David v Jacinda: 'New Zealand has its own Trump movement'

ACT leader David Seymour warns of scapegoating foreigners.
ELESHA EDMONDS/FAIRFAX NZ

ACT leader David Seymour warns of scapegoating foreigners.

OPINION: Amid all the noise over the Panama Papers, remember other controversies that just fizzled, says David Seymour.

Three times in the past year New Zealand's political attention has turned to an issue of global commerce. Each time the political left went nuts, until the facts emerged.  But each time it turned out that for all the sizzle there was barely any sausage.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership was supposed to end New Zealand as we know it.  Labour, after staunchly supporting free trade for three decades, did their bananas over it. Then the deal was signed and this week Parliament started debating the law changes required for New Zealand to comply with the deal.  

Protesters turned out in numbers to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.
LAWRENCE SMITH / FAIRFAX NZ

Protesters turned out in numbers to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

Now that the facts are on the table, it's difficult to see what all the fuss was about. So long as Donald Trump doesn't become president and block the TPP at the American end, New Zealand exporters will have greater access to 11 economies worth a combined $27 trillion.

Then there was the foreign home buyer saga. Chinese faces at auctions led to the Labour Party pulling their infamous 'Chinese-sounding names' stunt. They wanted us all to believe that it's harder to buy a house because foreigners, and foreigners who sound different no less, are buying them.

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Then the Government data got released and it turned out only 3 per cent of homes are bought by foreigners.  No doubt that number is an understatement, it only reflects a three-month period during which foreign buyers were adapting to new laws introduced at the end of last year.  But even if the real number is three times bigger than reported, we now see that scapegoating foreigners won't help the housing market.

Then somebody stole eleven million pages of documents from a private law firm and put them on the internet.  New Zealand is a tax haven, the Opposition bellowed, our international reputation is in tatters!  Then the facts came out and only 200 out of 500,000 entities in the papers were New Zealand-based.

Meanwhile, the world looks on aghast as Donald Trump sweeps American politics.  The terrifying thing is his nationalism. He succeeds by scapegoating foreigners.  He wants to stop trade, build a wall, and generally wreak vengeance on whoever is responsible for Americans "not winning anymore".

But New Zealand has its own Trump movement.  We do not elect a head of state like the Americans so ours is not centred on one person.  Traditionally, foreigner scapegoating was the speciality of Winston Peters, but even he cannot give New Zealand's Trump movement its full parliamentary representation, oh no.

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Labour got in with their 'Chinese-sounding names,' and in Parliament this month the Greens have asked only one question about the environment, with 10 focused  on wealthy foreigners in the Panama Papers.  The three parties' positions on all things foreign are interchangeable: if the issue involves foreigners, especially wealthy ones, they go into full frothing frenzy.

Scapegoating foreigners is never helpful, but New Zealand's Trump movement is tapping into real concerns just like the American one.  Homes have become less affordable and work less secure over the past 20 years.  We need to build more homes and lift up the long tail of underachievement in education.  Neither of those things is easy but we won't solve them while half our Parliament are fashioning themselves as a poor man's Donald Trump.

Jacinda Ardern replies: 

It's hard to know where to start with a rant like that, David. How about with a few simple facts.

 One: We support free trade, but the TPPA was much more than that. It fundamentally undermined our ability to legislate on issues such as foreign ownership. And for what?

 Our economy is expected to grow 47 per cent by 2030 following a business as usual model. The Government itself estimates that signing the TPP will increase trade by just a further 0.9 per cent over that time period, and even that estimate is ropey at best.

 Two: We are in the middle of a housing crisis.  No amount of spin about data that even Land Information New Zealand admits was flawed, will change the role that offshore speculative housing purchases has played in that. The Government has not only refused to do something about it, they have allowed the TPPA to tie our hands.  It didn't have to be that way. Australia, Singapore and Vietnam reserved wide-ranging powers – our Government did not.

 Three: When it comes to foreign trusts, we are a tax haven. IRD knew it, but couldn't get the Government to budge. The Panama Papers exposed the impact of our inaction. You can try and downplay that all you like, but as has been said, the only difference between us and some of the better-known tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, is that we have dairy and winter.

 Our ability to act on behalf of New Zealand interests, to address a crisis like the Auckland housing market, to protect New Zealand's reputation and make sure people pay their fair share of tax – this is not explosive rhetoric, it is the stuff that matters, and I make no apology for it.

 - Sunday Star Times

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