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The True Colours of Democracy

The True Colours of Democracy

By Michael Reid

Winston’s on a winner—at least so far as older New Zealanders are concerned. Immigration is an issue which polarises people, especially a few weeks out from an election. Passions are easily invoked.

A sensible approach lies somewhere in the middle between passion and apathy.

Whatever we may think about what Mr Peters says, he should be able to raise the issue without the knee-jerk response of ‘racism’. What that does is short-circuit and shut down debate. Who comes to live in our country, is after all, an important issue.

Migrants may come primarily to meet our needs or theirs: the former is usually in response to an economic need (as with an influx of skilled workers to fill an employment gap), while the latter is more humanitarian, as in taking refugees from countries torn apart by full-scale or civil war.

In both cases though, the people arriving will affect the social fabric and the consequences (for better or worse) will be on-going. So it’s is quite legitimate to question the philosophy guiding immigration policy, quotas, resettlement schemes, and so on. To ignore these issues is irresponsible government.

Like many other words, ‘racism’ is easy to bandy about and clobber people with because it has emotive import. But the important questions remain, and Winston Peters, like any other citizen in a parliamentary democracy should be free to ask them.

The same applies to the Treaty of Waitangi: to raise it and express a desire to debate does not equal ‘racism’. To make derogatory remarks and racial slurs about a people group because of their skin colour, does. But constructive debate avoids that.

Political Correctness (PC) doesn’t help because it sees the state as the authority and purveyor of morality. Not individuals, or communities, but the government and the media; they will tell us how to think and behave in ways deemed acceptable to themselves. Indeed, in many cases, it is the continuing impact of PC that hastily leads to the retort of ‘racism’ when immigration and the Treaty are mentioned.

PC also relies heavily on the attendant notions of tolerance and inclusion. Despite its appearance of being non-moral or ‘neutral’, it tries to promote the morality of no morality. But as most of us know, it has the irritating habit of dictating what is acceptable and what is not, especially in public settings.

Inclusion is a populist and compelling concept and one we have heard a lot about in recent years. But if we think about how it might relate to immigration, we’d have to conclude—logically—that we don’t need an immigration policy because no one would could legitimately be excluded. No parameters, no boundaries; open the doors to all and sundry.

What inclusion really means of course—and it is ironic—is that certain groups and ideas are to be promoted by the state and media to the exclusion of others. And what ideas? Those that are PC.

Tolerance and inclusion are fine until they are questioned; then their advocates tend to be anything but tolerant. If, as Winston Peters claims, the Treaty is meant to be about including all New Zealanders but gives preferential treatment to one particular group, then it’s easy to dismiss him as ‘playing the race card.’ However, his central claim about ‘preferential treatment’ needs to be carefully examined to determine if it has any factual basis.

Older New Zealanders love Winston because he talks their language. He appeals to their memories of more cohesive and homogeneous times.

Political correctness (PC) would have us embrace everyone else, but let’s be honest, communication and understanding are hard enough at the best of times, but doubly hard when language and ethnic barriers are present. And it’s harder for older people to accept the changes that come with an influx of a new people group. Winston’s telling his audiences what they already know, but he does it with plenty of kitsch and a very non-PC boldness.

More importantly, sound immigration policy rests on what we consider to be our goals and values as a nation. Thinking about who should or shouldn’t come to live here raises vital questions about who we are and where we want to go. Only when these questions are confronted can a coherent immigration philosophy be formed.

And that’s difficult in New Zealand in 2002. We live in a pluralist nation, where consensus on certain issues, particularly those of a moral nature, is difficult. What would be good for the nation? What should our immigration policy be?

There are no easy answers and the issues are complex. Economic factors alone can’t be the basis because there are social implications too.

The fact that Winston is so readily slated for expressing his views reflects more on those firing the shots than it does on him exercising his democratic rights to say what he says—even if we don’t agree with him.

(825 words)

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