Ardern's response to the attack was rightly praised. But with some distance from the immediate events, we now have to look at what came before to make sense of what else needs to come afterby Maya Goodfellow / April 16, 2019 / Leave a comment
In the days following the murder of fifty Muslims in two mosques in New Zealand, a degree of consensus appeared to emerge about the country’s Prime Minister: Jacinda Ardern has shown how a leader should respond to such a reprehensible act of violence.
Columns were written praising her and a petition asking for her to be given the Nobel Peace Prize rapidly gained signatures.
But the praise, understandable though it is, relied on silence about New Zealand’s recent past on anti-immigration politics and racism.
I’m not here to argue Ardern’s response to the Christchurch attacks wasn’t exemplary. She swiftly introduced new gun laws that include banning assault rifles and semi-automatics, committed to paying for full funeral costs of the victims and providing other financial support where needed—regardless of immigration status.
She sensitively responded to the attacks by attempting to reassure Muslims of their safety and belonging in New Zealand—though in the process relying on exceptionalist narratives of the country, a settler colonial society, as peaceful and ‘tolerant.’
But with some distance from the immediate events, we now have to look at what has come before the attack to make sense of what else needs to come after.
Out of power for nine years, New Zealand’s Labour party came second in the 2017 election results but after weeks of negotiation, they formed a coalition government with the country’s nationalist party, New Zealand First—making its leader, Winston Peters, Ardern’s second in command—while also striking a confidence and supply deal with the Greens.
New Zealand First and their leader, Peters, are no new players in New Zealand’s politics. Deputy Prime Minister from 1996 to 1998 and in politics for the vast majority of his working life, Peters is not some peripheral character.
Ardern didn’t make his career by going into Coalition with his party—but the coalition has given New Zealand First renewed power and legitimacy.
A quick look at their history on immigration and race shows why that’s a problem. Relying on xenophobia from election to election, alongside aiming to end the country’s “neoliberal experience” New Zealand First is staunchly anti-immigration.
Peters has spoken about an “Asian Invasion,” derided political correctness as keeping communities apart and in the wake of the 2005 London bombings claimed that Muslims “moderate and militant, fit hand and glove everywhere they exist” with an agenda “to promote fundamentalist Islam.”
“They say—ah yes—but New Zealand has always been a nation of immigrants”, he argued. “They miss a crucial point. New Zealand has never been a nation of Islamic immigrants.”
Ardern has tried to put clear blue water between her and her Coalition partner. When they voted in favour of proposals to introduce Kiwi values pledges for people arriving in the country, Ardern said Labour didn’t support it.
But instead of pouring cold water on New Zealand First’s inflammatory arguments, Labour has spent some time pandering to them. In the last election, alongside a pledge to double the refugee quota was nestled a promise to cut the numbers of people coming into the country.
This, they said, would be achieved through an array of changes to the immigration system that would make it harder for people to get visas.
One proposal, mirroring those made by Labour’s sister party in the UK, was that employers would have to prove they couldn’t hire a citizen of New Zealand before hiring someone who wasn’t one.
Showing their xenophobic credentials, when in government they’ve introduced a ban on ‘foreigners’ buying homes in New Zealand (in 2015 Labour, under different leadership, attacked people from China for ostensibly buying up houses, calculating this on the basis of surnames they identified as Chinese).
Just six months before the election, the Labour MP who would end up being made Ardern’s Immigration Minister said immigration levels and unemployment were related.
Labour is not the same as the far-right. The differences matter. But the far right thrives off of and are nourished by narratives of countries being overrun by immigrant “others.”
The message lurking in this long racialised thinking is that a ‘Western’ country like New Zealand needs to be protected from people who are, supposedly, fundamentally at odds with the existing “way of life.”
When the so-called centre accepts immigration as a problem, they help legitimise these very ideas. To fight racism, the multitude of ways it is reproduced have to be properly grasped.
Drawing links and trying to understand the complex and insidious ways racist ideas are mainstreamed isn’t about lumping everything together.
The anti-Muslim hate that drove the Christchurch mosque attack has not always been front and centre of New Zealand politicians’ racism and xenophobia—though these politics can feed one another their specificities should be unpicked. Ardern can be praised for her response.
In the years following the attacks, New Zealand’s and Labour’s attitude toward immigration and racism might change; understanding how pernicious and deeply rooted racist thinking and policy are. But this isn’t a given; it has to be actively worked at.
There needs to be a broader public engagement with and recognition of the ways racism—including Islamophobia and anti-immigration politics—have been deepened in countries around the world, and how some of the mainstream voices who are quick to condemn it are implicated in reproducing it.