Last Sunday James Shaw, the Greens co-leader unveiled a bold new interpretation of Greens immigration policy. Shaw attacked the government’s recent reduction in immigration numbers- but surprised many by saying that these cuts did not go far enough. He continued to say that under the Greens ‘sustainable’ immigration policy would cut immigration numbers by as much as two thirds.
In New Zealand, Immigration is the easy button for lazy politicians. The political mainstream uses the ‘kick a migrant’ technique to answer difficult questions. Housing prices too high? Immigrants! (definitely not property developers who donate millions to major parties..)
Even so, this is an alarming turn for progressive politics. Only 4 months ago, James Shaw’criticized Labour for immigration scaremongering. Now he wants a dramatic reduction in migrants. Its an incredible U turn.
And it is based on bullshit.
Put simply, James Shaw is wrong in fact, wrong in principle, and wrong in politic.
Wrong in Fact
Shaw called for “sustainable” population growth. In practice, he said a Greens government would alter immigration intakes each year to set an annual growth rate “that would be at about 1% of the population, which is historically how fast New Zealand’s population has grown”. He blamed immigration for driving population growth higher than can be absorbed which he claimed is “having an outsize impact on house prices, on infrastructure and on wages”.
No part of this argument holds up. In the first instance, NZ historically having a population growth of “about 1%” is not true.
The rate of population growth from 1945-1965 was between about 1.8% and 3%. This time period had twice to three times greater population growth than James Shaw’s 1% target, but also maintained lower unemployment and a higher rate of home ownership. Real wages in the period were improving. Jame Shaw trying to use history to justify reducing immigration is nonsensical. Aotearoa has had periods of greater population increases without driving down housing or wages- whats changed? The answer is not immigrants, or population growth. What has dramatically changed in this period is the strength of unions to protect and improve wages and the political smashing of the welfare state under neoliberalism introduced by the 4th Labour government. By ignoring this, James Shaw is spreading lies. These lies do not lead to a reasoned debate on immigration or inequality- it only legitimizes the racist delusions that blame a decrease of the standard of living on migration.
Wrong in Principle
Secondly, James Shaw’s announced policy is in violation of Greens immigration policy as it stands both in its principles and any practical application. Greens policy in this area is largely a statement of principles. Even with this wriggle room, Shaw’s interpretation seems at odds with the Greens position.
His interpretation based on a 1% population growth figure seems to be an invention of Shaw. As well as having no historical precedent, it is not mentioned in the Green policy. This aside, it’s implementation would mean an annual population increase of about 45,000 people, which after accounting for births, leaves somewhere in the region of 15,000-20,000 spaces for permanent migrants. Greens policy also calls for an increased refugee quota, provision for climate refugees, and for a relaxing of family reunion visas restrictions. How this squeeze between dramatically limiting the migrant quota and increasing refugee support would be managed is not elaborated on.
Importantly Shaw ignores wholesale the Greens commitments to migrant workers. Greens policy states that “We need to ensure that temporary migrants have decent working conditions and pathways to residency appropriate to their skills.” There are over 250,000 temporary work visa and student visa holders currently living and working in New Zealand- overwhelmingly they are working and paying taxes. The dramatic decrease in permanent residencies would stop very few people coming and working in New Zealand, as these visa categories would be untouched, but limit the rights of people who are already here and already part of our community from formalizing that and achieving residency. If James Shaw was serious about wanting to help increase wages, he would call for each of these workers to be given full work rights, including protection from deportation. Employers use these staff because the threat of withholding employer support from further visa applications it gives them an automatic leverage over their employees. This power imbalance is used to drive down wages.
At any rate, James Shaw cannot have it both ways. It is not possible to both stand up for the rights of migrant workers and dramatically cut access to migration. At some point Greens members will have to clarify this point of policy, but to allow Shaws position to stand would be in effect turning their back on migrants in New Zealand/Aotearoa.
Wrong in Politic
It might be enough to say the James Shaw is factually wrong and in contradiction with Greens principles in this matter, but unfortunately there is another important aspect to his error. This turn is politically idiotic.
I believe this is driven by a cynical view of political trends. I do not believe that James Shaw has a genuine distaste of migrants, but instead I think this is a cynical attempt to pander to an aspect of the electorate. Winston Peters and New Zealand First have been polling strongly, and James Shaw clearly sees this as an attempt to carve out some of this political space. Unfortunately, again, James Shaw is oblivious to the actual political concerns and opportunities for the Greens.
Rather than a nation of irreparable racists, opinion polling shows that Kiwis are actually much more concerned with poverty, inequality and housing issues than immigration. According to the most recent polls I could find, while 21% of respondents were concerned about inequality/poverty, and 9% of people were concerned about housing, only 3% of people listed their primary concern as immigration/refugees.
So rather than being dragged into the debate, James Shaw is actively ignoring the primary political interests of Kiwis to wage into a divisive debate on immigration. That may not be where other parties are putting their attention- but this should be a good thing for the Greens. By diverting to immigration, the Greens are missing the opportunity to be the only party actively campaigning for the primary concerns of Kiwis- inequality and housing. The opportunities to be a principled and exciting opposition are huge, and are now being missed.
James Shaw has always been quite open about his strategic vision of trying to win over ‘blue green’ voters. This appears to be an attempt to both pander to aspects of the electorate concerned about immigration, and to paint the Greens as a mainstream party who a have gone beyond the protest party and are willing to make the ‘hard calls’. Rather than win over center voters, these kind of unprincipled stunts are more likely to have the opposite effect. It has made the Greens look inconsistent, made them look like cynical operators- like every other politician and political party. People vote Green in large part because they are seen to represent a political alternative. If in voting green you are going to get a more environmental version of Labour/National/Winston immigrant bashing, why bother?
In normal times this would be politically silly, but in a time where political alternatives are having a moment it is downright insanity.
Current international experiences should be giving the Greens enthusiasm to push an ambitious political platform.
In the UK, the Labour Party has been reinvented. It is now the largest party in Europe with half a million new members who have joined, inspired by the socialist leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. In America, Bernie Sanders came agonizingly close to winning the Democratic Nomination for president by calling for a movement to take on the bankers in Wall St.
The NZ Greens should see this as their time. Instead, the political sock puppet that is James Shaw has seen fit to by himself invent a new history, invent a new policy and sell it to an electorate who aren’t much interested.
The political space for an alternative is there.