OPINION: Most of the world's countries have decided to sign the United Nations Global Compact on Migration. Not all countries have agreed to do so, however, including some of our closest allies and friends. As of the time of writing, it's not even clear whether our Government intends to become a party to the compact and it has been remarkably opaque about its intentions.
National leader Simon Bridges has announced that his party does not support the compact and would withdraw from it when next in government. This statement, made on the basis that migration policy should not be the province of UN agreements, has resulted in much condemnation of National. To oppose the compact is, apparently, an act of solidarity with the "alt-Right" – fascist-aping, internet-based activists who declared for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Bridges' actual comments were quite anodyne. He said the party opposes the issue coming under an international framework but was careful to point out that National is the party in Parliament most liberal in immigration policy. Accordingly, denunciations of what Bridges relied on an inference he was "dog whistling" on the subject.
In other words, while National's position was not objectionable on its face, it is really a coded message to nativists and xenophobes that he's got their back.
We are to take as evidence for this evil intent the fact that the alt-Right also opposes the UN compact. If both National and Trumpworld oppose the same thing, apparently, we are meant to take this as proof of ideological kinship.
Does this reasoning also apply to the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Before the last election, people who are now Cabinet ministers marched in the street against it. They said they were concerned about the implications of the treaty for national sovereignty. The alt-Right said much the same thing.
Was this prima facie evidence of Labour dog whistling to the alt-Right? When Labour and NZ First took government, a quick U-turn was executed and the TPP was signed, largely under cover of cosmetic changes (like a new name). Did the same people suddenly decide that signing away sovereignty was a bad thing or were they less than sincere in their concerns at the time of protest?
Further evidence of National's supposed bad faith is offered in the form of an argument that there are no rational grounds for opposing the compact. Its provisions are non-binding, it is said, so why would National oppose it? Why not support signing up to it and then just ignore the parts it doesn't like?
In the first place, this isn't exactly an honourable position to assume. Even if the compact isn't enforceable against the government as a matter of law, it's a statement of intent that should be made in good faith. The text states, for example, that signatories will assert more control over media coverage of migration issues. If New Zealanders don't think that's a worthy objective, the country shouldn't sign a piece of paper saying it intends to pursue it.
Secondly, "non-binding" does not mean "no impact". Although the compact won't become directly enforceable in the way legislation is, it could have an impact on domestic law. Since the 1990s, cheered on by the legal academy, the courts have had recourse to treaties and lesser international documents like the compact in making decisions.
Examples of international instruments that have been used by our courts include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Declaration against Religious Intolerance, the Declaration on Elimination of Discrimination against Women and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. None of these are binding and none of them even rise to the status of treaty. They have all been used to determine questions about what the New Zealand government must or must not do.
Should we sign up to it, the migration compact will join the list. So when government ministers have to make decisions on deportations, for example, it may be possible for deportees to seek judicial review of the decision on the basis of insufficient consideration being given to the compact.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, it's wrong to tell New Zealanders that the administration of immigration would be unaffected by the compact.
But at the moment, we have a Labour-NZ First Government. Both campaigned on slashing immigration. The promises of both parties were unrealistic and often based on questionable claims about the effect newcomers were having on society.
Just a few years ago Labour, the senior coalition partner, ran stolen personal data through a questionable analysis that effectively scapegoated a historically persecuted ethnic minority for being at the root of the Auckland housing shortage. It was quite something. When offered the opportunity to apologise for this shabby play, the best Jacinda Ardern could manage was one of those I-am-sorry-if-you-were-offended non-apologies.
If supporters of the Government want to get into a morality contest, the subject of immigration is probably not the happiest hunting ground they could choose.
Liam Hehir is a lawyer in Palmerston North, a former National Party activist, and a columnist for Stuff.