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Calling for a rational immigration debate

Calling for a rational immigration debate

The reaction to comments made by Don Brash in his latest Orewa speech about the need for an immigration debate was out of proportion to the amount of time he spent discussing this topic. In total, there were 192 words devoted to this out of a total of more than 5000, yet it received the same amount of coverage, if not more, then the speech's main focus which was Labour's legacy - a faltering economy.

This reaction shows that immigration remains a sensitive subject because in essence it involves deciding who should be allowed to come and stay in the country on a long-term basis. In the past this sensitivity has been increased due to politicians exploiting the vulnerabilities of this subject and using it for political gain in the time honoured fashion.

Many people are defensive about debates on policy and other aspects of immigration. This is especially true for those who are from visible minority ethnic groups, with their fear increasing during an election year when immigration is thrown around like a rugby ball. Tempers fray and extremists make inflammatory comments which lead to anger, anxiety and fear.

Unfortunately this kind of unstructured and ill-disciplined debate also affects what policies are put in place. It is ironic that while the Prime Minister and Ministers of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs praise our Asian communities for being good citizens and contributing to society their current immigration policies are anti-Asian. Until Labour made major changes to immigration policy 2002 migrants from China, India and Korea made up the top percentage of long-term arrivals.

Dr Brash has floated important questions about the future direction of immigration. This debate is unavoidable and if conducted early on in the election cycle it could be less heated or contentious. Setting out proper parameters for this debate is extremely important if we are to reach a meaningful outcome. No doubt, one of the most contentious questions is what kind of migrants does New Zealand need? I don't believe that this criteria should target any specific ethnic groups and should include a focus on values and characteristics.

Last year, when Labour pushed through their changes to the citizenship laws, I put forward an amendment to their Bill which, if it had been accepted, would have meant that all prospective citizens would have sat an education course about New Zealand. I introduced this idea because I believe it's important that migrants have the opportunity to learn about the Treaty, the history of our country, how local and central government works, the importance of participating in the democratic election process and what values we hold dear.

Most migrants who come to New Zealand implicitly accept our prevailing values and culture, even though these people may come from very different backgrounds to our own. However we can't be sure if they truly understand what makes our country tick, and migrants need a proper induction course to do this, as they will help shape our country in the future.

I have been articulating my vision for our country since my maiden speech 10 years ago which is 'one nation, many people, shared values'. To be successful in this there has to be an open dialogue, which may cause pain or controversy but if our leaders are prepared to lead this debate in a responsible way the outcome could have a positive effect - like avoiding any more flip flops with immigration policy.

The outcry regarding the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed shows that if important dialogues aren't carried out with understanding or appreciation of the subject at hand then confrontation will arise. Here in New Zealand the media and Muslim leaders have been able to reach a point through dialogue and move forward, which should be encouraged.

This is a good outcome in the interim, given the circumstances, and I hope that values become part of the immigration debate to enable us all to make the right decision on its future direction.


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