John Armstrong: True measure of NZ First’s plight glaringly obvious in Shane Jones’ racist spiel
Is this the last, desperate gasp of a political party on the verge of going down the gurgler?
The true measure of New Zealand First’s plight has been glaringly obvious over the past week. When Winston Peters reaches for the file titled “immigration policy”, you know he knows his party is in deep trouble.
Locked in Last Chance Saloon, Peters and company are going back to the future in order to survive September’s general election.
It has been ugly, nasty stuff from that quarter from the moment Shane Jones opened his motor-mouth last weekend and started dribbling drivel about how the large number of students from India were “ruining New Zealand’s tertiary institutions”. This came on top of earlier cracks from him suggesting that those in New Zealand’s Indian community who were unhappy with a change in Government policy which made it much more difficult for those in arranged marriages to bring their partners to this country “could get on the first plane home”.
You can bet your bottom dollar that Jones doesn’t believe a single word of the racist spiel he has been spouting — and which the Cabinet minister has continued to voice despite a request, plea or demand — it is not clear which — made by the Prime Minister to desist.
(Here’s a tip for Jacinda Ardern. The pomposity of politicians with egos as king-sized as happens to be the case with Jones tend to wilt much like Dracula when presented with a cross when a bucket or two of ridicule and sarcasm is poured over them from on high.
By illustration, David Lange famously silenced one of his MPs who was behaving way above his status as a lowly backbencher by quipping that doctors had postponed the brain transplant scheduled for the MP until they could find a compatible rabbit.
Helen Clark could bring miscreants to heel without uttering a word. She instead fixed her eyes upon the hapless individual in what was a laser-like death stare of Darth Vader-like intensity.)
But back to Jones. Labelling him a racist won’t stop him talking like one. The more times that charge is flung at him the better as far as he is concerned.
For all his faults, Jones is not a racist. He is someone pretending to be a racist — and for one reason. By sounding like a bigot along with his attention-seeking and headline-generating friction with Ardern, he and Peters are hoping to recreate New Zealand First’s halcyon days beck in the 1990s when the latter barnstormed the country promising to slash the number of migrants entering New Zealand to the bone.
At the 1996 general election, Peters’ outfit picked up more than 13 per cent of the vote.
Peters and Jones are punting on there still being a catchment of anti-immigration votes ready and waiting to be tapped again. With New Zealand First currently polling at around three per cent, it would not take much to raise that figure to five per cent, thereby clearing the threshold and retaining representation in Parliament.
Mounting an anti-immigration crusade requires that you have someone to crusade against. Back in 1996, Peters positioned himself as the politician who would turn back the tide of the-then “Asian invasion”.
The difference between 1996 and now is that the migrants that New Zealand First are effectively seeking to block from entry come from India, rather than from China or South Korea.
In order to give such a naked appeal to voters’ base prejudices a sliver of respectability, Peters and Jones are suggesting that immigration policy should be incorporated into a wider “population policy”.
Rather than treating debate on the appropriate scale of the intake of migrants as a matter covered under immigration policy, decisions would take account of the likely differing views as to what is the optimum annual growth of New Zealand’s population.
From a political point of view, New Zealand First’s opponents would be hard-pressed to criticise such an approach.
Instituting a “population policy” makes a lot of sense. It would fill a large gap in the policy-making and planning nexus of central government.
Peters is vowing to lead the election year debate which he is confident will be sparked by the proposal.
He is already endeavouring to set the parameters for such a discussion by indicating it should encompass matters such as what level of population growth is acceptable to New Zealanders “to maintain and preserve their way of life”. That is code for saying that the current intake of migrants is far too high in number — and that, despite having done next to nothing to reduce the inflow during his party’s current term on the Government benches in Parliament, he will deliver on that front if handed another opportunity to do so.
Given Peters’ track record of indulging in lowest common denominator politics down the years, the abiding suspicion will be that his advocacy of a population policy is motivated less by what is in the common good, but rather what is good for his party.
In that respect, a population policy is really a Trojan horse.
Regardless, the sheer scale and number of the difficulties and distractions which have plagued New Zealand First in the opening months of election year, make it wishful thinking on Peters’ and Jones’ part to expect that immigration policy alone could be the difference between the party being above or below the threshold after the votes have been counted on election night.
It is a start, however. And one that their party so urgently and desperately needs as the clock relentlessly ticks ever closer to September.