A Big Wide World Out There: Familiarity with “foreign” cultures has rendered “foreigners” a lot less frightening to young New Zealanders than old ones. New Zealanders raised entirely in the globalisation era know there’s a big wide world out there – a world which values highly the Kiwi’s celebrated ability to get along with just about anybody. Racism no longer pays.
IMMIGRATION has set the world on fire. The debt owed by both Brexit and Trump to the issue’s inflammatory power is huge. With record volumes of migrants pouring into New Zealand, immigration policy is widely expected to be among the biggest voter motivators of 2017.
But will New Zealanders react to these new arrivals in the same way as British and American voters? Or will the circumstances underpinning this country’s record migration flows smother the flames of racism and xenophobia before they take hold?
If New Zealand history is any guide, probably not. Net inward flows of migration have always been the signal of economic prosperity and growth. Just as net outward flows have been the surest sign that all is not well in God’s Own Country. There’s an ancestral voice in the racial memory of Pakeha New Zealanders which commands their attention during periods of rapid population growth. A voice which reminds them that, in these stolen islands, more non-indigenous people are always a good thing.
For Maori New Zealanders, the opposite is true. The more immigrants that arrive on these shores, the more the indigenous essence of Aotearoa-New Zealand is diluted. The Treaty the Maori chiefs signed with the British in 1840 seemed a wise and timely concession when barely 2,000 Pakeha were sprinkled lightly across their lands. Twenty years later, when the number of British settlers overtook the population of tangata whenua, the promises given at Waitangi proved to be as cynical as they were unenforceable.
What is it, then, which stops the latest population projections from Statistics New Zealand from setting the fern leaves of Kiwi nationalism alight? Released on 18 May 2017, these projections indicate that over the next 20 years the number of immigrants from East and South Asia will double. By 2038 the number of New Zealanders of “Asian” ethnicity will represent nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Maori, by contrast, will see their share of the population rise by just 2 percentage points – from 16 to 18 percent. “European” New Zealanders’ share of the overall population is projected to fall from roughly three-quarters to two-thirds.
In times past, projections such as these would have generated a massive public backlash against the political party, or parties, responsible for such a dramatic reconfiguration of the nation’s ethnic profile. Twenty years ago, media headlines decrying an “Asian Invasion” were exploited by Winston Peters’ to secure 13 percent of the Party Vote for his NZ First Party. Why, then, twenty years later, is NZ First not polling twice or three times that number?
The explanation is, almost entirely, economic.
Chinese immigration has encouraged Auckland property prices to soar – producing a “wealth effect” (courtesy of tax-free capital gains!) for which, justifiably or unjustifiably, Chinese investors are held responsible. Bolstering this shift in perception across the entire country has been the steady rise in China’s consumption of New Zealand’s exports. Rather than bite the hand which is, increasingly, feeding them, many Kiwis have considered it more prudent to retire the worst of their old prejudices.
In regional New Zealand, likewise, the sterling contribution of Filipino dairy farm workers is encouraging a hitherto undetected enthusiasm for multiculturalism.
Even in the working-class heartlands, the money to be made hiring-out the spare room to overseas students is often enough to defang traditional blue-collar hostility towards “low-wage workers” flooding “their” labour market.
The other factor which explains New Zealanders reluctance (so far!) to respond to nationalistic dog-whistles is the sheer number of Kiwis who have travelled overseas. Familiarity with “foreign” cultures has rendered “foreigners” a lot less frightening to young New Zealanders than old ones. New Zealanders raised entirely in the globalisation era know there’s a big wide world out there – a world which values highly the Kiwi’s celebrated ability to get along with just about anybody. Racism no longer pays.
None of which should be advanced as evidence that racism and xenophobia will find no purchase in the forthcoming general election. There are many thousands of New Zealanders who feel like strangers in their own land. Who miss the comforting homogeneity of the sleepy, white, British dominion in which they were raised. Such voters are, however, a dwindling asset for all but the NZ First Party. Only Winston can afford to make “A Whiter Shade of Pale” his theme song.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 June 2017.