Immigration: Winston Peters has the tiger by the tail

by Graham Adams / 11 January, 2019
winston peters

Winston Peters. Photo/Getty

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Signing the UN migration compact wouldn’t have sparked such fury among NZ First supporters if the government had fulfilled its campaign promises of sharply reducing the number of immigrants.

Winston Peters was barely able to hide his glee when he played the song “Burning Bridges” to journalists gathered at Parliament in October as Simon Bridges’ incendiary battle with Jami-Lee Ross riveted the nation’s attention.

Now, a few months later, Bridges could just as gleefully respond by playing Peters “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” – the song made popular by Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in 1964 – in response to the government signing the United Nations Global Compact on Migration late last year.

The lyrics could have been written to describe Peters’ uncomfortable position as a long-time critic of mass immigration: “I’ve got a tiger by the tail, it’s plain to see; / I won’t be much when you get through with me / Well, I’m a losing weight and a turnin’ mighty pale / Looks like I’ve got a tiger by the tail…”

The government voted for the first UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration on December 19 – amid a flurry of mostly negative commentary. Bridges said National would withdraw from the pact if elected because it “could restrict the ability of future governments to set immigration and foreign policy, and to decide on which migrants are welcome and which aren’t”.

Coverage of the issue died down over the Christmas and New Year holiday period but it’s hard to believe that the matter has blown over or the damage to Peters and NZ First will not continue.

NZ First’s Facebook page shows just how much some of Peters’ supporters (including those who declare themselves now to be former supporters) are outraged by his support for the compact. The words “traitor”, “deceiver”, “turncoat”, “quisling”, “sellout” and “Judas” appear frequently among hundreds of hostile comments, alongside predictions of the annihilation of NZ First at the next election.

Peters has insisted the pact is non-binding and it won’t undermine New Zealand’s sovereignty but his attempts at reassurance have inevitably led to an obvious question – if it’s non-binding and of no consequence, why would someone who has based his long political career on opposing mass immigration agree to it at all (especially when close allies Australia and US have decided not to)?

Peters offered advice from Crown Law showing that it believes the pact is non-binding and won’t stifle free speech on immigration as critics have alleged but that didn’t help. As one Facebook commenter put it: “Sorry, guys, but even if you’re right you are still wrong. What is the point in signing up for something which is non-binding unless it’s what you actually want for the future?” (The comment had more than 100 likes.)

What certainly doesn’t help as well is that Golriz Ghahraman — the Greens’ foreign affairs spokesperson and Parliament’s most vocal advocate of open migration — endorsed the pact. She said signing it was extremely important and that “it is paramount that New Zealand, a responsible international citizen, be part of the co-operative solutions initiated by the compact.” 

It’s hard to imagine an endorsement that is more damaging for Peters than one from the Green politician whom right-wingers love to hate more than almost anyone else in Parliament.

Voting for the compact wouldn’t matter nearly as much, of course, if the government had already cut immigration substantially – as both Labour and NZ First promised individually on the campaign trail – but it hasn’t.

It’s a clear breach of a campaign pledge and Peters can’t even palm off the blame to Labour as the dominant partner since he has previously asserted that the coalition is not “Labour-led” but rather the meeting of two more-or-less equals. Certainly, his success in persuading Labour and the Greens to pass the waka-jumping law alone indicates just how much clout he has.

Few would believe therefore that he wouldn’t get his way if he wanted immigration numbers to be slashed by 20,000-30,000 – which Ardern said was the government’s aim after coalition talks were concluded. 

While Peters has been quick to point out that net immigration numbers have indeed fallen, the reduction of 8900 in the year from October 2017 – the month when Peters pledged his troth to Jacinda Ardern – is less than half the lower range of these figures. And a net figure of 61,800 migrants for the year ended October 2018 is still extremely high for a small nation. 

In this regard, it’s worth noting that Peters campaigned on cutting the net figure to 10,000 but conceded he had not won that battle with Ardern in the coalition talks. But given his defence of the migration pact, his supporters will now be wondering just how hard he fought for the cuts he said he wanted.

Protest against the UN compact will soon move from the pages of Facebook to the streets with anti-globalisation and anti-immigration protests planned for February 2 in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

They have been endorsed by former NZ rugby chief David Moffett, of the fledgling New Conservative party. In December, in response to Peters blaming the “alt-right” for criticism of the UN pact, he tweeted that the Prime Minister and her deputy were “traitors”. He recommended they enjoy their summer break because, “Next year will likely be your annus horribilis because we are coming to get you.”

Possibly because of his extensive career in rugby, Moffett’s mouthy warning was widely reported across the mainstream media and in political blogs, including the Daily Blog on the left and Whaleoil on the right – both concluding the party might succeed in tapping a deep well of public anger.

Most people will deplore Moffet’s threatening language but at the same time even moderates who want fewer immigrants and who are frustrated by the government’s inaction may be quietly and secretly pleased to see its feet held firmly to the fire over the issue.

New Zealand likes to think of itself as a haven far removed from the bitter immigration debates that have riven politics in Britain, the US and Australia, but this year we may discover we are not an exception.

Treasury made waves in 2016 when it noted that high immigration could push New Zealanders out of low-skilled jobs, depress wages and increase housing pressures. That view is now widely accepted and is a major reason why National – which oversaw a huge increase in the population – is no longer in government.

Treasury also remarked that while New Zealand had enjoyed a relatively calm public debate about the subject, “there is always a latent risk of this turning on a dime”.

That prospect could become a real risk this year, particularly if the economy weakens, KiwiSaver balances fall and the housing market slides – with the inevitable flow-on to employment as the wealth effect that makes voters happy to borrow and spend evaporates. It would be a brave person who believed that New Zealand would not experience more vicious hostility to immigration if voters’ jobs and homes were under threat.

The other politician who won’t be immune from that fallout, of course, is Phil Goff if he decides to stand again for the mayoralty in the local body elections in October. A central part of his campaign for Auckland’s mayoralty in 2016 was repeated promises to pressure the government to reduce immigration into Auckland as its infrastructure groans under the weight of new arrivals. But like Ardern and Peters, it was a promise he immediately forgot on assuming office.

However, it is Winston Peters whose future is most clearly at risk over immigration. A Colmar-Brunton poll in December put support for NZ First at four per cent – below the cut-off point of five per cent.

At that disastrously low level, Peters is in no position to continue to ignore calls from his followers to honour his campaign promises on the one subject that has most clearly defined his political platform for decades.

It may be time for him to finally tame the tiger by persuading his government colleagues to slash the huge number of non-citizens still arriving here.

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