Bryce Edwards: Shane Jones’ Trumpian play for popularity

Bryce Edwards: Shane Jones’ Trumpian play for popularity

NZ First were always going to go for broke in their 2020 election campaign. Being down around 4 per cent in the polls, ruled out of coalition by National, and now beset by a very troubling political donations scandal, the need was always there to make a bold bid for popular support.

Immigration was an inevitable target, as it always has been for NZ First when needing an opportunistic strategy to increase their support, to get them back into Parliament.

Jones launched this nationalist-populist bid on Saturday, going on Newshub Nation to make these reactionary comments about immigration: “If you want another million, 2 million, 3 million people, we should debate it and there should be a mandate, rather than opening up the options, unfettered, and everyone comes here from New Delhi. I don’t like that idea at all. I think the number of students that have come from India have ruined many of those institutions” – see Dan Satherley’s Shane Jones says Indian students have ‘ruined’ NZ academic institutions.

Stoking Trumpian nationalism

Chris Trotter writes in today’s Otago Daily Times about Jones’ motives: “The ‘population policy’ debate, which Mr Jones is relentlessly stoking with his inflammatory rhetoric, is NZ First’s last shot at garnering sufficient electoral support to secure its return to Parliament” – see: Shane Jones’s critics offer grist to NZ First’s “Populist-Nationalist” mill.

According to Trotter, Jones’ campaign “has every chance of succeeding… not only because there are hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders who are alarmed and dismayed at the unprecedented scale and speed of this country’s demographic evolution; but also by the blank refusal of the ‘elites’ to give them any say in the matter.”

In this sense, it’s a classic populist move, reminiscent of the like of Donald Trump – find an issue of grievance which large parts of the public feel isn’t being addressed, and pour petrol on it.

In another opinion piece, Trotter also points out how contrived Jones’ campaign is, and how he is skilfully polarising the public, not caring that it will disgust non-supporters, because “under MMP it really doesn’t matter if you piss off 95 percent of the voters, so long as 5 percent of them want what your offering… In practical political terms this means that the party will do whatever it takes to stay in the game – no matter how disruptive or potentially divisive” – see: There’s method In Shane Jones’s “racist” madness.

Immigration is a potentially rich vein to mine at the moment, according to Trotter: “The evidence is mounting that New Zealand’s unaffordable housing crisis; the cost blow-outs in its public health system; the pressure on its schools, and the difficulty so many unskilled workers have in lifting themselves out of wage poverty; may all be traced back to the unprecedented flood of immigrants pouring into New Zealand over the past two decades.”

What’s more, Jones will be angling to win over Māori to this campaign with arguments about tangata whenua and Treaty rights being undermined by large numbers of new immigrants, and an Asian demographic that will soon be larger than that of Māori.

Both Trotter’s columns push the point that Jones is – as with populists like Trump –deliberately seeking to provoke condemnation, which is designed to elevate him and his party even further: “This is precisely the sort of sneering, condescending, ‘we experts know best’ rhetoric that gave the world Brexit and Trump. The sort of behaviour that demonstrates as nothing else can the sheer vastness of the gulf that separates the guardians of this deracinated, globalised culture, from its victims. Populist-nationalism has always been NZ First’s stock-in-trade.”

Similarly, writing today in the Dominion Post, Verity Johnson says: “It’s smart because it gives him a sure-fire PR strategy: say something racist and inflammatory, wait for the awakened avenging angels to attack, then throw your hands up and protest you’re just telling it like it is!” – see: Shane Jones is more dangerous than you might think.

Johnson says “it could very easily build a following in election year, and carve out a final sliver of relevancy for him by riding the tides of anti-elite illiberalism lapping around NZ’s edges. And it worked for Donald Trump”.

And it’s the reactionary identity politics element of Jones’ campaign that makes him powerful, according to Johnson, because it’s based on accentuating and dividing different demographic groups: “As much as he says he hates the modern political playbook of the ‘Ngāti Woke’, he’s clearly read the part on how important identity politics are these days. The fact that he says he despises the overly awakened that shows he’s actually understood (and aced) the identity politics chapter. Because the thing you absolutely need in modern politics is a group. It’s all about your tribe, your team, it’s about being back in high school and deciding who you’ll sit with at lunch.”

Not all commentators believe such divisive messages will resonate with New Zealanders. Gordon Campbell says Jones’ pitch will do “nothing for NZF’s more urgent need to win votes as a reputable party of the political centre” and “for every voter that Winston Peters tries to re-assure, Jones can be relied on to repel them, and more” – see: On Shane Jones as the liability no-one needs to bear anymore.

Here’s Campbell’s larger point: “When your party has a corruption cloud hanging over its head, why would any sane politician embark on a mission to deliberately refresh the public’s memory of New Zealand First’s history of anti-Indian and anti-Chinese sentiment? Surely, NZF’s 3% bedrock of support already contains almost all of the anti-immigrant, youth-hating pensioners in the entire country. Ah, but at the end of the day, its only Shane Jones being Shane, right? Such a character. The myth that Jones is a loveable larrikin instinctively in tune with heartland sentiment has always been a media fiction, unsupported by any evidence at the ballot box that voters actually like him, or feel inclined to support him.”

Condemnation of Jones

Jones’ statements have been widely condemned by both the political left and right. Simon Bridges has labelled Jones’ comment “racist” – see Jason Walls and Derek Cheng’s National Leader Simon Bridges: NZ First MP’s comments around Indian students were racist. The same article reports that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern “wouldn’t call Jones’ comments racist”.

National-aligned blogger David Farrar has also challenged Jones’ arguments – particularly the notion that “that Indians in New Zealand are not very law abiding”, pointing out that “crime stats for 2019 show that overall Indians appear in court, as a proportion of their total population far less than most ethnic groups” – see: The Minister for racism ignores Ardern.

Similarly, an editorial in the Dominion Post yesterday condemns Jones arguments: “He makes great play of being more Ngati Bloke than Ngati Woke but there’s nothing woke about gagging on the ugliness of comments that are gratuitously and hurtfully rude about people for the basest of reasons” – see: Indians, Jones and our tertiary Temples of Doom.

This editorial also takes issue with Jones’ claims about Indian students “ruining” tertiary institutions: “Jones has not to date felt the need to detail the basis for these claims, to name the specific institutions, explain precisely what it is about the Indian students’ presence, or behaviour, or morality, or the sheer teeming mass of them, that has somehow caused this ruination.”

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says Jones’ comments are racist and ignorant, and must stop – see RNZ’s Shane Jones comments ‘racist, irresponsible’, Race Relations Commissioner says.

The same article quotes Green co-leader James Shaw characterising his colleague’s statements as racist, adding “I think in an election year it’s incumbent upon politicians right across the political spectrum not to use immigrants, particularly those vulnerable to exploitation, as political footballs”.

Many are also connecting Jones’ campaign with fascism and white supremacist violence, especially with the anniversary of the Christchurch mosque attacks coming up. For the best example of this, see Morgan Godfery’s After the Christchurch shooting politicians promised tolerance. It didn’t last.

Godfery outlines NZ First’s long history of stoking anti-immigrant fears and concludes: “This makes for a very awkward question: are anti-immigrant politicians giving cover for neo-fascists to voice and enact their hatreds in plain sight?”

Support for Jones

Jones is also receiving support for his views from some opinion leaders. Talkback radio broadcaster Mike Hosking has responded to say that Jones “represents a frustrated group that, I suspect, grows by the day. In other words, partly anyway, he is us” – see: Shane Jones anti-PC campaign a breath of fresh air.

Hosking is particularly impressed that Jones is railing against the apparent clampdown on what is and isn’t allowed to be said: “Of course, Jones actually has a point. Not specifically necessarily about Indians and whether they ruin institutions. But on the greatest of rights, the ability to speak your mind, and say what you want in a world, where that pursuit has been curtailed, many of us would argue, by an army of uptight, politically correct, ideologically driven, control freaks. They are ruining discourse and free speech.”

Jacinda Ardern’s mixed response

Jones’ outburst is just the latest in a long line of times Jacinda Ardern has had to trend carefully in dealing with the difficult Cabinet minister. She has been unwilling to condemn Jones too strongly nor punish him for the controversy.

RNZ’s Jane Patterson explains: “It’s an uncomfortable position for a coalition Prime Minister – having a minister go rogue but having only two stark decisions: risk collapsing the government or tolerate open defiance” – see: Pressure weighs in on Jacinda Ardern over Shane Jones’ immigration remarks.

According to Patterson, Jones’ leader Winston Peters is the only one who can rein him in, but “Peters has always given his MP a huge amount of latitude and this time is likely to be no different.” After all, for NZ First, she says, it’s all a “win-win” – the controversy highlights the party’s anti-immigration stance, and also “diverted attention away from unanswered questions about the SFO and its scrutiny of the New Zealand First Foundation and political donations.” Ardern’s softly-softly approach to Jones is disappointing some, including Newstalk ZB’s Kate Hawkesby, who asks: Why doesn’t PM care about Shane Jones being racist?

For the best discussion of the PM’s approach to Jones, see today’s column by Liam Hehir, in which he argues the public shouldn’t be satisfied with “Ardern’s cries of powerlessness” over Jones, pointing out that the Cabinet Manual gives her the power to hold him to account – see: A Sub-Prime Minister?

Finally, for satire about the whole controversy, see Ben Uffindell’s Shane Jones asked to self-isolate after recent travel to Newshub studios.