Racial populism and the 2017 New Zealand General Election

winston peters immigration

By Ani White.

The celebrations among many New Zealand leftists are understandable. After 9 years of Tory brutality, a change of government can feel like a breath of fresh air. However, the morning after the celebrations, we must take stock and critically evaluate the makeup of the next government, so we know what battles await us in the coming years.

It’s an unfortunate quirk of MMP that parliament’s chief attention-seeking racist has the power to string an entire country along despite winning less than 10% of the vote. Proportional representation is on balance progressive, despite this misgiving. Originally voted in as a backlash against National and Labour’s neoliberal reforms, the proportional voting system forces the major parties to make concessions. This can benefit the right aswell as the left, with National negotiating deftly in recent years. Further, while MMP is a better representative system than FPP, it’s still representative rather than participatory; the real decisions are still taken out of people’s hands, with negotiations behind closed doors determining the makeup of government.

Anecdotally, some claim that Winston’s anti-immigrant scapegoating is a thing of the past. However, simply searching Winston Peters’ twitter page for the keyword ‘immigration’ reveals a long series of negative tweets (see picture). When the New Zealand Herald published an article saying that Asian immigration numbers have been overstated, Peters responded by pointing out the Asian heritage of the journalists. Reducing immigration was a bottom line in his post-election negotiations. Perhaps Peters’ attacks on migrants are no longer noticed because they are so predictable.

Others who admit Peters’ racism argue that compromise is necessary for the parliamentary ‘left’, with Winston holding the cards. It would be easier to sympathise with this dilemma if anti-migrant populism wasn’t already a common ground between Labour and New Zealand First. This is more of a genuine dilemma for the Greens, who dropped James Shaw’s 1% immigration cap policy after criticism from the membership, had the best refugee policy of any party, introduced the first refugee-background MP to parliament, and generally stood on the most progressive platform of any parliamentary party. For those of us who voted Green in the hope that they would offer a more progressive coalition partner than New Zealand First, this coalition deal is something of a Pyrrhic victory.

Peters is a racial populist, both his long-standing tendency to blame immigrants for all social problems and his opposition to ‘special rights’ for Māori (thankfully, his opposition to Māori seats has not been adopted). Although certain elements of New Zealand First policy can be mistaken for left-wing – particularly the economic nationalism – both his economic and social policy seek to wind back the clock 50 years. Coming originally from National, Peters essentially advocates something like the National Party of 50 years ago, during the heyday of both social democracy and conservative assimilationism. This is far from a forward-thinking programme for liberation today.

Ironically rural Māori are a significant section of his voter base. This reflects an international trend where isolated rural regions, with few migrants, tend to be more anti-migrant. Additionally, many Māori likely support his economic policies. Conversely, support in the Māori seats dropped from 12-14% in 2014 to 7-9% in 2017, likely due to Winston campaigning against Māori seats.

Racial populism often adopts egalitarian rhetoric.  The coupling of racism with economic populism is in some ways even more insidious than neoliberalism, as Indian Marxist Jairus Banaji explained in a commentary on India’s racist ‘communalist’ movement:

Neo-liberalism disarms the working class economically, destroying its cohesion in an industrial, economic sense. Racism, communalism and nationalism… do the same in more insidious ways, destroying the possibility of the working class ever acquiring a sense of its own solidarity and of what it really is.

Racial populism diverts attention from the capitalist class who control resources, towards racialised targets.

A recent Spinoff article on New Zealand First’s national conference noted that much of the membership consider themselves anti-neoliberal, not consciously racist. Bluntly, those who support New Zealand First for economic rather than social reasons are being led down a dangerous blind alley. Jacobin article by the same author asserted that a surge for New Zealand First would be a “significant realignment.” However, New Zealand First’s support has dropped since reaching up to 18% in the 1990s, so their popularity is nothing new.

The party’s determining role in New Zealand politics is less a sign of the times than a continuation of Winston Peters’ long-standing manipulation of MMP, with a similar scenario playing out as far back as 1996 (where the formation of the government took two months). Whereas the similar-sized Greens clearly orientate themselves towards Labour, Peters makes a point of not deciding until one of the major parties offers him a good deal, clearly enjoying the prestige that comes with this role.

Although Winston’s manipulative ‘kingmaker’ game is nothing new for New Zealand politics, it’s particularly important that leftists give New Zealand First no quarter in the age of Trump. Left softness on racist right-wing populists is an example of Conservative Leftism, a tendency which throws oppressed people under the bus for the sake of simplistic anti-neoliberalism (see Daphne Lawless’ Against Conservative Leftism).

You cannot challenge capitalism while excusing racism. Capitalism is racialised; the dispossession of Māori was necessary to establishing capitalism in Aotearoa, and attacks on new (brown) migrants undermine working class unity. Winston Peters’ populism undermines the internationalist alliances needed for a truly liberating politics.

Labour ran on cutting immigration in the 10s of 1,000s. This policy was nonsensical – Labour proposed to cut students and ‘low-skilled’ workers, citing strains on infrastructure – yet students and poor workers are unlikely to use motorways or buy houses. Most likely the policy was less motivated by rational policy considerations than a pathetic attempt to chase the anti-migrant vote, which New Zealand First already has on lockdown.

Policies of cutting immigration face opposition from business, which is unfortunately more influential than opposition from migrant workers and their advocates. Business leaders oppose immigration cuts for the wrong reasons – hoping to access cheap labour – whereas we say that migrants must have the rights of any worker, including the right to union representation.

Even if these nonsensical poll-chasing policies are not implemented, they widen the ‘Overton window’ – the range of acceptable political discourse. They make attacks on migrants more socially acceptable, and pro-migrant reforms less likely.

Labour’s capitulation to xenophobia follows an unfortunate international trend. The UK’s Jeremy Corbyn may have more Social Democratic substance than Jacinda Ardern, but he has unfortunately pandered to anti-immigrant politics (see Daphne Lawless’ article here).

After Labour’s sudden leadership shakeup, Jacinda Ardern’s campaign did not depart in substance from Andrew Little’s rather conservative campaign. She stuck to the policy of cutting immigration, and failed to stand with Metiria Turei against beneficiary-bashing. Despite superficially criticising ‘neoliberalism’, she did not commit to departing from neoliberal fundamentals when challenged. Similarly she talked up the threat of climate change but made no significant commitments to address it.

However, a relatively young, rhetorically sophisticated woman in the leadership was a welcome relief from the pale, stale male brigade that has dominated the Labour leadership for nearly a decade, attracting young liberals to the party. Conversely, Bill English lacked the personality appeal of John Key, leading National to defeat for the second time in his life.

A Labour government is usually slightly better than a National government. Except for the Fourth Labour government, Labour tends to spend more on social services than National, and work more closely with unions, among other social concessions. While this difference is marginal at a macro-level, we can’t totally deny any difference that results in fewer deaths by economic violence. For the anti-capitalist left however, no deaths by economic violence are acceptable, so a Labour-led government is not our horizon of possibility. Even the Greens, the most progressive party in parliament, remain limited to that horizon of possibility. Additionally, with Winston in the government, we can expect renewed attacks on migrants.

Ultimately, the parliamentary parties are all committed to managing capitalism. The left cliché that only collective direct action can stop the racist, capitalist juggernaut remains true. How to put this truth into practice in a principled, effective way remains the question.

Fightback’s election activity: Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign

Fightback did not endorse any political party in 2017, instead committing to a Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign (MARRC) alongside other groups. We committed to this because we see the international upsurge of racial populism as a key barrier to class consciousness, more important than party lines.

MARRC supported an independent candidate in Wellington Central: Gayaal Iddamalgoda, a Legal Organiser for FIRST Union.

Gayaal’s campaign offered a relatively mainstream platform to challenge electoral scapegoating of migrants and refugees. The campaign regularly cranked out press releases (see marrc.org.nz/blog), criticising every party, and receiving coverage in mainstream newspapers.

Candidates’ meetings offered an opportunity to publicly challenge the major parties. In an electorate with Green Party leader James Shaw and high-ranking Labour MP Grant Robertson standing, we were able to challenge Labour and the Greens from the left.

One Labour MP, Hutt South’s Chris Hipkins, criticised his party’s policy when challenged by a member of the campaign at a candidates’ meeting.

The Rainbow Forum was the liveliest, with the audience asking challenging questions, shutting down the Conservative and ACT candidates without mercy, and wildly applauded Gayaal for outlining the intersection of queer and migrant rights.

The infamous Aro Valley candidates’ forum was also energetic, as children sprayed candidates with water pistols. Gayaal in the words of the Dominion Post “won cheers from the inner-city crowd with his message of welcoming migrants and ending capitalism.”

MARRC also organised a Migrant and Refugee Rights Forum with Gayaal speaking alongside other candidates. Around 100 attended. Emcee Murdoch Stephens (of the Double the Quota campaign) challenged candidates on the refugee quota, on proposed immigration cuts, and on a Living Wage for migrant workers.

Sponsored Facebook posts received significant interactions, including a campaign video that was viewed over 3,600 times. Unfortunately, the Facebook page also received waves of racist comments, which admins did not tolerate.

Gayaal passed 150 votes, beating the other independents and the ACT Party candidate, a modest victory in a campaign more intended for propaganda than parliamentary purposes. Victoria University’s polling booth had the most votes for Gayaal, confirming international poll results that show youth tend to be more pro-migrant.

We are in discussions about how to carry the Migrant and Refugee Rights Campaign through to 2018. If you would like to be involved or updated, please email us at marrc.aotearoa@gmail.com

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CHCH report: Public meeting against zero-hour contracts

public meeting

Report by Matt Jones, reprinted from Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement (AWSM).

Fightback Wellington branch will hold a public forum on fighting zero-hour contracts and poverty wages on Sunday the 29th of March.

Over 50 people attended a public meeting held in Christchurch/Otautahi on the 2nd March to hear from workers and union organisers about the brutal reality of zero hour contracts. Chaired by Jared Phillips of the Dairy Workers Union and introduced by Ben Peterson Organiser of Unite Union we were treated to the stories of Unite Union member Rose Williams from the Wendy’s Restaurant chain and long standing Maritime Union delegate Mike Will.

Ben told us that in 2014 Unite Union asked their members what their life in the workplace was like. Over one thousand responded and the results surprised many. They discovered that the average hours worked was 25 hours at the minimum wage and more than half of the respondents needed 35 hours or more to meet their living costs. Those that were getting more than 40 hours per week were forced to drop their overtime allowance. Overtime allowances kick in when someone works more than 40 hours per week, they should receive their hourly rate plus a further half for every additional hour they work. In reality they are by being told to sign a waiver, or at times by not giving their consent at all, to allow the company to pay them at their ordinary rate. Unite had spent the previous two years fighting for a living wage, forcing the issue onto the front pages, what the survey results were telling the union was that without hours to work, the rate of pay arguably became a secondary issue.

The hours are not scarce in the industries Unite represent. Fast food, retail, hotels, cinema’s and security all suffer from incredibly high turnover rates. Fast food for example churns through 70 to 80% of its workforce on an annual basis alone. Why do the bosses continue to hire if their existing workforce are clambering for more hours? Power, that’s the only possible conclusion – hiring new workers requires advertising, interviews, inductions, training, administration and supplying clothing and equipment, in short it’s not a cheap process. Keeping your work force desperate and fearing to cause a stir by requesting a day off, taking sick days, demanding your holiday entitlement or saying no when you’re called to work with less than thirty minutes notice is exactly how these multi national corporates and franchise operators are running their businesses.

Rose Williams addressed the crowd telling her story of the recent strike held at her store. Wendy’s are in negotiations with Unite Union who took the company by surprise when their only South Island store took to the streets. She described how she was originally taken on as a full time worker, working more than fifty hours a week sixteen months ago. She is now down to 26 and only gets five days a week by working both Saturday and Sunday while having with no consecutive days off. When she works public holidays there is no day in lieu. There is no standard shift and as a result workplace bullying is rife, managers are literally using the rosters as disciplinary tools, baiting workers with the very means of survival.

Mike Will told us of his experiences with the local activist community during the past few years. He spent day and night at the Christchurch Occupy site in Hagley Park and witnessed the possibility of community organizing and direct democracy. He thanked the individual anarchists that were at the heart of the local chapter of Occupy and acknowledged the hard efforts that many from our scene put in during the emergency period of the Canterbury earthquakes. Many ears picked up at his mention of the short lived Otautahi Solidarity Network that was inspired by the Seattle Solidarity Network.

Mike’s words inspired figures from the union movement including Dave Bristow of First Union to stand up and hint heavily that there were early talks of a new way of organising within their union – something the writer of this article will be following up discussions in the near future.

The reality is the businesses that profit from zero hour contracts and paying minimum wage are taking the piss out of their workforce on several levels. Workplace bullying, insecurity and fear is topped off by a gut wrenching weekly phone call to the IRD to declare the inconsistent hours and irregular earnings worked in order to make ends meet. The multinationals make a killing by paying poverty wages and the taxpayer tops up the shortfall. TV3’s Campbell Live made the connection between zero hour contracts and kids turning up to schools without breakfast, lunch or basics such as footwear on the same night as the public meeting.

The floor was opened for people to ask questions and speak their mind. Networking and sharing resources was the theme of the night and the momentum will continue to build. The forum also discussed the idea of establishing a progressive network and regular meeting to discuss local progressive ideas and campaigns. The first Monday of every month at the WEA, 7pm will be the place to hear of the day’s issues and be inspired that you’re not alone when thinking it’s all on its head and the world’s gone mad – the question is, what are we gonna do about it?!

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