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The disturbing takeaway from Shane Jones' comments on the Indian community

Racism is often a matter of tone and nuance, and there are few better examples of insidious “othering” than Shane Jones’ rebuke to the Indian community.

Calling the Indian migrants protesting at Immigration NZ’s tougher (now softened) line on partnership visas “activists” indulging in “rhetoric”, the Regional Economic Development Minister said: “You have no legitimate expectations in my view to bring your whole village to New Zealand, and if you don’t like it and you’re threatening to go home – catch the next flight home.”

Jones can be an engaging politician, but here he is a master of carefully weaponised words. He lands a low blow, but affects that it’s just Jonesy being Jonesy. Make no mistake, this was a crafted dog whistle aimed at shoring up his New Zealand First Party’s conservative, change-averse traditional voters.

It can’t be said that Jones hasn’t learnt from Labour’s “Chinese-sounding names” debacle. He has learnt how to play this sort of politics with more finesse. The term “your village” alone is grounds for the hurt and protest issuing from our Indian immigrant community. Never mind that India has transformed itself into a global economic powerhouse whose presence in any of the world’s free-trade collectives is highly prized.

The term “activists” says “you, not us”. Calling their expressions of pain “rhetoric” implies that the Indian protesters were insincere. “Catch the next flight home” is just salt in the wound. A good test of the patronisation of this phrase is to imagine it being said to the Kurdish, Samoan or Somali immigrant communities. Yes, we can all debate the intent behind the remark, the degree of offence taken and the wider issues of immigration and culture. This is a country in which free speech is cherished. Yet, when a remark causes real hurt, it is an equally-treasured Kiwi tradition to proffer a retraction and apology.

New Zealand’s generally tolerant social norms did much to help survivors of the Christchurch mosque massacres. That Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s empathetic “They are us” struck so many in other countries as remarkable and rare should have reinforced to New Zealanders that we have built something special in our social fabric. It has taken decades and much political restraint to achieve it, and there’s still considerable room for improvement. To have some members of Ardern’s Government still prepared to vandalise racial equality is one thing we should not tolerate.

Had Jones taken his rhetorical stick to the individuals in the immigrant community who exploit workers, typically their fellow countrymen and women, that would have been defensible. Some have despicably exploited the system to bring in what amounts to slave labour. But Jones instead chose to belittle and objectify a well-established and loved group in our community for the sin of wanting their families around them – this for the sole purpose of appealing to some voters’ baser or most fearful instincts.

He’s not the only politician doing this. The National Party’s new social policy discussion papers serve to crank up antipathy towards beneficiaries. The party has yet to decide upon a policy, for instance, of docking benefits to solo mothers who refuse to name their children’s fathers. But putting such ideas up for discussion is more clarion call than dog whistle to a particular bloc of voters. The purpose is to flag, with plausible deniability, that “these people” are freeloaders or somehow unworthy.

The last government raised benefit payments in real terms for the first time in 43 years, but the invisible ticker tape under this political exercise is that beneficiaries need watching and must prove they are fit and proper people to receive society’s support.

Shane Jones’ further sin is to risk damaging New Zealand as an attractive destination to immigrants. Never mind that immigrants are almost invariably of net benefit to the countries they move to. This country depends more heavily than most on imported work skills, and we compete with the rest of the world for well-educated nurses, teachers, medical specialists and engineers. India just happens to produce world-class professionals in these and many other fields.

The disturbing takeaway message from Jones’ stance is that NZ First is prepared, again, to put so much at risk as it drives wedges into one of this country’s most precious qualities, its inclusivity.

This editorial was first published in the November 16, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.