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Shane Jones. Photo/Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern should demand that Shane Jones apologise

As New Zealand commemorates the first anniversary of the Christchurch mosque massacre, we need to do more than passively reflect on how the tragedy cemented our resolve to remain an inclusive society.

In the immediate aftermath of the mass killings, this country intuitively displayed an empathy the rest of the world found remarkable and rare. The spontaneous outpouring of support by so many New Zealanders, wherever they were and whoever they were, was an important illustration of who we collectively believe ourselves to be.

But the actions of the alleged gunman also revealed some unpalatable truths about our connections to the vast global iceberg of racism and hatred enabled by sophisticated dark-web communications. Hard for the security services to track or dismantle, these networks insidiously encourage the views of otherwise isolated figures.

Racism is evident at times in its more public counterpart – the everyday “othering” of different ethnicities. Although this fear-based response to population change has fostered a surge of political nationalism in parts of the world, it has seldom been a major theme here. Indeed, the potential for profitable race-based politics appeared to have been quashed following the outcry over Labour’s Phil Twyford’s absurd “Chinese-sounding names” housing survey. His clumsy pursuit of a racial cohort to blame for the market’s price distortions was overwhelmingly and justifiably mocked and reviled.

As his subsequent ministerial stewardship has confirmed, Twyford often appears tone-deaf and he seemed at the time genuinely aghast at the hurt caused to immigrants. The same excuse cannot be made for New Zealand First’s Shane Jones. Despite his affecting the affable persona of “Jonesy”, tactless shooter-from-the-hip, he carefully crafts every salvo. Last year, when he said Indian immigrants couldn’t expect to “bring your whole village”, it was a calculated put-down, doubling as a racist disinvitation to some of our most-talented immigrants.

Last weekend, when he said Indian students had “ruined” many of our education institutions, he barely even bothered with nuance.

This was racism, plain as day. He has not resiled from it – saying only that if others think he’s been racist, he will live with it.

There have been, and may remain, exploitative, low-quality training institutions, some of which were run by immigrants. More needs to be done to protect vulnerable people – many themselves immigrants – from such predation and Jones could have said that without fear of contradiction. Instead, he chose to frame the problem as one of Indian migration. From any politician, let alone a member of the Cabinet, this is unforgiveable. When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of the mosque-goers, “They are us”, it was a sentiment of inclusion. She told a press conference that she disagreed with Jones: “I will be telling him that, and I will also be asking him to reconsider the way that he talks about these issues in the future.”

She needs to do a lot more than that. Jones was banging the bigots’ drum – and serving notice that he intends to continue doing it.

When it comes to NZ First, Ardern is showing the lack of authority more readily associated with a relieving teacher unable to deal with the boys in the back row who will go on disrupting the class until the end of term because they know she cannot control them.

She needs to censure Jones publicly and strongly. It hardly matters whether he believes what he is saying or is just practising his lines for NZ First’s tactics in the coming election campaign. The party is free to talk about a population policy and immigration, but singling out a particular ethnicity crosses a bright line that is unacceptable to the public and is embarrassing for the Government.

Ardern has dealt with NZ First leader Winston Peters’ belligerent antics over fair questions about party funding by refusing to comment and framing it as a party matter for him to deal with. But there is no get-out clause with Jones talking about immigrants. By tolerating his missiles, branded racist by much-respected Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon, Ardern looks worse than ineffectual.

She should demand that Jones apologise. Peters’ behaviour is damaging enough, but Jones’ utterances are a stain on New Zealand’s tolerance and inclusion. If he must indulge himself, he should do so from the backbenches until voters decide his fate.

This editorial was first published in the March 14, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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