Dave Armstrong: Fighting racism is trickier than you might think

Taika Waititi speaks out against racism.

Taika Waititi speaks out against racism.

OPINION: Usually in New Zealand, 'hip pocket' economic issues dominate election campaigns. But could race play a part this time around? Last week Labour released its immigration policy, which a number of people on both the Left and Right believed was a tiny bit racist. 

Labour denied this and did its best to set out its policy in a calm and rational manner, for which it won praise in some quarters. There were no dodgy statistics and Chinese-sounding surnames this time around. Labour leader Andrew Little made the point that areas of New Zealand, such as Auckland, have had high levels of population growth due to immigration, yet housing and public infrastructure had simply not kept up.

National criticised Labour's proposed 30,000 cut in migrants as a tiny bit racist even though National also wants to cut immigration a tiny bit (8500). I note that National use the same 'we love them but don't have the infrastructure' argument when talking about our very low refugee quota, which some Opposition parties think is a tiny bit racist. 

Labour sees parts of our current immigration policy as a 'rort', with overseas students doing low-value courses then seeking low-skilled work that 90,000 unemployed New Zealanders could easily do.

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Bill English disagrees and suggests that employers still need that pool of semi-skilled migrant workers. You will remember that Mr English reckoned he had "anecdotal" evidence from employers that many of these 90,000 are a tiny bit stoned. 

Are migrants doing work that New Zealanders won't do, as Mr English argues, or are they keeping unemployed New Zealanders out of a job, as Mr Little argues? I suspect the truth lies somewhere in the middle.   

"Many employers are experiencing unprecedented demand for their goods and services and want to be able to meet that demand," says Kirk Hope, chief executive of BusinessNZ, who sees immigration as vital for growth. 

Go to any rest home, petrol station or other places with lowly-paid staff and you will encounter quite a few migrants. If they were not allowed to be in New Zealand, would their jobs be taken up by eager, unemployed Kiwis?  

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Migrant workers are often not unionised and are mostly keen to work. This is good news for some employers, but it can also lead to exploitation. What would employers think about having to hire Kiwi workers instead of migrants? And what if these workers were not as grateful for a job as a migrant, and wanted to be paid more? 

Do those stroppy Kiwis have a point that some of our jobs are so badly paid and conditions so lousy that migrants are the only ones who will do them?       

Given that various political parties are throwing the "racism" tag around, it was interesting to see the 'Give Nothing to Racism' campaign launched by the Human Rights Commission last week.

Thankfully, in the hands of director Taika Waititi, it's a funny campaign, not a finger-wagging one. Spoofing charity campaigns, it encourages New Zealanders to 'give nothing' to racism and makes the excellent point that condoning racist behaviour or being a 'little bit' racist feeds racism.  

When you hear of the horrifying racist abuse that some people can suffer in New Zealand, it's great to see a government organisation doing something about it.

However, even the campaign itself tells us something about the racial structure of our society. In one ad we see quite a few successful Polynesian entertainers, musicians and sports stars supporting the anti-racism message. But is entertainment and sports where the real power lies in this country? 

Our boardrooms, cabinet rooms and corporate boxes are still largely filled by Pakeha males, most of whom would be extremely careful not to tell a racist joke. Meanwhile, on average, Maori and Pasifika people work longer hours, get paid less, go to prison more, and die younger. 

Though a Pakeha redneck in a ute yelling at a "bloody Asian" driver should be condemned, how different is he really to the smiling middle-class parent who quietly drives their child out of the multicultural area where they live to a higher decile 'white flight' school? Racism is often ugly, but it can also be a tiny bit subtle.

 - The Dominion Post

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