Saturday, April 12, 2003

Late, but not forgotten - Winston Peters

Last wednesday I attended a lecture by Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First. The lecture was given as part of an ongoing series by Massey University, for a course on social policy. Previous speakers have included Richard Prebble, Jeanette Fitzsimons, and Don Brash.

Winston was late, and arrived with a pair of flunkies plus a police escort. Since he appeared sober and didn't look like he'd just been hauled out of a bar ("time for your lecture, Mr Peters"), I can only assume the latter were for his protection. In other words, he was scared of us. Woo-hoo!

Winston's chosen topic was "A New Zealand Identity". Unfortunately his delivery was rambling, repititive, and (in the latter stages) riddled with non-sequiters. Some of the things he said:

  • After an initial joke that the NZ idenity was about "rugby, adventure, and sheep" (with much emphesis on the rugby), he looked back to a period when we led the world in social policy and delivering social equity, using the governments of Seddon, Savage and Fraser as examples. I'm not sure about the former (didn't Seddon oppose women's suffrage?), but I think there's a lot to be proud of in our achievements in these areas. Women's suffrage, old-age pensions, the 40 hour week, a comprehensive welfare state and socialised healthcare and education seem to me to encapsulate a lot of what NZ is all about: an egalitarian spirit and a commitment to providing a decent standard of living for all. He summed it up with the line that "New Zealand is about lifestyle", and again, this seems to capture something important.
  • Policy shifts in the 80's and 90's - Rogernomics and Ruthanasia - were basically an attack on this way of life, and led to an increase in inequality. He particularly pointed the finger at businessmen who benefitted from the free market policies who took their cash and are now living offshore in highly-regulated economies like Switzerland. Again, there's not much to disagree with here.
  • Unfortunately, he then began to talk about immigration. Blahblah wealthy foreigners benefitting from inequalities blah blah Auckland's problems are entirely the fault of asian immigrants blah blah they're taking all the places in the good schools blah blah they don't share our values blah blah threat to social cohesion - the standard Peters screed. This went down like a lead balloon with the audiance. The worst bit was an appalling attempt to set Maori against more recent immigrants by asking why they're not making more noise about "being outnumbered in their own country". For someone so concerned with "social cohesion", he seems to be doing his utmost to divide New Zealand along racial lines.
  • Somewhere in the immigration section, he mentioned that 20% of New Zealand's population was born overseas. He thought this was shocking - all those people who don't share our values and all (apart from the ones from Britain and Zimbabwe, of course) - but my initial thought was that it's probably quite low by historical standards (and certainly lower than Australia's 25%). Does anybody have figures tracking this over the past 50 years or so?
  • Questions were quite interesting, covering NZ First's reaction to MMP, troubles in the National Party, and the obligitory question about student loans. And of course more on immigration. Winston wants to see the number of immigrants reduced to 10,000 a year, and restricted to business migrants and those with essential skils (aren't the former one of his chief areas of complaint, though?) - in other words, "we should take only the people we need". His response to "what about people who need us?" was, essentially, "fuck 'em".

The impression that I came away with of Winston's views was that there's a significant tension between his idea of a New Zealand identity and his anti-immigration policies. In particular, the idea of restricting immigration only to the wealthy, and of turning away refugees seem to be deeply at odds with that essentially egalitarian and welfarist vision. Surely if we're to be true to those ideals, we should be downgrading the current emphesis on wealth in our immigration points system, and accepting more refugees, not slamming the door in their faces?