23 July 2015
Labour’s crass playing of the race card over property sales in Auckland will have shocked many decent, middle of the road voters. Sadly, it will have also emboldened many of our closet racists to believe their latent prejudice has been given new credibility. At one level, it will have inflamed a little further public debate about the Government’s handling of the Auckland housing issue, and whether it is doing enough to deal with the situation.
But, at another deeper and more important level it is a further symptom of a more profound debate that is beginning to bubble and which may eventually come to a stronger boil. From the advent of the Fourth Labour Government in 1984 the consensus has developed and solidified that free and open markets and a commitment to what became the globalisation revolution of the 1990s and 2000s was the right space for New Zealand to be in. While we are a small country, we should not feel constrained by our size when it came to taking a full part in the world’s affairs, or so the argument went.
We were quite happy when our allegedly “not for export” anti-nuclear policy became an international talking point. We relished receiving the plaudits associated with our championing of the Uruguay Round of the GATT Talks to free up world trade in the late 1980s, culminating in Mike Moore becoming Director-General of the World Trade Organisation a decade later, at the same time as Sir Don McKinnon took over as Commonwealth Secretary-General. New Zealand Judges took their places on the World Court and the International Court of Justice; Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Paul Reeves became international peacemakers, while Helen Clark ended up running the United Nations Development Programme. We were a champion of the international institutions and played a full role within them.
At the same time, as we have liberalised our economy and migration policies, our population has increased by almost 40% since 1990, making us a far more culturally and economically diverse nation in the process. Another outcome of the more internationalised economy has been the emergence of the so-called brain drain, with the freer movement of peoples and greater ease of travel meaning our young people, in particular, are more likely to be scattered around the world, a phenomenon most similar developed countries are also experiencing.
Irish President Michael D. Higgins’ recent observation that Ireland’s modern economic history was one of depression interspersed with brief periods of prosperity could just as easily apply to New Zealand. We suffered the effects of the 1987 Sharemarket Crash for longer than most; we were no sooner out of that than the Asian Financial Crisis struck in the late 1990s, to be followed by the Global Financial Crisis towards the end of the first decade of the 2000s.
These events have all placed pressure on the hitherto stable 1980s consensus. Xenophobes and racists who railed against more open markets and immigration had been generally marginalised as extremists and ignored. However, this may be under challenge. A possible explanation for Labour’s extraordinary volte-face could be that it senses that in the anti-Europe feeling emerging in Britain, and for different reasons in countries like Spain and Greece, there is a similar opportunity to mine the discontent of New Zealand’s disaffected working class voters, especially those uncertain what the changes of the last 30 years are coming to mean for them, particularly if they are poorly educated or lowly skilled. New Zealand First’s quirky, xenophobic small-New Zealand approach fits well into this milieu too.
It is too early to say whether this is no more than the writhings of the politically desperate and opportunist, or whether they are the first still small but significant signs that fears previously the preserve of the extremes are becoming more mainstream. Either way, they cannot be ignored. The liberal campaign to protect tolerance and dignity may only be just beginning.