Green Party apologise for anti-immigration pandering

James Shaw: "We have been trying to find a way to dampen the heat around the immigration debate, because it is turning ...
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

James Shaw: "We have been trying to find a way to dampen the heat around the immigration debate, because it is turning into an election year football."

Co-leader of the Green Party James Shaw has apologised for the way they announced their immigration policy last year, saying it worsened public debate.

Shaw, speaking at the annual general meeting of the Federation of Multicultural Councils in Dunedin on Saturday, said their immigration policy launch in October of last year had focused too heavily on the numbers and not on values.

The policy set a limit on immigration of one percent of population growth - a cut on current numbers.

After a rush of negative feedback the party took the policy into "review."

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On Saturday, Shaw admitted the policy had contributed to a growing feeling of xenophobia in New Zealand society - although that was never the intent.

"Last year I made an attempt to try and shift the terms of the debate away from the rhetoric and more towards a more evidence-based approach," Shaw said.

"Unfortunately, by talking about data and numbers, rather than about values, I made things worse.

"Because the background terms of the debate are now so dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, when I dived into numbers and data, a lot of people interpreted that as pandering to the rhetoric, rather than trying to elevate the debate and pull it in a different direction.

"We were mortified by that, because, in fact, the Greens have the ambition of being the most migrant-friendly party in Parliament. And I am sorry for any effect it may have had on your communities."

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Shaw went on to say that migrants were not to blame for high house prices, hospital waiting times, or any other social ill - the government were.

"It is the government's failure to plan for the right level of infrastructure and services that has caused this."

His speech then shifted to a talk about values - a conversation that he said needed to be had before actual policy was designed.

"What are the values that the Green Party stands for? We stand for an open, inclusive and tolerant Aotearoa New Zealand that welcomes people who want to make a contribution. We stand for an Aotearoa that stands up to racism and scapegoating and xenophobia."

Shaw told Stuff on Sunday he decided to make the speech in part because of the reaction the Green Party's refugee policy drew on social media.

"A huge number of the comments were incredibly ignorant, racist, and fearful. And when you've got that kind of dominant theme it makes it virtually impossible to have a sensible conversation about these things. That's why I wanted to step back and say well 'what are we trying to do here?'

"The mistake that I made last year was diving into the numbers and data without having that conversation around values and principles."

Shaw admitted there had been some pushback from the Green Party membership following the policy launch. But he said this was not the deciding factor in the speech, which he co-wrote with a speech writer.

"We have been trying to find a way to dampen the heat around the immigration debate, because it is turning into an election year football.

"We've been trying fitfully to have a different conversation, but the xenophobic component of it is so dominant, and has been for so long."

His speech came the day after Shane Jones re-entered the political fray wearing a hat moulded after Donald Trump's, reading "Put New Zealand First Again" and telling voters immigration was a "legitimate concern".

Shaw said other parties had, whether intentionally or not, played into the xenophobic strain of discourse.

He did not comment on Labour's policies on immigration, which also called for a cutback.

Labour and the Greens have a formal agreement to work together this election.

Labour leader Andrew Little agreed that the problems caused by heightened immigration numbers were not the fault of the migrants themselves, but he said a debate still needed to be had.

"For many years when you've started talking about immigration as a policy issue its very easy to assume that there's a race element to it or an anti-diversity element to it," Little said.

"Only in the last three or four years we've had a quadrupling of net inward migration, we have real pressure in terms of availability of housing, in terms of transport congestion - none of which as James says is the fault of migrants, but it is a reality here, and we've got to be able to talk about that, and say one solution is to slow down migrations, to give ourselves a chance to catch up.

"We've got to be able to have this debate without being scared of being accused of racism or xenophobia.

"There will unfortunately be some that see it in those terms, and its the responsibility of people like myself and James to call people out when they try to run the debate on that basis.

"There are some people who because it is immigration automatically think that you are being racist. We shouldn't be cowed by the racists and equally we shouldn't be cowed by those who are fearful that it is a racist argument when it is not."

The Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign welcomed Shaw's speech yesterday.

"The call for a 1% immigration cap cloaked racist pandering under pseudo-scientific rhetoric, so we welcome this apparent retraction," Gayaal Iddamalgoda said in a release.

"We hope this shift in messaging remains consistent, and will continue to campaign for migrant and refugee rights."

 - Stuff

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