Appeals to patriotism seek to tap the most accommodating of instincts. They can also be the most dangerous of tools. Too often, politicians talk of it when they want to beat the populist drum without much regard for the potentially dire consequences. So it was with a speech by Labour leader David Shearer last week, during which he set out policies that promised to give New Zealanders the first crack at jobs by making it harder for businesses to bring in migrant labour. Helpfully, Mr Shearer underlined the dismal nature of this approach by using the word "patriotic" as many as five times.
The Labour leader said the current requirements for employers to try to find New Zealand workers before migrants were lax, often requiring a boss to show only that a job had been advertised. Labour would require companies to work with agencies, industry groups and Work and Income before approval was given to employ a migrant. Immigration NZ could also force employers to train New Zealand workers in return for being allowed to bring in migrant labour. Additionally, local companies could be favoured for government contracts over cheaper international bids on benefits such as job creation.
Mr Shearer placed his policy in the context of the rebuilding of Christchurch. This was an opportunity to employ and train New Zealand workers but there was a risk it would be squandered because of cheaper migrant labour, he said. Such talk may impress those still harbouring xenophobic tendencies, but Mr Shearer is mistaken if he thinks it will strike a chord with most New Zealanders. Least impressed of all will be the business community. It will be appalled by Labour's intrusiveness and red tape that will serve only to stifle initiative. It will also point out, quite rightly, that government has no business interfering directly in staffing, as would be the case under a policy requiring companies with government contracts to train one apprentice for every $1 million investment.
A particularly depressing aspect of Labour's policy is the awarding of government contracts on platforms other than price. Local companies should be striving to be internationally competitive and able to compete on cost. Under Labour they could give up measuring themselves against foreign competitors knowing that the creation of jobs, possibly unwarranted in some part, would win the day.
More broadly, Labour is sending a message to potential migrants that can only be detrimental. The obstacles placed before employers signal that New Zealand has little interest in competing in the market for global talent. The very people who should be important drivers of growth would be told that even when they are wanted, it will take far longer to get here because of new hurdles. They will happily go elsewhere.
Mr Shearer's approach is far from novel. Any number of governments have sought to play on people's fear that immigrants make it harder for natives to get jobs and put too much pressure on public services. All they have succeeded in doing is stifling their business communities and hobbling their economies. There is nothing in Mr Shearer's prescription that suggests a different outcome.
Appeals to patriotism are usually a port of call for politicians desperate to win popularity. But the changed face of New Zealand and an appreciation of the important economic role of immigration has deprived this approach of much of its impact. Making it harder for migrant workers to enter the country will only hinder development. Most New Zealanders understand that. So should Mr Shearer.