OPINION: As we approach the first anniversary of the Christchurch mosque attack, it is concerning that a sitting minister and MP casually maligns immigrants.
This was the latest in a series of anti-immigrant statements made by New Zealand First MP Shane Jones. Once again, he targets Indian immigrants, suggesting that Indian students "ruined New Zealand (tertiary) institutions".
I wonder what the immediate trigger for such a comment was. Perhaps it was a tactic to distract public attention from the ongoing Serious Fraud Office investigation on NZ First. Or maybe it is an attempt to sustain his political career, which could possibly end at the next election. Perhaps both?
In any case, rather than asking him whether he viewed his own comments as racist (which they obviously are), I would have preferred it if the media probed him to produce evidence to substantiate his claims.
Are New Zealand tertiary institutions (the largest ones being universities and polytechnics) ruined?
If so, what are Indian students, in particular, doing to ruin them?
Now while the Prime Minister has condemned Jones' comments, an analysis of her own party's immigration policy suggests that their message, although arguably more subtle, speaks to the kind of worldview that Shane Jones holds on immigration. Let me substantiate.
In the opening paragraph of their policy document (available here), Labour states that immigration "has contributed to the housing crisis, put pressure on hospitals and schools, and added to the congestion on roads". Many analyses are critical of such commonly held notions. Experts point out that immigrants are generally a younger, healthier, working population paying taxes and drawing considerably less from the public services than the ageing native-born population. Immigrants, therefore, provide the much necessary extra-support for an increasingly older population reliant on public care and social services.
Immigrants also revive the local economy, providing not just labour but also new spending activity.
Additionally, immigration helps compensate for the high rate of out-migration of working-age Kiwis overseas.
So how do we understand the housing crisis, infrastructure deficit and pressure on hospitals? Many scholars find that the underlying reason for this is decades of neoliberal policies that have undercut public investment in these vital sectors. While Labour does identify the lack of public funding in their statement - "after nine years, National has failed to make the necessary investments in housing, infrastructure, and public services" - they themselves have not addressed this pressing issue adequately, instead focusing more on surpluses and fiscal responsibility.
Migrants as economic units?
However, focusing solely on the argument that immigrants are good for the economy and are required for a country with an aging population is problematic. This, unfortunately, is a defining feature of immigration policy in New Zealand, across the political spectrum.
The economic argument, I argue, is also the basis of Shane Jones' comments once you remove the singling out of Indians as an undesirable group of immigrants. What I mean is, when we view immigrants through the lens of economic rationality alone, they are reduced to economic units and their dignity and humanity become a secondary consideration. Under this view, racist tropes (often emanating from colonial narratives) are used as an excuse to explain why economic problems continue to exist.
When an economy is booming, and there is general wellbeing, immigrants are considered an asset. However, when the economy slows, or when it fails to serve the needs of a large section of society, immigrants are easily dehumanised and become an easy target for politicians who fail to deliver.
It should come as no surprise that Shane Jones would resort to blaming immigrants in the lead up to the election. The leader of his party, Winston Peters, in 2017 said "far too many New Zealanders have come to view today's capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe". At the end at their first term it is clear that the economic problems remain largely unresolved, forcing them to resort to emotive anti-immigrant rhetoric in an attempt to divert attention.
Immigration is a complex issue. While fully admitting that it will be difficult to formulate immigration policies that work in the interests of everyone, the current policies and rhetoric, do need to be seriously reconsidered. The fundamental issue New Zealand faces is economic- a significant part of the population is unable to comfortably meet their needs. Blaming immigrants for this does not provide a solution to these issues.
Shane Jones rightly claims that his Whakapapa goes back a thousand years. But by targeting particular immigrant communities - especially those with a similar history of colonisation - Shane Jones is failing to recognise the mana and history that each immigrant carries within them.
Josephine Varghese is a PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Canterbury.