Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards: Debating Labour's 'racist' housing policy

Leader of the opposition David Shearer and Grant Robertson, Deputy Leader. Photo / File
Leader of the opposition David Shearer and Grant Robertson, Deputy Leader. Photo / File

The forgotten political issue of the week is the Labour Party's bold and highly controversial new policy of banning non-residents from buying houses in New Zealand. This major policy announcement was quickly overshadowed by more sensational stories about state surveillance of the media, the Government's GCSB reforms, and claims of terrorists in New Zealand. But the housing announcement by David Shearer is, nonetheless, incredibly polarising and has the potential to impact on debate right up until the next election.

A big part of the debate has been over whether Labour's policy is 'racist' or 'xenophobic'. Unfortunately for Labour, one of the first headlines published online was, David Shearer tells Pakistani taxi driver that he can't buy home. Of course, it was pure satire - by Ben Uffindell on his increasingly influential website, The Civilian. Despite being fictional, this story cleverly summed up what many were thinking.

But is Labour's policy really 'racist' or 'xenophobic'? A number of housing experts, commentators and journalists have certainly seen it as such. Patrick Gower has framed it that way in his TV3 item: Labour housing restrictions a last-ditch effort? suggesting that the policy feeds off and feeds into racist prejudices, which are explicitly seen in opinion polls.

A number of economists have also been troubled by the reactionary nature of Labour's policy. For example Shamubeel Eaqub has labeled the policy a 'populist knee-jerk reaction' saying 'It's very easy to try and point the finger at 'other people'...

It reeks of xenophobia' - see James Weir's House policy 'reeks of xenophobia'. Similarly, David Hargreaves has pointed out that Labour's proposal to exempt Australians from the ban is particularly problematic: 'Any exemptions we did allow from the ban would obviously leave us open to accusations of racism or racial favouritism' - see: The housing market seems set to be a big election issue.

He also says that perceptions of racism could ultimately harm New Zealand's economy: 'Don't let us kid ourselves that we could apply a policy that might be seen as anti-Chinese without there being ramifications. Meat stuck on a wharf in China? Sound familiar? Perhaps some previously unidentified problem may manifest itself with our milk powder? The obstacles that could be placed in the way of our burgeoning trade relationship with China are innumerable'.

Unsurprisingly, John Key and other politicians of the right have condemned Labour in strong terms - see Peter Wilson and Laura McQuillan's Labour's new policy 'dog-whistle claptrap'. But perhaps more interestingly, the policy has had a major serve on the Labour-leaning blogsite, The Standard, where it is criticised as being as xenophobic as the opposition to the Chinese purchase of the Crafar farms last year - see: Speculation.

The writer makes the point that many on the left wish to discriminate in favour of 'good ol' NZ property speculators'. And, of course, the domestic property investors include a fair number of New Zealand MPs - a point well made by Cameron Slater in his post, Labour's policy to attack evil property speculators like these ones.

There have also been numerous commentators defending the policy as perfectly innocent. For example, Colin Espiner has given the policy his strong endorsement, and describes its political character instead as 'nationalistic, New Zealand-first' - see: Labour housing plan is clever politics. Espiner also says, 'I don't agree that Labour is being xenophobic with this policy, though I accept it will appeal to rednecks. Protecting a country's housing stock from foreign investors looking for a quick buck isn't racist - it's common sense'.

Damian Christie also provides a strong defence of Labour's policy in Johnny Foreigner & the Auckland Property Market. He makes the very logical point that the housing ban can also be seen as xenophobic 'in the same sense that all our border controls, immigration policy are xenophobic. Being a New Zealand resident or citizen gives you benefits in New Zealand over people who aren't. That's pretty much standard practice in every country in the world. And until we have a completely borderless world society, I'm okay with that'.

Many pro-Labour voices have taken exception to accusations of racism and xenophobia - see for example, Scott Yorke's More helpful tools and Martyn Bradbury's 'Chan-ban'.

My own opinion is that the policy cannot be viewed in isolation from the political climate it's being used in - and that's a climate in which there is obvious xenophobia and racism about immigrants and foreign investors. The policy is very much in tune with efforts by the Greens and NZ First to stoke up resentment about certain 'foreigners' taking over the country - see for example Newswire's Chinese get cheap loans, Peters says.

So when the policy was first announced on Sunday's Q+A programme, my immediate reaction on the show was: 'This will put Labour up in the polls, but it's kind of desperate, and it will be seen as that because it's essentially playing the race card. Let's face it, the elephant in the room is Asian buyers, and so it's xenophobic. In some ways, it could be seen in a minor way like Don Brash's Orewa moment.

He'll get the boost, but he'll have to get used to being accused of being racist, the Greens and NZ First are when they push these policies. And Labour really are pushing the xenophobic policies on land sales, on foreign investment, and we're seeing race being a big part of what this debate is. It's dog whistle politics' - watch TVNZ's The Q+A Panel on Labour's Housing Policy.

A major reason why the policy can be seen as reactionary is that it appears to be designed simply for populist electoral gain rather than actually solving a problem. This gives it the appearance of scapegoating 'outsiders' (of various ethnicities). For arguments about the policy being 'populist' you can read Gordon Campbell's new column, Labour turns to housing again, which raises whether Labour is 'pandering to anti-Asian sentiments', and suggests that 'With his leadership once more on the ropes, Shearer has again reached for housing policy as a lifeline'.

Campbell says 'the darker aspect of the policy announcement is that many voters might not make any distinction between overseas buyers - who would be outlawed - and immigrants, who would presumably still be able to bid and buy'. John Armstrong also thinks the policy will be a winner, and describes it as a highly pragmatic, albeit flawed, policy - see: Shearer sets agenda with foreign sales ban.

So would the foreigner housing ban actually work? Brian Rudman says 'no' - see his very good column, Foreigner ban won't build one new home. (Rudman is also critical of the Government's recent housing policies - see: Bullying won't bring cheap homes).

But even bigger questions have been raised by Stephen Franks, who says that the policy could be in breach of New Zealand's trade agreements because it unjustifiably discriminates between different countries - see: House buying ban blocked by China FTA?.

David Farrar also looks at some of the available statistics on housing purchases, and on that basis suggests the policy is simply 'a snake oil solution' - noting especially that many of the sellers of houses are also overseas-based - see: How many foreign buyers are there?. But for a bigger clue as to why Labour might be resorting to such policies, see Farrar's blogpost about the most recent opinion poll, which put Labour on 29% and National up to 51% - see: Latest poll.

Finally on the topic, there's been a huge amount of debate on Twitter about Labour's new policy - to read some of this, see my blogpost, Top tweets about Labour's housing 'foreigner ban'.

Other recent important or interesting items include the following:

Is John Key scaremongering about New Zealand-related terrorism in order to convince the public about the GCSB reforms? Certainly the Prime Minister's claims are being challenged by a number of academics - see: PM justifies spy bill: Kiwis trained by al-Qaeda. Controversial investigative journalist Jon Stephenson is also dismissing Key's claims - see Dan Satherley's Al-Qaida claim a GCSB 'sales job' - Stephenson.

Another academic, Associate Professor Grant Duncan, says that recent revelations about international spying operations should be enough to kill off the Government's proposed bill - see: OK. Let's kill that GCSB Bill!. And for information on the claims about how New Zealand is integrated into the US-led world spying network, see Michael Field's NZ part of NSA surveillance - Snowden. Leftwing activist Mike Treen also has a very interesting blogpost, in which he details his own dealings with state spying and argues for radical measures - see: Close Waihopai! Abolish the SIS!.

The Andrea Vance media spying scandal has claimed a second scalp, but now the focus has shifted to John Key's head of staff, Wayne Eagleson - see: Key backs top adviser over phone records scandal. But has the media brought the problem on itself? See Tim Watkin's blogpost, Who's to blame for the abuse on Andrea Vance?. Certainly today's Press editorial thinks that those in authority have gone too far on the matter - see: Release of journalist's records crosses line. And there are further revelations about state surveillance of the media in David Fisher's NZSIS has special protocol for spying on journalists.

David Fisher also reports on new information about the New Zealand military's role in Afghanistan - see: Families paid after SAS killings, film says.

Nicky Hager's claims about the New Zealand Defence Force spying on John Stephenson are yet to be proven or disproven. But Stephenson's US bosses are certainly taking the allegations very seriously - see: Editors want answers in Kiwi spying claims. And with the Defence Force issuing denials of the story, Chris Trotter says, the Media misses the real story.

The latest news about religious education in state schools is examined by Nicholas Jones in his article, Revealed: Hand of God in schools and Passions high over Bible in schools. Meanwhile, Kate Shuttleworth has the details of who might end up running experimental new schools - see: Charter schools: Govt negotiates with final four.

The Labour-Green proposal to establish NZ Power gets a major critique from an academic whose research the proposal was partly based upon - see Patrick Smellie's Labour-Green electricity poster-child won't play ball.

Mana leader Hone Harawira is a big spender of taxpayer funds on his travel and accommodation, despite - or, perhaps, because of - not being in Parliament much - see Isaac Davison's Harawira still top spender. Of course, the MP has also recently been convicted in court, and he's seeking help with paying the fine - see Matthew Theunissen's Harawira to seek cash from MPs.

The Greens voted along with the rest of the Parliament - apart from John Banks - to introduce the new drug laws which will require new recreational drugs to be tested on animals. But now MP Mojo Mathers is drafting a bill to stop the animal testing - see Newswire's Greens continue to fight animal testing of party.

Finally, Chris Trotter writes a fictional account of how David Shearer came to be a superb political communicator - see: Something In The Coffee: A Satire.

- NZ Herald

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Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago. He teaches and researches on New Zealand politics, public policy, political parties, elections, and political communication. His PhD, completed in 2003, was on 'Political Parties in New Zealand: A Study of Ideological and Organisational Transformation'. He is currently working on a book entitled 'Who Runs New Zealand? An Anatomy of Power'. He is also on the board of directors for Transparency International New Zealand.

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