We don’t need more intolerance and political scapegoating

The recent outbursts of New Zealand First Minister Shane Jones about Indian migration are as irrational as they are offensive, and should be strenuously rejected, says Peter Dunne.

Finding scapegoats is one of the oldest political tricks in the book.

Indeed, scapegoating has become an inherent part of politics. Often, politicians and political parties derive their relevance and their impetus from identifying one or other group or sector of society as the root cause of the problems afflicting the rest of the society, as they see it.

It might be big business or militant trade unions, or various interest or lobby groups, or others, but the argument is always the same – were it not for them, things would be better for everyone else.

Having identified the problem group, the politicians can make their appeal to the rest of society by promising to reduce or remove altogether the influence - and in some cases, the very presence - of that group. It is a time-honoured tradition, played out in virtually every democracy at a certain stage in the electoral cycle.

Usually, it is relatively innocuous, and the solutions proposed to deal with the perceived problem quite mundane. A good example is happening right now in Britain where the current election campaign is the potentially climactic battle between the Brexiteers and the Remainers over whether Britain does leave Europe sometime soon, or whether the 2016 referendum result is overturned and everyone goes back to some sort of square one.

Each side is convinced that not only is it right, but that the other side’s position is so detrimental to Britain’s future, in or out of Europe, that they have to be eliminated as an effective political force.

However, every now and then, in other times and other places, things have become more sinister. Specific groups – religious and ethnic minorities have usually topped the list – have been identified as pariahs, victimised and vilified accordingly, with the community’s hatred and anger fomented against them, with disastrous consequences. Reason and tolerance have quickly given way to wild, spreading fires of prejudice and extremism.

New Zealand has, thankfully, normally been far removed from this type of bigotry and hatred, smugly priding ourselves on our superficially egalitarian society and the presumed tolerance that comes with that.

Yet that has also bred an uncomfortable conformity, where what some have called the “great New Zealand clobbering machine” has acted historically to stop people from straying too far out of line. The grim price of achieving relative social harmony this way has been that dissent and diversity have often been pushed underground or to one side.

Inevitably, that sense of organised conformity has produced its own reactions, many of which have been positive and beneficial to the country overall, but some of which remain negative and unfortunate. The Maori renaissance and its widespread embrace are a remarkably positive assertion of what it means to be a New Zealander today, as too has been the burgeoning tolerance for the various cultural and ethnic strands that now define our nation.

Sadly, though, the game of political scapegoating remains, although its comparative rarity marks it out as a dissonant piece of the national tapestry. The recent outbursts of New Zealand First Minister Shane Jones about Indian migration fit squarely into this category. They are as irrational as they are offensive.

It is quite unabashed in attempting to so crudely appeal to the racially-prejudiced minority of New Zealanders, and to try to convert their hatred into votes ...  As such, it deserves the most strenuous resistance

Indian migrants, mainly at first from Gujarat and the Punjab, have been coming to New Zealand since the late nineteenth century. Most have come from Fiji and Indians are amongst our fastest growing population group. In earlier years, there were close bonds between Indian migrants and local Maori – apparently, the first recorded Indian settler came ashore in 1810 to marry a Maori woman.

While there was some resistance in the 1920s to Indian and Chinese migration as a threat to the employment of New Zealanders, this has long since passed and the Indian community is now strongly recognised for its contribution to many aspects of contemporary New Zealand life. For example, in the last decade or so, the Diwali Festival has been celebrated with increasing popularity right around the country, and the popularity of Indian cuisine is well-known.

All of which makes Jones’ racist outburst so much more perverse. It is nothing to do with the facts of the issue, but everything to do with whipping up antagonism to first, the Indian community, and by extension, the entire migrant community, which can then be turned into political support for New Zealand First, the historically anti-immigration party, seeking to secure its return to Parliament next year.

It is quite unabashed in attempting to so crudely appeal to the racially prejudiced minority of New Zealanders, and to try to convert their hatred into votes. In that regard, the strategy is no less cynical, obnoxious or abhorrent than any of its historical antecedents in other presumed civilised societies. As such, it deserves the most strenuous resistance, far beyond the politically expedient appeasement it has received to date from the leadership of the government Jones is part of.

The great excitement New Zealand offers is to be the world’s first truly multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation, in which the modern New Zealander is an absorption and reflection of all the cultural strands that make up our country today. That is not something to be feared, resiled from, or worse still rejected outright, but rather, an opportunity to be seized upon and promoted fully.

Rather, it is Jones’ racism, and that of those who support him, that deserves to be reviled and rejected as out of step with our contemporary society.

In a similar vein, the current bout of baby-boomer bashing gives rise to some concern.

There is no credible suggestion that the recent Parliamentary retort from Green MP Chloe Swarbrick was anything like a deliberate strategy to offend the way the Jones’ comments were, as clearly it was not.

Rather, it is some of the more extreme comments being made in the context of the climate change debate that show a level of intolerance for older generations that is in danger of getting beyond what is healthy.

The reaction to an off the cuff response to heckling by Chloe Swarbrick highlights inter-generational conflict. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The swift worldwide reaction to Swarbrick’s quick riposte highlights the point, rather than the actual comments themselves. Now, every generation feels hard done by, by its predecessors – baby-boomers, for example, feel their parents’ generation had it pretty good compared to them – but it is doubtful that their criticism of those before them has been anywhere near as visceral as some of the comments now being directed to the baby-boomers.

Making the baby-boomers the scapegoats for today’s economic, social and environmental challenges is no different from the baby-boomers holding their parents’ generations responsible for the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation those of us in that cohort grew up with.

To paraphrase the Prime Minister – that was our climate-change moment. But over time we came to understand that merely pointing an accusatory finger at those who had gone before us was of limited value.

A change agent was required, and it was the advent of international détente that led to the lessening of tensions, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago.

We need a Berlin Wall moment today, whereby the tensions between today’s generation and the baby-boomers can be relieved. The recently passed Zero Carbon Bill, with its almost unanimous political support may provide that opportunity, although it is doubtful that we have the strength of political leadership to bring us together under that banner.  

As for Jones? It is unlikely anything will bring him to reasonable heel, but he may succeed in bringing New Zealanders together in a way he does not expect - to reject outright the vileness of his views.  

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