Showtime! Winston Peters knows how to exploit New Zealanders' long-standing fear of all things Chinese. But he also knows better than to seriously threaten New Zealand's increasing reliance of the Chinese markets - or to undermine the thirty-year effort it has required to ensure this country's continued access to them.
IT’S “SHOWTIME!” for Winston Peters. Once again New Zealanders’ fears have found an obliging political impresario. In his latest speech, to a Grey Power audience on Auckland’s North Shore, Mr Peters has targeted New Zealand’s rapidly changing demographic profile – most particularly the burgeoning rate of Chinese immigration. For those accustomed to thinking of New Zealand as the “last, loneliest, loveliest” outpost of European civilisation, this dramatic change in the shape of their country’s population is confusing, alarming – even threatening.
Mr Peters’ critics have attempted to characterise his latest observations as “racist” and “xenophobic”. These are easy shots to take. Any immigration trend which suggests that the balance of ethnic power within the national community is shifting will inevitably inspire all manner of racially-inflected political discussions. To condemn such discussions as “racist” is tantamount to ruling all but positive assessments of New Zealand’s current population policy out-of-bounds.
There are plenty of Kiwis who would insist that such mandatory positivism is – and has been for years – the firm policy of New Zealand Governments. Regardless of their partisan composition, successive administrations have extolled the virtues of immigration policies that focus almost exclusively on the economic value of each new immigrant. Any consideration of the socio-cultural dislocations historically associated with such policies has always come well behind the professed priorities of reducing New Zealand’s skills deficit and stimulating domestic demand.
Which is not to say that there weren’t those within the Department of Immigration anxious to forestall any rebirth of the atavistic anti-Chinese sentiment that shaped the immigration policies of nineteenth and early-twentieth century New Zealand. And these efforts to supress all forms of Kiwi Sinophobia would have been strongly supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Preparing for the increasingly important role the People’s Republic of China was going to play in the New Zealand economy has been a central feature of this country’s foreign and trade policies for the last thirty years.
The final triumph of the Chinese Communist Party’s “capitalist roaders” over Mao Zedong’s “iron rice bowl” socialists in the late-1970s anticipated the emergence of the so-called “Washington Consensus” favouring neoliberal capitalism and globalisation in the 1980s. The British called it “Thatcherism”, the Americans “Reaganomics”, and New Zealanders dubbed it “Rogernomics”. At the heart of the new economic paradigm was a vision of the future in which capital, goods (and, ultimately, even labour) would flow freely across a borderless planet.
Ever since both of New Zealand’s major political parties accepted globalised neoliberalism as the fixed shape of the future, the policy mandarins at MFAT have worked tirelessly to ensure that New Zealand would have a place at the table of the economic behemoth China promised to become.
Viewed from this perspective, the vast influx of Chinese nationals to New Zealand makes perfect sense. Whether in the form of fee-paying students, highly-skilled workers, property speculators or financial investors, official New Zealand has consistently welcomed the people upon whose complex personal, business and political networks this country’s economic prosperity has, increasingly, come to depend.
Mr Peters’ North Shore Grey Power audience would undoubtedly receive this largely untold recent history of New Zealand with considerable alarm and dismay. But, tellingly, it’s not the story Mr Peters told. (Even though, as a former Minister of Foreign Affairs, he will know it inside out). Instead, the NZ First leader chose to scratch the familiar itches of Chinese property speculation and the involvement of a very small number of Chinese businessmen in the gambling and sex industries.
Mr Peters knows there are votes to be won from the older generations of New Zealanders (especially those living in Auckland) who are having a harder and harder time reconciling the New Zealand they grew up in with the New Zealand they see all around them today. No doubt he has studied recent political trends in the United States and recognised the huge electoral rewards that can flow to a political party willing to identify itself with those ageing, comfortably-situated, conservative whites who, in one form or another, are feeling the demographic pinch.
What has clearly been a failing strategy for the far-right-driven Republican Party in the United States (where there are now simply too few conservative whites to win the presidency without at least some ethnic allies) it promises to be a real winner for Mr Peters. NZ First is not in a two-party, FPP, fight to the finish. As the consummate MMP politician, Mr Peters will be perfectly content with anything between five and 10 percent of the Party Vote. A few more, carefully calibrated, appeals to “Old New Zealand’s” Sinophobia ought to do the trick.
But Mr Peters remains too much the steadfast patriot to seriously put at risk the place Labour and National have laid for New Zealand at the Chinese table.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 28 May 2013.