Mainstream political policy may offer a home for racist views

2019-03-19 16:20:34

OPINION: With the odd exception, New Zealand is putting its best foot forward as it reacts to a horrific act of violence which might change the country forever.

As international media watches New Zealand perhaps like never before (certainly not since the Christchurch earthquake also left a city in shock) the country is projecting something close to national unity.

This can be seen in the remarkably dignified response of the Muslim community during a period of intense grief, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's empathetic and decisive response or the tens of thousands turning out to events to mark the tragedy.

The images being shared by world's media project a nation every bit as compassionate as many would hope it is.

We might hope this would lead quickly into a period of self-reflection in many parts of society.

The end of innocence might also mark the end of naivety about not only the extent of racism in New Zealand, but also the way mainstream political movements use what might sound like respectable language to harness it.

Although the alleged perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks is Australian, few question that racist views are not uncommon here.

As recently as late 2015, National Front members marched in front of Parliament without attracting meaningful challenge (although by 2017 the group was chased away by hundreds of protesters).

While that group may be completely on the fringe of society, many more mainstream New Zealanders hold xenophobic attitudes, but phrased in more polite terms.

Rather than admitting racism, all manner of problems are blamed on immigration, or the mere idea of it, even though New Zealand is itself a nation of immigrants.

The response to the Christchurch shootings could mark an acknowledgement that migrants have been targeted.

The earliest signs are hardly positive.

As it emerged that news organisations were removing articles which were causing offence to the Muslim community, t​he National Party was insisting that a petition urging the Government not to sign up to a United Nations migration pact had been archived from its website "some weeks ago", rather than in response to the shooting.

By Tuesday the party confirmed this was wrong, with an "emotional" staffer responsible for its removal after the shootings.

Although leader Simon Bridges insists the action was taken without the party's knowledge, the episode now looks like an attempt to scrub a period of recent history which the Opposition would like to overlook.

Signing up to the UN migration pact appears to have no legal implications for New Zealand's migration policy, yet National has framed the issue as though it amounted to a loss of sovereignty.

It is not as if National is the only major New Zealand political party which has been accused of using concerns about migration for political ends.

Only a few years ago Labour linked surging Auckland house prices to Chinese sounding names, on the basis of quite flaky data.

Even though the episode prompted a storm, just months before the 2017 election, former Labour leader Andrew Little promised to reduce the number of immigrants by "tens of thousands".

But the real scrutiny is likely to fall on the response of NZ First, which has made concerns about immigration a core part of its political appeal since the party was named.

Around 15 ago, leader Winston Peters said the country was being "dragged into the status of an Asian colony" by immigration.

In the wake of the London bombings in 2005, Peters claimed "moderate and militant [Muslims], fit hand and glove everywhere they exist" with an agenda "to promote fundamentalist Islam".

In 2013 former NZ First MP Richard Prosser suggested in a magazine column that young Muslim men should not be allowed to use Western airlines.

Rather than being dumped over the comments, just over a year later Prosser was promoted to third on the party's list for the 2014 election.

As late as June 2017, a few months before the election which would see him form part of the Government, Peters' response to another terror attack in London was to claim that relatives of the terrorists were "choosing to turn the other cheek, choosing silence, rather than turn these monsters in".

"The Islamic community must clean house by turning these monsters in, it starts with their own families."

A year later, the party's members passed a remit backing a bill which could force migrants to sign a declaration to uphold New Zealand values.

During her address to Parliament on Tuesday, Ardern said the door "must close on all those who espouse hate and fear".

Peters, meanwhile rejected the alleged perpetrator of the attacks, but offered no sign that he will abandon his rhetoric on migrants.

While this week is a time of grieving, politicians of all parties should reflect on whether their policies offer harbour for those who are intolerant of other races or cultures, or whether they are comfortable in a coalition with other parties that do.

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