Labour tries to be anti-immigration without being anti-immigration

“This is a debate about policy, not a debate about immigrants,” declared Grant Robertson at Labour’s conference in May. The false dichotomy was as lost on Mr Robertson as it was on his party. He was, after all, talking about Labour’s policy on immigrants. He can’t shy away from the latter—his debate is about both.

Andrew Little, his leader, has been calling to cut immigration by “tens of thousands” since April. In May, he pared back his stance to merely “taking a breather” until infrastructure can “catch up”. But this month, Labour confirmed its policy: to slash the number of immigrants by as much as 30,000, a reduction in net migration of over 40 per cent.

Having been burnt by its “Chinese surnames” debacle two years earlier, and in a year where xenophobia in America, Britain and France have dominated world headlines, Labour is walking a tightrope, and it knows it. Hence the references to other issues in its policy document: infrastructure, housing, student visas, “genuine skills shortages”.

Don’t be fooled. Labour’s policy is about cutting down on immigrants first, and everything else a distant second.

Their policy’s concern about “low-value courses” being a “backdoor route for immigration” is, by itself, reasonable. But if that were really their worry, they wouldn’t be trumpeting—in bold italics, no less—that cracking down on these “will reduce net migration by about 9,000–12,000”. Similarly, prioritising immigrants to fill “real skills shortages” sounds sensible, but if that were really their motivation, they wouldn’t be emphasising the expected reduction “by 5,000–8,000”.

If Labour really wanted a “breather” on immigration, they would have included a sunset clause in their policy, or at least an indication of how long they think New Zealand needs to brush up its infrastructure. Instead, they say that immigration “should be a stop-gap, not a permanent crutch”—a vision that contradicts the very concept of a “breather on immigration”.

I don’t think they’re obliged to give a detailed infrastructure plan immediately; it can come later. But it’s telling that they’re more eager to blame immigration for “unnecessary pressures on our infrastructure” (three times in one document!), than they are to see investment in infrastructure as a means of improving New Zealand’s capacity to take advantage of population growth.

Credit where it’s due: The mechanisms they’ve chosen are better than the blunt tools advocated by their counterparts in other countries. Their desire to fix those loopholes might even be genuine, albeit secondary. It’s also comforting that they propose increasing the refugee quota.

But even taken at its best, Labour is trying to have it both ways. They’re slashing immigration to court voters who are anti-immigrant, with decorations to appease voters who aren’t. If you’re in the latter group, please don’t let Labour get away with it. They opened the debate by saying we don’t want so many immigrants, and wrote a policy whose main goal is to reduce immigration. Their rhetoric emphasising this has been consistent for months, and their line on foreigners has been consistent for years. Throwing in student visas and “genuine skills needs” now doesn’t remove that fact.

On immigration in NZ and tikanga Māori

By Carrie Stoddart-Smith

What we do at home with immigration policy matters in the international community. It speaks to the authenticity of our story as an inclusive, progressive and whānau centred country. It affects the credibility of our social, political, cultural and economic relationships. Yet, there are no signs of cooling the debate this election year as tensions rise over decades of inadequate policy settings which now pit immigrants against the ‘ordinary’ New Zealander. Dog. Whistle.

Who is an immigrant?

Some people consider all people living in Aotearoa New Zealand (including Māori) to be immigrants. Māori are the indigenous people of this land. Fact. Some people whose Pākehā ancestors settled in colonial times also consider themselves now indigenous. Fiction. And there is also always a gap in the dialogue – ignoring how we classify people of Asian ancestries as immigrants – whether they arrived in settler times or more recently, while those of European ancestries are viewed as New Zealander, Kiwi or even Pākehā. In effect, we give preference to white immigrant populations and demonise the non-white. We ignore their existence, unless there is a political point to be scored.

In my view, there are probably three primary reasons for this narrative capture:
• The prominent role of biculturalism in our political discourse, and the fear from some Māori of multiculturalism displacing the rights and interests of Māori,
• Almost two centuries of Māori/Pākehā interracial marriage and interracial children where we are more likely to have adopted western values, and
• Racism (Pākehā) and internalised racism (Māori)

For me, being both Māori and Pākehā, I am both indigenous and immigrant. And the tension is inescapable in a million different contexts.

Framing Māori as an immigrant

For Māori, to be labelled an immigrant, is to displace our indigeneity and to question the legitimacy of our claim to this place and our connection to the whenua and all its resources that our tupuna established over hundreds of generations before the European Settlers arrived.

Framing Pākehā as an immigrant

For Pākehā, being labelled an immigrant questions the legitimacy of our legal and political institutions imposed on the indigenous people already settled on this land. It brings the residual guilt of our ancestors to the surface. A feeling that we have happily allowed our political and social institutions to actively suppress to avoid taking ownership of the injustices committed against Māori and the intergenerational effects of those injustices.

Framing people of Asian descent as “the” immigrants

As alluded to above, for both Māori and Pākehā we sidestep the racism in our views on immigration. Offering up reasons to ban or restrict immigration, as if the root cause of our social and economic anxiety isn’t connected to some deeper systemic flaw. We allow our politicians to propagate stories of the immigrant as a non-white undesirable – where to be an immigrant in New Zealand in 2017, is to be Asian. In doing so, we are complicit in the embedding of their hidden xenophobic truth.

Summary of some of the research


Earlier this year, the New Zealand Initiative wrote a report on immigration. In it, they found that Māori have particularly negative attitudes towards new immigration compared with non-Māori.

(Disclaimer: I was invited to attend a seminar on the draft of that paper, and to submit any comments I might have on the kaupapa).

In providing feedback, I posited that employment, housing, natural resources, and ethnic displacement and Te Tiriti o Waitangi provided the context that shaped a contemporary Māori view on immigration. I suggested that our individual experiences of other cultures in a domestic and international context would shape how we view immigration. For example, I noted that Māori in business or who are economically secure through existing international relationships or those who have experienced positive cultural exchanges will inevitably see immigration in a more favourable light. While those who feel threatened by workforce displacement, homelessness, resource exploitation or diminished rights and status would be less favourable.

I drew on examples to demonstrate the frustration of Māori – where correlation is unfortunately treated as causation. For example, where headlines on ‘foreign ownership of homes’ appear alongside ‘more whānau experiencing homelessness’. Where we are still fighting for rights over freshwater, while foreign companies can access, and sell it overseas. Where we have lost almost 95 percent of our land (most of it stolen) to European settlers, while we continue to sell productive farmlands to overseas interests. Where we see workers brought in from overseas to meet labour demands, while our unemployment rate remains at almost twice the national unemployment rate. Yet, in all these examples, the issue is not immigration – it is policy and it is politics.


In 2014, I also wrote a research paper where I explored the validity of the ‘right to exclude’ immigrants. This supposed right is linked to territorial rights established through the imposition of borders i.e. the nation state. I found the only potentially justifiable reason for immigration restrictions to be resource scarcity. In the contemporary New Zealand context (as noted above) that would be jobs, houses, natural resource depletion, pollution or exploitation. I concluded that there is no right to exclude immigrants in the formal sense of what constitutes a ‘right’ but that restrictions related to resource scarcity could provide a case for establishing a system of responsive rights.

I likened a responsive rights system to tikanga Māori, in particular a rāhui, which is a temporary ban to enable local resources to replenish. However, I argued that even in this sense, there was no right to exclude only immigrants – a ban would need to apply to all returning members of that community also. So the right to exclude on the basis of resource scarcity would only be justifiable if it was an indiscriminate responsive right.

A problem with my line of thinking is that from a political – and even a cultural sense, this argument would evoke a visceral reaction from community members excluded from their tūrangawaewae. I concluded that there can be no right to exclude new members from a community as that right is discriminate. This is effectively an argument for open borders.


When I consider immigration to Aotearoa from my indigenous perspective, I think about the extent to which our tupuna supported the arrival of early settlers, going so far as to enter into a Treaty that would govern the relationship. Where we shared in cultural exchange – in some cases, adopting new customs and value systems that we were able to reconcile with our traditional values. I think about our core value of aroha and our obligations to manaaki our manuhiri. I think about kaitiaki of our resources to ensure we can fulfil all our tikanga tuku iho.

Another notable and valid concern, as Tahu Kukutai has written is that of ethnic displacement where some Māori fear “the prospect of Asians displacing Māori as the country’s ethnic “majority minority” and that the perceived preference of migrants for multiculturalism over biculturalism will diminish Māori rights and the status of the Treaty of Waitangi”.

Māori concerns with immigration can be allayed with robust policy developed and implemented through strong Māori political leadership. Policy that does not involve bans and restrictions on immigrants, instead policy that ensures the government upholds its end of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Housing policy that makes homeownership more accessible for all, fit for occupation rentals at fair prices, and culturally relevant solutions for homelessness. Innovative solutions to education and training speaking to the aspirations of our people, policy to support social and economic mobility and pastoral care for those adjusting to a highly dynamic society with new needs. These are where the fixes are needed. We also need our iwi and those of us engaged with international audiences to speak truth to the value of strong international relationships – emphasising the importance of whanaungatanga in these settings.


Restricting immigration does little to change attitudes, and will not resolve institutional failures afflicting Māori. We are a people who place people as the most important thing in this world. Our future then depends on the authenticity of the relationships that we can build and the integrity we show both at home and abroad. Rather than shutting manuhiri out – a practice that sits in opposition to our tikanga, we must remain committed to fulfilling all our obligations to ensure we position our relationships right for the mutual benefit of all of our uri and the uri of those who arrived here as manuhiri.

Gloves off election looming

presentation1By Ellipsister

In a stroke of strategic positioning, we may be witnessing the birth of a National/NZ First/ACT coalition after 2017 election. NZ politics just got interesting. In a weeks’ time, NZ will have a new PM.  And while we puzzle on who that might be, we could also consider how  a change in National Party leadership might shake things up (or down) for the micro-parties – ACT, United Future, Māori Party (and Mana Movement). Time to take the gloves off or NZ First might pinch them (the gloves, that is).

National Party and NZ First

The National Party should be a little nervous that NZ First have not slipped below the 5% threshold in any of the polls since the 2014 General Election. They are up and down, but oscillating between the 7-11% range.  The beef between Key and Peters is, well, seemingly irreconcilable. Erasing Key from the equation, positions National better to negotiate with Peters should he become kingmaker next year. This is not a suggestion Key was ousted by the party. In fact, I highly doubt that. Rather, next year is going to be rough and if last election is anything to go by, the gloves don’t just come off, the inner hulk busts out. National will not want their star player embroiled in a media maul and having to grovel for Peters hand in government, if it came to it.

A National/NZ First coalition, would  give National a clear majority, and the thing any party wants – fewer policy concessions. That is not to say there won’t be trade-offs. Peters is no snowflake. He will use his hand to get (or revoke) as many policies as possible in his play for power. Arguably, that’s where they’ve got him though – he can sit centre right with not everything he wants but a Cabinet position, or sit centre-left at an impasse with the Labour Party who will be torn between Greens and NZ First, likely needing both to govern.

So what then of the current governing coalition?

National would never swallow any kind of merger, alliance, collaboration between the Māori Party and Mana. National have often stated the Māori Party were a ‘stable’ partner and have denounced Hone Harawira. So add him into the mix, and the dynamics change. national will certainly be weighing up all their coalition options for the most palatable outcome. Part of me wonders if the National Party machine are also still reeling at the Māori Party dogging Helen Clarke’s bid for UN Sec Gen.

So what then of the Māori Party in this scenario? If NZ First are in, then the Māori party are out of the coalition. Peters has made it clear he despises the Māori Party. Potentially more so than he despises the Greens. That means the Māori Party may possibly find themselves back to the cross-benches after next election. Unless, they take back the Māori seats and then some. The cross-benches would not necessarily be a bad thing either. It would give the party time to reignite their support base and to rebuild after being branded by opposition parties as the National Māori Party. A brand they are having difficulty shaking.

Peter Dunne might be gone altogether, if Labour and Greens can coordinate the strategic vote to take his seat for the left. (Of course, that is the case with or without a change in National leadership)

ACT could potentially benefit

Interestingly, ACT could potentially benefit from a change in National Party leadership. If David Seymour holds his Epsom seat and is able to draw in right wing voters with a bruised confidence, increasing the ACT vote even marginally to get just one more seat, we might just see the strongest right wing block under MMP with National/ACT/NZ First in the driving seat.

Early election?

National’s positioning might also signal an early election, the shorter time to showcase the new leader, the less holes to pick in their capability to deliver on promises. It could be another two month post-election cliff hanger, unless the Māori Party can regain the confidence of Māori voters, secure the Māori seats and raise the party vote.  The voting scenarios will become clearer in the next few months, but voters will likely need to weigh up more seriously now the most probable scenarios: Labour/Greens/NZ First or National/NZ First/ACT. It’s basically 1996 again.







Words? I’ve got some words…

By E. 

If your FB and Twitter are anything like mine, words about the US election will have hijacked your timelines from all directions. I’m gonna add just a few more of them words to mop up two horrid little barf bites, I keep seeing:

  • Voting for Trump was sticking it to the establishment
  • White people feel marginalised (ergo they voted for Trump)


Trump is the god damn elite and is as establishment as it gets. He wasn’t an affront to it – he was the front for it.

White people do not feel marginalised. They feel fucking entitled.


#NoDAPL – understanding the kaupapa from Aotearoa

If built, the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) will traverse almost 1900 kilometres of whenua to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois in the US. Initially, the project planners had the pipeline coursing through Bismarck, North Dakota – home to a majority white population. However, following their objections to the risk of poisoning their drinking water the DAPL Company rerouted the pipeline into treaty lands. The pipeline now proposes to criss-cross the source of drinking water and desecrate wāhi tapu of the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes at multiple points.

The construction of the pipeline invoked the requirement under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to consult with Indigenous Peoples on the pipeline’s potential impact. In February 2015, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) – the body responsible for waterways,  wrote to the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) in accordance with the Act. The THPO requested a full archaeological investigation, but received no reply until September that year. The THPO responded again airing concerns about ‘significant and unevaluated properties’ on the site, and its ‘exclusion from the [Act] evaluation process’. The THPO signalled then that they felt the USACE were attempting to circumvent the section 106 process.

In August 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux filed for an injunction to stop the construction of DAPL given the high risk of damage and/or destruction to their wāhi tapu if there was not an injunction. The parent company of DAPL then sued the tribal chair and other tribal members for blocking construction.

We Māori know a fair bit about insufficient or no consultation. We know what it means to have our wāhi tapu desecrated, our awa polluted, our lands and resources pillaged, and our treaty rights infringed. We also appreciate the challenge of confronting private interests backed by the State. Of being cast as ‘haters and wreckers’ for simply demanding dignity in the struggle for our physical and cultural survival. Just as ‘our rights as tangata whenua of [Aotearoa]’ derive from our having been here for generations and ‘having developed an intimate connection with this environment, and an intricate set of relationships to regulate our place within it’ (A. Mikaere, 2011) so too do Indigenous Peoples rights everywhere. #NoDAPL is not simply some environmental justice cause.  It is a First Nations struggle for recognition of their existence, their culture and tikanga and their tino rangatiratanga. We know their struggle, because it is also our struggle.

The DAPL Company argue that the pipeline is the safest and most reliable way of transporting crude oil. They argue that it is necessary to ‘improve safety to the public and environment’. They push the importance of freeing up rail capacity currently constrained by crude oil cargo. But they continue to ignore the very real concerns of the Indigenous Peoples connected to the whenua and awa affected. They continue to circumvent the rights of the tribes. They deny that their actions are a continuation of colonial violence against tangata whenua. They exploit the access they have to the legal system, to ensure the tribes carry a financial burden for their resistance. They distort the narrative claiming that this struggle for indigenous rights is driven by or overtaken by criminal intent or action, as the pretext to unleash the force of the State on peaceful First Nations resistance.

As Kelly Hayes writes, ‘[Indigenous Peoples] die and have died for the sake of expansion and white wealth, and for the maintenance of both’. So when thinking about #NoDAPL from afar, like here in Aotearoa, remember the kaupapa as our indigenous whanaunga ask:

“This moment is, first and foremost, about Native liberation, Native self-determination and Native survival”


Tuatahi ko te wai, tuarua whānau mai te tamaiti, ka puta ko te whenua

(When a child is born the water comes first, then the child, followed by the afterbirth, what we call our whenua.  In this way water is intimately connected to Mother Earth and to the people who live on her)

The Right to Know

On Thursday I went along to a panel discussion for Gavin Ellis’ new book, Complacent Nation, also with Toby Manhire and Mihirangi Forbes. The book is about the role of media, journalism, and politics in eroding our ability to seek information about what our government is doing. Part of the book and the talk centred on the concept of “the right to know”. Ellis argues that every citizen has the right to know the important information that we need in order to function as a citizen of our society, yet increasingly our media is saturated with celebrity gossip and trivia.

It often feels like everyone is decrying the decline of journalism, with the rise of clickbait and low-quality news. In fact, a very recent analysis found that almost half of the New Zealand Herald’s online articles were syndicated, most commonly from the Associated Press (which is probably okay) and the Daily Mail (maybe less so). Part of this is blamed on what Ellis calls “technology” – analytics-driven newsrooms that craft articles and change headlines based on what is or isn’t producing clicks. With clicks and impressions of advertisements responsible for the majority of digital revenue for news agencies, it stands to reason that managers are seeking efficiency – getting the most clicks for the least amount of work. I don’t blame this on technology, just economics. Maybe the technology is enabling the economics to be applied faster, almost in real-time, but it’s still the underlying economics that are causing the shift from “real” news to “junk” news.

When it comes to economic theory, the managers can easily argue that the shift is market-driven. Clickbait only exists because it is so effective at attracting the attention of readers/viewers, and “junk” news is only disseminated because it is consumed so vociferously. This is the other side of the right to know – what we want to know, that frustrates intellectuals because we can only consume so much information and our insatiable appetite for “junk” news gets in the way of “important” news. When the public is more interested in the Real Housewives of Auckland than the water contamination scandal in Havelock North, it can be argued that the public checks and balances of the democratic system may be compromised.

Everyone needs someone to blame; journalists blame their editors and managers, managers blame their capitalistic overlords, ivory tower academics blame the government, the government blames the apathetic public, Grammarly gets grumpy at me for using too many run-on sentences, and the public writes angry tweets at the journalists, and we’re left with a chicken and egg situation. The right to know as envisioned by Gavin Ellis only works when the public knows what it is that they’re supposed to know in order to keep democracy accountable. But what the public knows is so strongly driven by the information that they’re fed, that it’s difficult to know where the problem comes from. Do the choices made in media reporting cause poor civics understanding, or does poor civics understanding drive the media into making those choices? As is often the case, it’s probably both.

For those that believe that something needs to be done about the New Zealand journalism and reporting, one good proposal comes from the Coalition for Better Broadcasting. Their ten point plan essentially boils down to levying commercial broadcasters and internet service providers to fund public service broadcasting and media. A 1% levy would raise about $60 million a year to go towards investigative journalism, documentaries, political debates, arts and science programmes, and regional news and current affairs, without the commercial pressures that promote reality TV. They argue that producing poor quality media is like polluting a river, and that maybe we should move to a “polluter-pays” model. It’s hard to argue against (unless you happen to be a commercial broadcaster or ISP).

Of course, there have been other shifts that have contributed to our current journalism landscape too. A significant portion of the talk centred on the Official Information Act, and how it has both opened up the public sector to scrutiny but also been used to obfuscate efforts to get information. The “no surprises” rule between public agencies and ministers has meant that the ministers are almost always informed when OIAs come in, and political considerations become a factor in when and how to release information (or not). Mihirangi Forbes also talked at length the difficulties of working in small New Zealand, where the two degrees of separation (especially in the Maori community) that works so well for the telecommunication company’s marketing campaign means that it’s difficult to conduct crucial but relationship-destroying investigative journalism without burning a lot of leads.

The pace of technological change will continue to impact many industries – it remains to be seen which industries will be willing to change fast enough and which will try to cling onto the old ways for too long. It’s not just the journalists that have to make this decision; it comes down to the editors and commercial managers who will have to make those decisions. An engineer in Kodak’s research and development group was the first group to create a digital camera – it was the managers who refused to sell it because they feared it would cannibalise sales of traditional film. We’re seeing competing interests between the public’s right to know, the journalists’ desire to report, and the capitalistic pressures of their bosses, morphing the journalism industry into something that perhaps cannot fit anyone’s ideals. Toby Manhire’s quip that there is a burgeoning industry for future of journalism panels hits a little too close to the truth.

About that maths exam…

Virtually all of the media discussion about last week’s NCEA level 1 algebra MCAT paper has been about how “difficult” it was. Teachers lined up to criticise it for disillusioning hard-working students; Hutt-based list MP Chris Bishop took the opportunity to reminisce about the time he too was angry about an “unbelievably difficult” maths exam. Yet the most striking aspect of NZQA’s new style of questioning has remained strangely untouched.

Flick through the paper year 11 students sat last week and you’ll stumble across questions like this:

The area of a rectangle is x^2-x-2.

[…] (b) What do you know about the value of x for this rectangle? Explain your answer.

Or this:

Jason writes down 4 numbers: 1, 3, 5 and 7. He adds the pairs of numbers to form a triangle, as shown below. He stops when he gets to a single number at the bottom of the triangle.


[…] (ii) Find, using algebra, the relationship of the numbers in the first line to the numbers in the fourth line when he changes the order of the numbers in line 1. Explain your answer.

Even just five years ago, the exercise comprised questions more reminiscent of previous decades:

A milk drink costs $1.50 more than a fruit drink. 5 fruit drinks and 4 milk drinks cost a total of $24. What is the cost of 1 milk drink?

Solve \frac{x^2-2x-3}{x^2-7x+12}=2.

Of course, you shouldn’t trust that I’m not cherry-picking questions to prove a point, because I probably am. You should flick through a couple of others and judge for yourself. It seems to me that, in the last few years, NZQA has been nudging high school maths assessments from the mechanistic, rote-learnt thinking that dominated maths education a generation ago, to questions examining a more conceptual understanding.

For this reason, anyone who uses this debacle as an opportunity to gloat about how bad at maths they were, or about how incapable modern teenagers are (this Civilian article has more than an ounce of truth in it), is missing a much more important trend. The level of raw algebraic manipulation required to complete this year’s paper is not that different to previous years. But in times gone past, if you spent enough time rehearsing memorised procedures for a short list of stock questions, you could get through the paper almost brainlessly. Now, you can’t. Some of those template questions are still there. But increasingly, New Zealand high school maths examiners want you to prove that you actually understand what you’re doing—and why you’re doing it.

Someone’s bound to write a comment about “standards” or “fairness” or whatever, so let’s get that out of the way. Given the shift, whether the paper was “fair” is a function of what guidance and training teachers were given. No-one’s really commented on this, but I’m guessing it wasn’t much. That being the case, I think students can feel justifiably upset, and I think it’s reasonable to demand that NZQA make allowance this year.

I just hope that doesn’t discourage examiners from setting a similar test again next year.

What is maths?

Disdain for mathematics runs strongly in popular culture. Journalists proudly joke about being able to do none of it, knowing many of their readers do the same. People associate arithmetic and algebra with nerds, and novels and films with leisure, despite the fact that these topics are studied by teenagers at the same time. It’s not cool to be fascinated by mathematics, not even among the educated.

This culture, I suspect, derives from the perception that it’s some sort of obscure and irrelevant art, which in turn probably comes from its being taught as a mechanistic topic with only right and wrong answers and no underlying ideas. Yet nothing could be a bigger misrepresentation. It’s true that, without the complexities of nature in your way, things can be proven to be right or wrong more reliably than in the sciences. But the core ideas of mathematics are deep, informative, and not as rigid as you might think.

For example: The point of calculus isn’t that you can differentiate or integrate some expression I put in front of you. In fact, in most real-world cases you don’t even have an expression to differentiate. The biggest insights of calculus—in my opinion; others can reasonably differ—are that we can analyse phenomena in terms of rates of change (differentiation), that we can analyse the accumulation of processes by “adding” infinitesimally small pieces (integration), and, in an astonishing coincidence, that you can do the latter by doing the former in reverse (the fundamental theorem of calculus). These ideas in some way underpin most modern technology and a good grasp can help inform how you see the world.

So when Wallace Chapman ranted on Breakfast (starting at 37:15) about how quadratic equations are “outdated”, well, he’s wrong—they’re as relevant as they’ve ever been—but he has something of a point. I don’t solve quadratic equations anymore. My computer does that much faster than I ever could. But I know that if something can be described by one, it might have two, one or no real solutions depending on its coefficients, and that some phenomena can vary drastically depending on which of these is the case. And if it does have two solutions and I know both of them, I can write the equation as (x-a)(x-b) = 0, to help me figure out other things. These ideas are what makes mathematics relevant. But they’ve long been underemphasised in high school curricula, everywhere in the world.

If such goals sound like too much of a dream, I’ll concede that it is, to a degree. After all, other subjects struggle with it too: I didn’t really understand what the study of English literature was about until after I left school (at least, I think I do now), and I suspect I wasn’t alone. Indeed, we couldn’t get rid of solving equations entirely: just as essay-writing is an important skill in many subjects, raw procedural manipulations are an essential skill in maths, as the NZ Initiative argued last year for the primary level. But the humanities and sciences seem to do better at persuading their students that there’s some meaning to them.

Much to my chagrin, I don’t have concrete, practical steps in mind for classrooms, beyond some obvious ones that are too vague to be useful. But the introduction of questions that require students to think about the ideas behind what they’re doing is a promising sign.

Why this matters

People have been lamenting the state of recruitment into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for years now; I trust I don’t have to explain that this is a problem. The salient point here is that, as long as mathematics is seen as that “other” subject that people either get or are clueless about, persuading teenagers to enter STEM disciplines is always going to be an uphill battle.

In this light, concerns about this exam demotivating students away from STEM subjects are understandable. But by obsessing with the exam’s difficulty, we risk losing sight of the forest. The teaching of subjects doesn’t just exist on a one-dimensional spectrum from “easy” to “hard”. The rote-learnt procedures that used to dominate secondary maths education have their place, but they need to be complemented by the motivations behind mathematical ideas and the insights they bring. This would go some way to helping the next generation understand the relevance of maths to, well, everything—something becoming even more true as the knowledge economy replaces the industrial one.

I’m glad that New Zealand’s maths examiners are taking steps in that direction. Whatever happens with this year’s algebra MCAT, I hope the rest of the maths education community will back them in continuing the shift in years to come.