Opinion: Labour's risky race card flop

Labour leader Andrew Little (Simon Wong / 3 News)
Labour leader Andrew Little (Simon Wong / 3 News)

Labour is pissed off. It's pissed off and it's pissing people off.

That's what happens when you play the race card.

The race card is designed to offend. You play it in the hope that there are more people that agree with you than disagree with you.

In this case Labour decided more people would be riled by the prospect of Chinese offshore buyers snatching Auckland houses from the clutches of New Zealanders, than there would be people angry about Labour's perceived racism.

So it went ahead and singled out Chinese home buyers, not based on any real facts, but because their surnames sounded Chinese.

3 News did something Labour didn't. We visited Liu's and Zhou's on that list. They were happy, proud new homeowners in Auckland and most we spoke to were New Zealanders or applying to be.

One woman thought it was unfair Labour had judged her based on her surname. Another was concerned - like many New Zealanders - about offshore investors.

Of course our door knocking wasn't scientific but neither was Labour's analysis and at least we got a better idea of the people behind the surnames.

Unfortunately what's been lost in the white noise of the debate is that the leaked Barfoot & Thompson data, and analysis subsequently cooked up by Labour, raises a really important issue.

Are offshore foreigners buying up Auckland houses? We simply don't know because there's no proper data, no proper foreign buyers register.

And no, the Government's half-baked non-register which comes into effect in October isn't proper. It won't differentiate between New Zealanders and non-New Zealanders living offshore.

National's being tricky, trying to have it both ways:

On one hand, it's not rolling out a comprehensive register because that would mean capitulating on its long-held stance that a register is unnecessary.

On the other, voters want a register so National needs to be able to say it's doing 'something' - albeit a piddly excuse for 'something'.

Labour could have framed its data like that: the need for a register to clear things up because there's no real way of knowing.

That would have been a sensible argument that flies.

But Labour didn't frame it like that. It chose to employ scare tactics and declare as fact that three quarters of Chinese home buyers don't live in New Zealand.

Bad call.

Now, Labour has to own it.

Once you fill your lungs and blow the dog-whistle you can't un-blow it.

David Cunliffe tried last year when he was Labour leader - blaming immigrants for rising house prices one day then backing down and looking indecisive and back-footed the next.

He managed to offend some immigrants and failed to get the gains from the dog-whistle.

So far Andrew Little is holding the line. Phil Twyford - the architect of the release - seems less certain.

He's not racist so you can bet that being called racist and accused of inciting racism is smarting like all hell.

Little's not racist either but is still holding out for 'dem gains' from the silent majority of non-Chinese sounding Aucklanders furious by Labour's figures.

I'm not so convinced those gains are coming. And if Labour does get a bump in the polls my guess is it will be small and short-lived.

Long-term Labour needs to ask itself will it have been worth it? Jeopardising all those Chinese New Zealand votes - not to mention anyone else offended by the analysis.

Labour has to own those losses along with any ill-gotten gains.

3 News