Bryce Edwards: NZ First’s “virtue signalling” against immigrants

Bryce Edwards: NZ First’s “virtue signalling” against immigrants

When we think about “culture wars” and “identity politics” what most readily comes to mind are leftwing-liberal fights over what is commonly referred to as “political correctness” and allegations of “virtue signalling” and being “woke”. But the other side of the culture wars is a rightwing-conservative agenda around authoritarianism and tradition, especially relating to nationalism (bound up with aspects of ethnicity, race, and immigration).

Conservatives have become more focused in recent years on issues of immigration, and at last year’s election there were plenty of politicians essentially campaigning against foreigners. The New Zealand First party was at the forefront of this, promising to turn off the immigration tap. This has been their own way of expressing unease about the changing culture in New Zealand society.

In Government, however, New Zealand First has done little about immigration rules, despite a willingness from Labour to cut back numbers. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that the biggest policy news to come out of the party’s weekend AGM, was a proposal showing the party is still anti-immigration. The policy, passed by delegates at the conference comes in the form of the “Respecting New Zealand Values Bill” – a piece of legislation to be put forward in Parliament which would require new migrants to sign up to and abide by a list of “New Zealand values”, or face potential deportation.

The policy and New Zealand First’s internal debate over it is best covered in Henry Cooke’s article, NZ First members push ‘values bill’ which could expel migrants. He reports that NZ First MP Clayton Mitchell is behind the policy, and he “suggested a tribunal or the courts could rule on whether the migrants should be sent ‘back where they came from’ or not”.

According to Mitchell, the policy is “about being intolerant of intolerance”. And many conference delegates are reported as speaking strongly in favour it. For example, Roger Melville from Wairarapa says “There are people coming in here to be New Zealanders but they are not really New Zealanders at all, and they are actually forcing their ideologies onto you”. As to where these migrants are from, Melville stated: “I find especially from – and I’m not trying to be racist – Pakistan, Indians, and some Asian-type nations.”

The same conference attendee elaborated on the perceived culture problem to another reporter, saying “There’s nothing more embarrassing to a Kiwi, a genuine Kiwi, to walk into a shop and go and buy something behind the counter and all you get is foreign language” – see Adam Hollingworth’s Winston Peters slams ‘leaderless’ National, says Simon Bridges will be gone by next election.

The same report quotes another delegate summing up the policy with the aphorism “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, and saying “There was too much challenge to our way of life, and anyone who comes into the country needs to absorb what we have”.

This conservative focus on identity and culture has led Morgan Godfery to argue that those pushing this policy are white “identitarians”: “the Bill is identity politics for white people. Identitarians fixate on immigration. It drives ‘crime’. It transforms deeply-rooted communities. It undermines our ‘values’” – see: New Zealand values bill – Identity politics for white people.

Danyl Mclauchlan sees the policy as conservative virtue signalling – essentially an empty policy that seeks to show to New Zealand First supporters and potential supporters that the party is still the main reactionary force in politics. He explains that “It is useful for NZ First to race-bait by grandstanding about immigration but never useful to ever do anything about the issue” – see: Whistling on migration yet leaving migration high: what’s Winston playing at?

Mclauchlan argues there is something of a paradox in having anti-immigration parties in government who maintain high levels of immigration to New Zealand. He even argues that, despite all of Winston Peters’ rhetoric, he just doesn’t care that much about immigration. For example, Peters could push Labour and Greens to cut non-white immigration if he really wanted to: “He could probably make the government reduce its intake of non-white migrants, if he was so inclined: we’ve just seen the passage of the waka-jumping bill; it appears that Peters can get Labour and the Greens to do pretty much anything.”

So why doesn’t this government clamp down on immigration? Mclauchlan says it’s about economic growth: “You can grow your economy either by increasing the skill of your workers, the worth of your companies, the value of the products they produce, or by simply letting lots of people into the country; New Zealand’s political class has bet its chips on the second option. If a government reduces migration and the economy stops growing, or shrinks, that government will take a huge hit to its credibility as an economic manager and almost certainly be voted out. So that’s why we have a have an anti-immigration demagogue at the heart of government while the country simultaneously enjoys high levels of net migration.”

Hence, New Zealand First has to find another way to signal its opposition to immigration. And in parallel, the party also has to find a way to foment populist support, which is what Henry Cooke wrote about prior to the NZ First conference, suggesting some “culture wars” element would be seized upon: “Traditionalist identity politics are seen as fertile ground for NZ First to grow its support by some MPs” – see: NZ First’s 25th birthday bash a chance to push right into the culture wars.

Cooke details other “symbolic fights” – such as over Maori, the Treaty, public transport, and law and order – that might give New Zealand First the chance to “to stick it to the urban liberals”.

To the New Zealand Herald, it’s no surprise that New Zealand First has chosen immigrants to target, writing in its editorial today: “It is true that as the world has opened up to greater levels of migration the complexity around national identity and cultural values has increased. How far does tolerance stretch in a multi-cultural society?” – see: Legislating the nation’s values a dangerous path.

The newspaper says that such a culture war strategy “is a dangerous path to go down”, and it points to this happening elsewhere: “As we watch the US struggle through an era of intense and often bitter cultural conflict we should be looking for more measured paths through the moral maze.”

Today’s editorial in The Press is also condemning of this new policy, calling it “unnecessary and potentially divisive” – see: New Zealand laws already cover this. The irony of New Zealand First campaigning against intolerance is also noted.

Perhaps the biggest problem is in determining what New Zealand values are, and who the list should apply to: “Assuming such a list can be compiled to the satisfaction of all New Zealanders, who should it apply to? Only new migrants and refugees? If not, how many generations back should we go? All the way? Ultimately, shouldn’t we all be judged against this list?”

The fact that New Zealand First wants immigrants to agree not to campaign against alcohol consumption is queried: “If this clause is a recognition of the possibility that those from a particular religious background – Islam – might oppose alcohol on religious grounds, it should be remembered there is a strong anti-alcohol lobby within Christian churches.”

A further irony is pointed out: “Remember that Kate Sheppard, whose lead role in the fight for women’s suffrage we have just celebrated, was born in England and the co-founder of this country’s Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, a movement that opposed alcohol at least in part because of the harm it caused families.”

Another irony is that New Zealand First isn’t exactly renowned for its own tolerance. And the No Right Turn blogger points out that the party leader simply doesn’t have a strong track record to match the proposed values put forward: “Winston Peters voted against the Bill of Rights Act (which enshrined freedom of religion and forbade the government from discriminating on the basis of gender), against homosexual law reform, civil unions and marriage equality, against easter Sunday trading, and for raising the drinking age. These positions are generally shared by his party. So, those values NZ First wants to force migrants to “respect” are not values they respect themselves” – see: NZ First vs NZ values.

He concludes that the whole policy is just about race and discrimination. And similarly, Gordon Campbell says the policy is just a modern version of old-fashioned assimilation: “What NZF is trying to do is use the law as a blunt tool to force assimilation upon people, and render them subservient to an idealised form of the white monoculture. It won’t succeed. This isn’t the 1950s anymore, when foreigners were so rare as to be widely seen as alien and threatening. Long ago though, New Zealand embraced diversity” – see: On why we shouldn’t buy into NZF’s pledge list of values.

Finally, for a critique of the New Zealand First policy from a “brown Muslim migrant woman”, see Saziah Bashir’s argument that it’s simply “the death throes of xenophobia disguised as populist policy” – see: NZ First remit about ‘borders’ and ‘power’ not ‘values’.