On occasion, my American friends wonder out loud to me: “Is there racism in New Zealand?” It’s a great story. Sure, I tell them. In recent years, our centre-left party’s been running on anti-Asian rhetoric, allowing our governing centre-right party to take the moral high ground. The shock on their faces is priceless. The right, the moral high ground against racism? Isn’t that the wrong way round?
That’s only half the story, of course. Labour vehemently denies that it’s racist. But then, so do Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. No-one thinks they’re racist, because everyone thinks racism is bad, and no-one thinks they’re bad. And anyway, personally, I try to avoid using the word “racist” as a shortcut for criticism. I just think it’s lazy, like the phrase “politically correct”. I mean, sure, Andrew Little’s words seem to target certain groups of people. Sure, that probably makes people of those races feel a little bit upset. But the real question is whether those opinions are justified, or policies sound. That was the stance I took towards their housing “analysis” last July: that I would look past the race relations, and towards the statistics. (I concluded their conclusions were bogus.)
Here’s the problem. Labour can say as much as it likes that its anti-foreigner policies “aren’t about race”. It can be proudly nationalist without being racist. It can publish policies that don’t mention the words “Chinese” or “Asian” once, and just refer to “foreign” or “non-residents”. It would apply just as much to Canadians as to Croatians as to Chinese. I get the concept, really, I do.
But when their rhetoric consistently centres around the Chinese, it’s very hard to take their pleas of race-neutrality seriously. In the 2014 election campaign, they constantly made reference to investors from China. When they talked about housing last July, they focussed, again, on Chinese buyers. This isn’t some sort of one-off out-of-context quoting. This is a theme in Labour’s rhetoric, and it’s been going on for years, long preceding Mr Little’s leadership. Their policy might be race-neutral, sure. But their rhetoric most certainly isn’t.
And they might have noticed that they get the same reaction, every time. Mr Little can plead about how “baffling” it is that his comments “may have offended anyone”. But I mean, really? After what happened last time, and the time before? I realise that people are often misconstrued, and I empathise. But there’s a limit to how many times you can plead this before you should probably start wondering if it’s actually you.
Personally, I’d rather that we threw this whole anti-foreigner sentiment out altogether. But if non-racist anti-foreign sentiment is going to be a cornerstone of Labour Party policy, I have a challenge for Labour. Next time a Canadian investor strikes a $1 billion deal, or an American company increases its stake in our third-largest forestry estate, or just any time Canada, America, Australia or Europe do any of their 59% of all foreign direct investment, or America does any of its 46% of all land acquisitions by foreigners (both statistics from 2013–2014)—would they mind making some noise about how Canadians or Americans are taking opportunities away from hard-working Kiwis?
It’d still take some work to convince me that a New Zealand economy less open to the world would be better off. But I’d at least be able to take them seriously when they try to tell me their desire to reduce immigration and foreign investment holds for all foreigners equally.