NZ quietly becomes diverse society

KARL DU FRESNE
Last updated 13:00 01/08/2012

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Karl du Fresne

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Here's a statistic that might radically change your perception of the country you live in: in the 2006 census, almost 40 per cent of the people living in Auckland were born overseas.

As Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley pointed out on the TV programme Q+A, that makes Auckland one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.

Spoonley observed that New Zealanders tend to equate large immigrant populations with megacities like London and Los Angeles. Many of us still mistakenly regard Australia as a more multicultural society than ours, because for decades it was.

The New Zealand I grew up in was essentially monocultural; in parts of New Zealand, even Maori were virtually invisible. There were Chinese market gardeners and greengrocers, Greek and Yugoslav fish and chip shop owners, Dutch builders (the Dutch being considered by New Zealand governments in the 1950s and 60s as the next best option after the British) and Italian fishing communities, while in urban areas such as Porirua and South Auckland from the 1960s onward there were concentrations of Pacific Islanders, essentially imported to provide a cheap workforce for labour-intensive industries such as car assembly plants. But overall, our immigration policy targeted people of British origin.

Australia pursued a more adventurous policy, recruiting large numbers of immigrants from southern Europe and the near Middle East. As a result, Australia in the 60s and 70s was an infinitely more vibrant and cosmopolitan society.

But how things have changed. Population statistics confirm what should be apparent to anyone walking down Auckland's Queen St: New Zealand has undergone a quiet revolution. In a remarkably short time, we have been transformed from one of the western world's most homogeneous societies into one of the most ethnically diverse. Spoonley describes Auckland as one of the world's major destination cities, comparing it with Toronto and Vancouver.

Not only has immigration increased, but immigrants have become far more visible because many are from China, India, Korea and the Philippines.

And although this is most obvious in our biggest city, it's not purely an Auckland thing. Overall, 23 per cent of the New Zealand population in 2006 (our last census) was born overseas.

To someone of my generation, this is a change of staggering proportions.

As revolutions go, it could hardly have been quieter. I don't recall the Government making a policy announcement to the effect that New Zealand would be opening its doors to the world. There was no great debate, no public meetings. It happened incrementally and largely without fuss.

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A few questioning voices were heard. Veteran Auckland journalist Pat Booth wrote a controversial series of articles in 1993 warning of an “Asian invasion” and Winston Peters' NZ First Party tried, without much success, to make political capital out of the inflow of “non-traditional” - for which read Asian - immigrants in 1996.

Another journalist, Deborah Coddington, provoked outrage with a magazine article about Asian crime in New Zealand (which is undeniably an issue, although many of Coddington's critics would have had us believe otherwise).

By and large, however, New Zealanders have absorbed the newcomers without conflict or tension, confirming our reputation as tolerant, easy-going people.

Spoonley thinks we're now more accepting of immigrants than Australia is, and made the point on Q+A that New Zealand had been spared the type of unpleasantness that Sydney experienced with the Cronulla riots in 2005, when an incident involving macho young Lebanese men triggered an ugly backlash from mobs of Australian-born yobbos.

That confrontation showed how immigration can backfire, particularly when clannish immigrant groups fail to integrate with the host society and even exhibit overt hostility toward it. It was a reminder that immigration has to be managed carefully.

But the New Zealand immigration experience, thus far at least, has been painless. Most New Zealanders seem to welcome the colour and diversity provided by immigrant communities.

It's not just a matter of relishing the choice of Indian, Chinese, Thai or Turkish cuisine. There's strong evidence that Asian immigration is good for us academically as well: many of the top performers in our schools are the children of migrants.

That could eventually translate into an improved economic performance. And as our population ages (by the mid-2020s, over-65s will outnumber under-15s), we may have reason to be grateful for the economic contribution made by clever, hard-working Asians.

They're even making an impact in sport. Just look at the remarkable Lydia Ko, at 15 the top-ranked amateur woman golfer in the world, and Danny Lee, the youngest-ever winner of the US Amateur Championship, and now playing on the PGA Tour.

The European experience tells us that immigration causes problems when large, economically deprived immigrant communities become ghetto-ised and alienated. That risk multiplies when the immigrant community has dogmatic religious views at odds with the host society.

But it doesn't have to happen that way. America, one of the world's most polyglot societies, has been remarkably successful in absorbing large numbers of immigrants and making them feel they have a common stake in the country's destiny. Canada seems to be managing too. There's no reason New Zealand can't do the same.

If there's one segment of the New Zealand population for whom immigration presents a special challenge, it's Maori. A leaked Labour Department report last year revealed that Maori are more likely than any other group to be against immigration.

Maori feel threatened by immigration because they're concerned newcomers don't understand the relationship between Maori and Pakeha, have no affinity with Maori culture and may not feel committed to the Treaty of Waitangi. They're probably also worried that as immigrant numbers rise, Maori political influence will diminish.

As Spoonley points out, there's the matter of economic competition too. “The new immigrants are typically skilled, so are they taking [jobs] from Maori? I think that's where the concern comes from,” he said. To which many New Zealanders might reply that it would be no bad thing if economic competition incentivised more Maori to fulfil their economic potential.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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