ven Beynen: Racist rage shakes political landscape

Press columnist Martin van Beynen.
Press columnist Martin van Beynen.

You might not have heard but earthquakes struck Britain and Europe this week.

The seismic terminology, which certainly hit home with someone from a city which knows a bit about earthquakes, had nothing to do with fault lines, Richter scales or cracks in the ground.

The metaphor was used to describe the results in the European elections, earnest commentary on which has flooded the British media in the last seven days.

United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) leader Nigel Farage, whose party garnered about 27 per cent of the UK vote, grabbed headlines saying, "an earthquake has hit Britain".

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, surveying the political scene wrecked by the electoral triumph of Marine Le Pen's National Front, also reached for the metaphor saying, "It's an earthquake".

Ukip and the French National Front were part of a wave of Europe-wide gains made by Far- Right and Far-Left parties in the elections. The parties have their differences but most owe their success to an anti-immigration, anti-European Union credo.

The verdict on Ukip and the National Front was more emphatic than the trend in other parts of Europe. Almost overnight the British and French family of serious political contenders was landed with a new and unwanted member.

London Mayor Boris Johnson called it the revolt of the peasants. French President Francois Hollande called it a protest against the remote and incomprehensible European Union. Some academics called it the rise of European ethno-nationalism. Most commentators called it a backlash against an elite, isolated political class which has ignored the concerns and demands of ordinary people.

At first blush, it's hard to see what all the fuss is about. The European Parliament has 751 seats and the Eurosceptic parties will hold only one-third. Most voters opted for established centrist parties. The ragbag protest parties, who range from populist leftists to outright neo-fascist groups, will struggle to form any sort of cohesive block. It's doubtful whether most of the Eurosceptic MPs, who, after all, do not want the EU to work, will even turn up to vote.

The main consequence of the vote for such parties as the National Front and Ukip is the effect it will have on mainstream parties such as Hollande's Socialists and Labour and the Tories in the UK. It's unlikely the populists will do nearly as well in the national elections (Britain goes to the polls next year) but the main parties will need some of the Eurosceptic votes if they are to form governments.

So what vein of discontent have these anti-EU politicians tapped into? In a word, "foreigners". Foreigners, who are allowed to migrate because of open-border rules set in Brussels, and who, it is claimed, take jobs off locals and bludge off welfare, education and health services paid for by the natives. Britain, which has a net migration of about 220,000 people a year, is fearful of a new wave of Romanians and Bulgarians. The feeling is, "France for the French, Britain for the British, Holland is full". You get the picture.

Politicians have been wary of dismissing these undercurrents as racism, although they clearly have racist elements, for fear of further alienating potential supporters. Ukip voters come predominantly from the white working class and shire traditionalists. All feel betrayed by the political classes and big-city condescension.

Political parties (New Zealand no exception) ignore these resentments at their peril even if they think, rightly, that sentiments can dissipate as quickly as they arise. It pays to remember how close former National leader Don Brash came to unseating Helen Clark's Labour Government in 2005 with the "Kiwi not Iwi" campaign.

New Zealand should also be taking note of the nationalism trend. Although our focus is towards Asia, a more disjointed, more protectionist Europe will affect trade. Our Asian trading partners will watch carefully to see how even-handed we are about immigration and how we handle anti-foreigner sentiment.

That sentiment is in the air. Although we shouldn't read too much into single events, they can be representative.

For instance, in court this week, a Queenstown police officer was accused of abusing a Malaysian taxi driver in her spectacular resort town, where Filipinos do much of the cleaning, with the familiar:

"You come here and get all the Kiwi jobs. Eat your f...... curry and f... off to India. This is a Kiwi job."

Then a report this week from the Asia New Zealand Foundation showing New Zealand Asians will eventually outnumber Maori.

Under "mid-range" projections, Statistics New Zealand expects the Asian population to reach 790,000 by 2026, still a little behind the Maori population on around 820,000.

Maori are clearly agitated with a recent poll showing Maori dislike Asian immigrants more than any other group of New Zealanders.

Asians are blamed for taking jobs from Maori, driving Maori to Australia, lacking understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi and competing for cultural funding.

"The diversity of New Zealand is beginning to undermine the investment we have in biculturalism. [Maori] don't believe new migrants are sympathetic to biculturalism and the Treaty," says Massey University pro vice-chancellor, Professor Paul Spoonley.

It's election year. Ethnic minorities can expect to be targets, Justice Minister Judith Collins says.

Perhaps she is wrong. We don't have the pressures facing Europe and it might be true we are more open-minded and tolerant of difference.

Probably wishful thinking. There's little to suggest we are any different from our European cousins and that votes can be harvested by exploiting our ugly and often well hidden prejudices about foreigners.

The Press