to support themselves. A more outrageous form of victim-blaming could scarcely be imagined.
Looking at the bare figures, the policy might not seem that outrageous in the broader scheme of things. Certainly not by looking at the introduction to the policy, which almost makes sense:
“We have always welcomed migrants to our country, and will continue to do so. But in recent years our population has been growing rapidly as record numbers of migrants arrive here. This has happened without the Government planning for the impact immigration is having on our country. After nine years, National has failed to make the necessary investments in housing, infrastructure, and public services that are needed to cope with rapid population growth. This has contributed to the housing crisis, put pressure on hospitals and schools, and added to the congestion on roads.”
The problem is – if you don’t mind the mixed metaphor – if you look at this paragraph more closely, you can really hear the dog-whistles. One by one:
- The population argument. Labour is here conflating “rapid population growth” with “immigration”. As Greater Auckland and its predecessors have never ceased to remind us, though, the two are not the same thing. There is such a thing as natural increase – “native Kiwis” have babies and don’t die as young as they used to. In a post in 2015, this blog reported that:
In recent decades, natural population increase – i.e. people having babies – has been the biggest source of growth. Net migration is important, but it can be quite volatile – surging up and then crashing back.
We further pointed out that:
History shows that shutting off the migration tap has never led to a better, more vibrant city or more opportunity for residents. It’s simply been a sign of failure.
… New Zealand has a strong feedback loop between net migration and economic growth. When growth prospects get worse – as they did in the 1970 and 1980s – it dissuades people from coming here and encourages Kiwis to leave for greener pastures. This in turn worsens growth prospects by sucking consumer demand out of the economy and reducing perceived household wealth (i.e. lowering house prices).
- The infrastructure argument. Labour are absolutely right that the current Government have not made the necessary investment in infrastructure – or, rather, they keep making bad choices in infrastructure, like being prepared to spend up big on the truck driver’s Christmas present known as the East-West Link while dickering for ages over vital rail infrastructure like the CRL or the Westfield-Wiri third line. But this argument has nothing to do with immigration. Massive investment in infrastructure is needed to drag New Zealand into being an economy fit for all its people in the 21st century, whether our population grows by a lot or by a little, by natural increase or by migration.
- The “taking our jerbs” argument. Labour’s concern about “work visas being abused to fill low-skill, low-paid jobs” raises more questions than it answers. Are they saying that low-skill, low-paid jobs should be reserved for New Zealanders? More seriously, the reason why migrants end up in such jobs is due to employer prejudice – sometimes because of less proficiency in the English language, sometimes due to blatant racism, sometimes due to immigrants not knowing their legal rights or having union representation. These are all problems which face New Zealand-born workers as well, particularly Māori and Pasefika communities. The answer to them are to enforce our workplace laws more effectively, and empower workers to join unions to fight for their own rights – not to remove some people’s rights to work here altogether. It almost sounds like crackpot right-wing ideas of kicking women out of the workforce to create full employment for men.
- Our immigration system is already cruel. Lenny Henry once said that giving the British police more powers was like putting a spear on the end of a Cruise missile. The same thing could be said about making New Zealand’s immigration scheme more exclusionary. The current “points” system is looked on with envy by right-wing parties in England who would love something like that to keep foreign workers out in their post-Brexit utopia – ask any actual skilled migrant to this country how tough it was to get in. Recently, a blind 5 year old has been slated for deportation for being a “burden” on our health system – much like Indian students take all those juicy low-paid jobs, I suppose. And we want to make this tougher?
What this all boils down to is that refusing more people the chance to live and work in this country – in Little’s dehumanizing metaphor, “taking a breather from immigration” – will not bring down house prices, improve infrastructure, create more jobs or higher wages, or any of those things which Labour is trying to imply they will. But I honestly don’t think even Labour expect them too. They are simply trying to appeal to that section of the population who think immigration is a Bad Thing in and of itself. At least, since I don’t hear complaints about Australians, Britons or South Africans driving up house prices or clogging the Northwestern Motorway, these people think that some kinds of immigration are a bad thing.
I don’t know whether it’s worse to think that Labour really believe this nonsense, or are cynically pretending to to appeal to xenophobes and racists. Gordon Campbell reckons that they noticed Shane Jones and NZ First getting mileage from bashing foreign students at the 2014 election, and they want a piece of that action.
Over in the UK, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – while still losing the election, mind – managed to increase their vote markedly by breaking with so much of the cross-party neoliberal consensus of previous years. But sadly, I don’t think New Zealand Labour are following the lead of their British counterparts. There are both left-wing and right-wing versions of appealing to a populist bloc. And Little’s immigration policy is taking the latter option. It’s more Trumpist than Corbynite.
In October last year, Green Party leader James Shaw floated a similar trial balloon, calling for immigration to be capped at 1% of the total population. Thankfully, Shaw has recently withdrawn that policy and apologized for it – though Green activists still, worryingly often, express neo-Malthusian hand-wringing about “carrying capacity”. But with MANA leader Hone Harawira recently calling for the execution of Chinese meth producers (specifically Chinese ones, mind), it looks like most of the left-of-National spectrum in this country has decided that nasty foreigners are the problem.
Have they, honestly? Or have they simply decided that migrant baiting gets votes? It works for Winston Peters every election year, we all know. And it’s a way to differentiate themselves from the comfortable corporate-cosmopolitans of the National Party. But as one astute commentator said on Twitter, “people vote for the shout, not the echo”. We already have a party of nostalgia for a zero-growth, low diversity New Zealand with a hang ‘em flog ‘em approach to law’n’order – it’s New Zealand First. Why would the rest of the electoral spectrum think there’s space for any more?
It increasingly looks to young, left-leaning New Zealanders who want to live in a diverse, exciting, growing country that Labour doesn’t see any point in appealing to us. One such young Kiwi told me recently that, when he confronted a Labour activist with his concern, the reply was a “sod off, we don’t need your vote anyway” attitude – quite similar to the contempt in which the older conservative left held Generation Zero and younger activists at the Auckland local body elections. The biggest difference between the Corbyn and Trump phenomena is that one tries to build a populist upsurge on the hopes of the young – the other, on the fears of the old. In the short term, the latter may be more electorally effective. But in the short term only.
Daphne Lawless is a freelance worker, married with a young daughter, living in Auckland. She is a regular writer for the socialist magazine Fightback.