Most of us are either shaking our heads in disbelief or laughing in amazement at the ongoing train wreck that is the American Presidential Election campaign. The hype, the hyperbole, the sleaze and the vitriol, let alone the virtual disregard for anything approaching the truth, are at a level we have never seen before. And so, we console ourselves smugly with the throwaway line “only in America” as a potential explanation and justification.
Our next election is about a year away, and, despite some over-excited speculation from one or two wistful commentators, it is difficult to imagine our campaign plummeting to the same depths. However, there are one or two issues that are capable of arousing some of the same levels of passion and wild inaccuracy that have characterised the American campaign.
Immigration is the most obvious of these. Over the years, law and order has not been far behind. Whenever the two are connected, they can become very toxic populist tools. (The 1975 campaign combination featuring the Dancing Cossacks, Pacific Island overstayers, and more Police is undoubtedly the most obvious such example. But the 1996 campaign against Asian immigration in Auckland – remember the snide attacks on big houses in Howick? – and the slurs and word plays that were allowed to run from that would be a close second.)
Sadly, it looks likely there could be some sort of repeat next year with immigration, particularly. We have already seen Labour’s blatantly racist and unfounded attack on people with foreign sounding names buying homes in Auckland. Data released this week by Inland Revenue completely blew Labour’s credibility on the issue, confirming that foreign home buyers accounted for just 3% of the market. Now that has been followed by National abruptly changing immigration settings, including the harsh suspension of the parent category, which will cruelly disrupt the lives of many migrant families. The official explanation is that there is nothing untoward about these moves; that they are just tweaking following ongoing and regular policy operational reviews. It is difficult, however, to escape the conclusion they have been more related to concern within National that New Zealand First’s increasingly erratic, irrational and inaccurate attacks on immigration and migrants might strike a chord within its provincial support base.
However, here is where it is timely to introduce some facts into the debate. Each year, typically more New Zealanders have departed overseas than return after a year or more away, and more non-New Zealand citizens arrive here to stay for a year or more, than leave. But in the year to May 2016, New Zealanders returning home overturned that long-term trend completely, with returning New Zealanders accounting for a little under 50% of the country’s net migration gain. By comparison, just four years ago, New Zealanders leaving the country outnumbered those returning by almost 40,000. While one can speculate on the reasons for the turnaround, it is pretty difficult to deny any New Zealanders the right to return to the country of their birth. It demolishes the suggestion by some politicians that migration is the root cause of all our problems as no more than racism in its most pernicious form. Moreover, it indicates the need for a long term (10 year) population strategy to ensure a balanced and stable approach to population growth, which takes us away from the kneejerk reactions we have seen in recent years.
There are worrying signs that the law and order debate might go the same way, with hints that an election year auction on Police numbers might be about to get underway between the major parties. At the same time, it is inevitable we will need to build more prisons to cope with an ever rising prison muster. To populist politicians, promising more Police and more prisons might be a godsend, but it is a shallow and unsustainable policy response. A tipping point is inevitable – fiscal constraints will mean we will soon be unable to go on building more and more prisons and increasing Police numbers without any commensurate assessment of how the criminal justice and law enforcement systems are operating, and whether a more fundamental review is required to stem the rising tide of lawlessness. The debate about child poverty and the Government’s wider work about at risk families and vulnerable children need to be factored into this discussion. For instance, better information about whom and where the likely offender cohorts are, and focusing attention on dealing with them will be far more effective and efficient than our current blanket approaches.
But as immigration and law and order are such attractive electoral flashpoints, that is unlikely to happen in the context of an election year when there is just too much good politicking to be had. While it is unlikely to be as bitter or visceral as the American contest, but assuredly it will be just as superficial and ultimately pointless.
The only certainty to arise from it will be that our society will be the worse for it.