Narelle Henson: Immigration and the culture debate

Culture is a complicating factor when looking at immigration.
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Culture is a complicating factor when looking at immigration.

OPINION: This week the issue of immigration jumped into the headlines again when the Government announced it was tweaking the rules.

The biggest question, of course, is will it make a difference? Who knows, seems to be the answer, but whether it does or not, there was one aspect of the immigration debate that went unspoken – the impact of immigration on our culture.

As I have already written, the refrain around immigration is complicated here. Politicians tap into fears over economic migrants taking jobs or pushing house prices up. But polls show that Kiwis see strong benefits to "economic immigrants" like those plugging gaps in our workforce.

The difference might be explained by our cousins on the other side of the globe. Last year Oxford University's Migration Observatory (set up to inform people for the Brexit vote) examined public opinion polls dating back decades on the issue, and found that attitudes on immigration are a little more complicated than we give the general public credit for.

Ask about skilled labour, like doctors, and people are very supportive of immigration, especially if it happens to fill a gap in the workforce. But ask about low-skilled labour, or entire families entering a country through one member, and you get a different reaction. People start saying immigration is a concern.

In other words, when immigrants are no threat to our own jobs, we don't have a problem with them. But if we think they are competing with us for jobs, we're not so generous.

The British picture was further complicated by culture. The public split almost down the middle when it came to whether immigration undermined or enriched culture.

New Zealand, despite our differences, shows a similar pattern. While the data is a little old now, a New Zealand Initiative report released this year showed a growing concern among Kiwis – particularly among Maori – about the impact of immigration on culture.

This echoes an Asia New Zealand Foundation which last year found cooling attitudes towards Asian people in New Zealand, with one in four saying these immigrants did not mix well with locals.

And such concerns are reflected in comments like those of the Serious Fraud Office director last year, who linked Asian and Indian immigration to a rise in corruption in New Zealand.

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As she pointed out, allowing an influx of people from countries where corruption is considered the norm in business, or was necessary to survive, will have an impact on the levels of corruption here.

This all means that Kiwis are aware that beliefs, values and standards change when you change the mix of citizens in a country.

That can be a great thing, and it can be an awful thing. It all depends which cultural values we are letting in.

But dealing with that debate is much more difficult than talking about jobs because culture is so often interchanged with race. Added to that is the practical difficulty of selecting for cultural values.

Most of the time, a person expressing concern over changing cultural values will be labelled racist, and so the discussion ends in name calling.

Unfortunately, in Europe, the United States and Britain that has meant the real issues involved didn't get talked about, nor do they get dealt with, until it was too late.

But we have time on our side, and we have the experience of those other countries to learn from. So let's make it count, and confront the culture debate while we can.

 - Stuff

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