Migration, Racism and New Zealand Politics

From 2015, and gathering pace during 2016, an ugly development took place in New Zealand politics: a growing chorus of anti-immigrant rhetoric, with an anti-Asian slant. The rightwing populist New Zealand First has long traded on being anti-immigrant, but Winston Peters’s crowd have now been joined by the Labour Party, some union officials, and, since October, by the Green Party.

It is one thing when rightwing parties resort to immigrant-bashing; in that instance workers are likely to recognise the traditional politics of the enemy. It is quite another when the same type of politics is espoused by unions and parties that workers see as friendly to themselves; then, anti-immigration and racist politics are given credibility; they become ‘common sense’.

Unless it is checked, anti-immigration politics threatens to be a danger to the working class. They could divert indignation over housing, unemployment, pay and inadequate services harmlessly away from the employers and capitalist government onto blameless immigrants. The more workers are persuaded against immigrants the weaker they will be.

Above all, immigration is being paired with the housing crisis. It is a miracle that the housing crisis has not triggered a crisis of the National-led government. So obviously has the free market failed to supply sufficient and affordable homes that you might expect that the National Party, as the foremost promoter of neo-liberal economics, to be on the rocks and the Labour Party riding a wave of popularity. But neither party’s fortunes have been transformed, despite the severity of the housing crisis. Labour has muffed a golden opportunity.

The Labour leadership has pulled off this feat of ineptitude by failing to attack National on the incompetence of the free market to provide for a basic human need. National’s housing policy is to “let the market rip” by flogging off state houses and giving developers a free hand.

The government brought in the Housing Accords and Special Housing Areas Act 2013, which weakened the controls on development by local council’s under the resource consent process. The Act states: “The purpose of this Act is to enhance housing affordability by facilitating an increase in land and housing supply in certain regions or districts ….” The new law has proven to be an abject failure as it has stimulated so few housing projects.

Giving in to the demands of the development industry has not worked. Developers have no desire to flood the market with new housing units and bring prices down. On the contrary, their aim is to maximise profits by getting the highest possible house prices at the lowest possible building and regulatory costs. The big housing developers keep prices up by drip-feeding the market.

Instead of attacking National where it is vulnerable, Labour has picked up two weapons from the arsenal of reaction. One strand of Labour’s policy is to give an even freer rein to the market. They have adopted the development industry’s demand to be allowed to build on greenfield sites outside the urban limits set by local councils. Labour have also adopted “cutting through red tape”, i.e. watering down planning controls under the Resource Management Act. The outcome of these policies can only be urban sprawl, poor urban design and more private car transport.

Labour’s second reactionary weapon is to resort to blaming “foreign speculators” and immigrants for housing problems. This is racist because it is specifically Asians that have been targeted. In July 2015, Labour’s housing spokesperson Phil Twyford notoriously claimed that 40% of Auckland house sales were to people with Chinese surnames. Labour’s claims that foreign speculators are causing the Auckland house price bubble are bogus. Their argument that migrants are fuelling the bubble sounds plausible, but many migrants are not in the market for property as they are students or on temporary work visas. In any event, migrants are not responsible for the lack of housing supply. In fact, migrants are contributing to the house building effort by bringing their construction skills to building sites.

The scapegoating does not stop with housing. Migrants are also blamed for unemployment, depressing wages and putting strains on public services. Throughout 2016 the Labour Party and some union leaders have played up fears of immigrants.

Labour’s leader Andrew Little re-invigorated Labour’s anti-immigrant tack in March 2016 when he stated that immigrants were putting pressure on jobs and wages, giving as an example Indian and Chinese chefs.

In April 2016 Metro News reported these comments by Council of Trade Unions secretary Sam Huggard in response to job losses at Fisher and Paykel and New Zealand Post.

“Sam Huggard said not only is high migration contributing to more people out of work, it is also pulling wages down. He said this has been a well-accepted fact and the government has conceded to it.

Sam Huggard said the government needs to back the employment of New Zealanders over migrants.

Analysis from the Reserve Bank showed increased migration levels are contributing to the high level of job losses.

Sam Huggard said allowing more migrants into regions just reduces wages and increases unemployment.

He said the government needed to have a proper plan for employers to invest in the local workforce rather than migrants.”

In August 2016 Newshub reported this from Andrew Little:

“There is no question the Government is letting too many people in at a time when our labour market can’t utilise everyone here at the moment and they’ve got to slow it down. We shouldn’t be issuing work permits to people from overseas to come here when we’ve got problems here already internally.”

In a succession of press releases, Labour’s immigration spokesperson Iain Lees-Galloway has called for a reduction in work visas. On 30 November 2016 he made the over-the-top statement that:

This blatant exploitation of migrant workers is suppressing wages for everyone working in New Zealand.”

Labour has only succeeded in assisting the capitalist media in stoking anti-immigrant prejudice. In August 2016 a Newshub-Reid poll found 60 percent wanted a cut in immigration.

The National Party have been able to pose as more enlightened on immigration than Labour. In July 2016 the New Zealand Herald reported:

Prime Minister John Key said it would be “ill-informed” to blame immigrants for strain on house prices in Auckland.

And Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said National had to be confident at next year’s election countering “thinly-veiled xenophobic rhetoric” from New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and from Labour.

The National-led government’s immigration policy is to satisfy business needs for imported workers, but otherwise restrict residency. In October the government announced a range of restrictions that were seen as a concession to anti-immigration criticism. Under these measures the points requirement for skilled migrants was increased, the settlement of migrants’ parents halted, and the family category cut from 5,500 to 2,000 entrants. National’s paltry refugee quota is despicable.

Net migration flows. Source: Statistics NZ

Immigration is set become a major issue in the coming general election. Consciously or not, Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First will attempt to draw on prejudice that has roots in historic anti-Chinese racism and the White New Zealand immigration policy of much of the twentieth century.

Labour’s anti-immigrant opportunism did not boost its popularity in 2016. The tracker of all opinion polls during the year shows that National and the Greens flat-lined, Labour trended down and New Zealand First trended up. The conclusion is clear. Labour’s populist bid has backfired. They have let National off the housing hook and have effectively endorsed New Zealand First. Let’s not forget that in the Northland by-election in March 2015 Andrew Little pulled the rug from under Labour’s candidate Willow-Jean Prime by endorsing Winston Peters. Before Little’s intervention Prime had registered 20 percent support in a Colmar-Brunton opinion poll. Little’s call resulted in Prime ending up with only 4.6 percent in the election.

The Mt Roskill by-election on 3 December 2016 is also instructive. In an electorate where 39 percent are Asian, Labour thought it politic not to bang the anti-immigrant drum. Labour’s Michael Wood won handsomely with 67 percent of the vote. In a country where one in four people were born overseas Labour’s anti-foreigner opportunism does not make much sense.

Nearly everything the parliamentary politicians say about immigrants is myth. So what is the truth of the matter? The one thing we can agree with is that immigration is currently running at a high rate. According to government figures net migration rose to a record high of 70,300 in the year to October (Treasury – Nov. 2016). This is a big turnaround from 2012 when the net migration flow was out of the country.

The Treasury states that:

Geographically, growth in arrivals continued to be driven by Australia, China, and, more recently, South Africa. The annual net inflow from Australia continued to rise in September, reflecting a strengthening labour market in New Zealand and a relatively soft labour market across the Tasman.

In an article entitled ‘Kiwi exodus to Australia bungees back’ published by Statistics New Zealand it is stated that one in five migrant arrivals to New Zealand in the June 2016 year were from Australia, and two in three of these were New Zealand citizens.

Asian migrants are only part of the mix, but they, and not white South Africans nor returning New Zealanders, provide the image of immigrants conjured up by the capitalist media. The manufactured concern over immigration is feeding racism, resulting in Asian people being subject to verbal abuse. In March 2016 there was a spate of vicious physical attacks on Asian students in Auckland.

The annual 70,000 net migrant gain represents a 1.5 percent increase in the population. The population increase has given the New Zealand economy a boost. For the year up to the June quarter GDP was 3.5 percent, up from 2.4 percent for the year to June 2015. All economists are attributing the current buoyancy of the economy firstly to immigration. Here is the Treasury again:

Demand in the economy continues to be propelled by record net migration inflows, housing demand and tourist arrivals, while household retail spending was also solid.

Immigrants are disproportionally in the workforce and are producing value. They are contributing to consumer demand and contributing to the public purse through taxation. At the same time as we have record immigration there is a reduction in unemployment. Immigrants are not making native-born New Zealanders unemployed, but are driving growth in the economy that is creating new jobs at a greater rate than migrant arrivals. Without the high level of immigration the economy would be in poor shape and unemployment would be higher.

Whether migrants are holding back wage growth is more complex question. According to Treasury figures, wage growth average ordinary-time hourly earnings was 1.7 percent in the year to September 2016, the slowest since 2010. The Treasury correctly describes this rate of wage growth as sluggish. The people responsible for keeping wages as low as possible are, of course, the employers, who are operating under an employment law regime that severely restricts workers’ rights to organise and take action. An abundant supply of workers suits the employers as long as they can set pay rates in a free market of atomised workers. Labour’s claims that employers are seeking cheap migrant labour are undoubtedly correct. However, Labour’s and union leaders’ calls to restrict immigration represent an acceptance of the logic of market-determined pay rates.

The point of unionisation is to overcome the play of the market. The onus is workers’ organisations, and workers themselves, to organise. Instead of the Labour Party and CTU complaining that migrants are alleviating the jobs market, they should be campaigning as hard as possible to unionise the majority of workers, native-born or immigrant, who are currently not in a union. Instead of immigrants being scapegoated, and being alienating from the labour movement, they should be welcomed into the unions.

The danger is that these calls to restrict immigration will have an effect on the way New Zealand workers see themselves. The calls are based on a viewpoint that sees a fundamental division between “real Kiwis” who are “us” and immigrant workers who are “not us”. This nationalist outlook of Labour and Labourite union officials is at odds with a class understanding of society, which puts all workers of all countries in a community of interest against the global capitalist system. Workers need this real, internationalist, class-conscious understanding in order to fight their corner effectively.

From a socialist perspective all workers from anywhere are “us”. Workers’ unity is the basis on which to defend jobs, pay and conditions, to fight all injustices, to resist capitalism’s predatory wars, and ultimately to put an end to the whole rotten system.