John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Cunliffe's bark more poodle than pit-bull

Labour leader’s tactics on linking immigration and housing problems sound wishy-washy

The Labour Party says immigration is a factor in overheating the property market. Photo / APN
The Labour Party says immigration is a factor in overheating the property market. Photo / APN

Not so much a dog whistle; more a bit of a dog's breakfast. That sums up Labour's ongoing attempt to link immigrant levels to the ever-upwards spiral in house prices.

In a rare moment of generosity towards its long-time opponent, National has handed Labour three political gifts.

First, the ruling party seems remarkably relaxed about what looks like being an explosion in net migration levels brought about by the drop in New Zealanders leaving for Australia and increase in those coming home.

Add to that the absence of any significant housing-related initiatives in the Budget. And add to that the Prime Minister's King Canute-like refusal to acknowledge there is a housing "crisis" — even though the frantic activity of his Housing Minister Nick Smith speaks otherwise.

David Cunliffe's attempt to fill the vacuum left by National is more poodle than pit-bull, however. While encroaching into Winston Peters' backyard, the Labour leader seems reluctant to really go for the political jugular on immigration.

If he is indulging in dog-whistle politics, it is a very strange example of that tactic. Dog-whistle politics involve sending coded messages which resonate strongly with particular groups or sub-groups, but which are not picked up by the rest of the voting public — just as a high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs, but not humans.

There is nothing furtive about Labour's highlighting of immigration as a factor in overheating the property market. The party's tweaking of monetary policy suggests adjusting inflows to help avoid hikes in interest rates.

Even so, the "dog whistle" tag was still being pinned on Cunliffe yesterday with Bill English telling Parliament that Labour "has a dog whistle in its mouth and it cannot decide whether to blow it or not".

The Finance Minister is correct in assessing that Labour seems unsure how hard a line to take when it comes to cutting migrant numbers.

The party knows there is no point in trying to out-flank Peters by being even more extreme. Doing so risks alienating ethnic constituencies which Labour has long courted, as well as troubling those supporters of a liberal bent.

Slashing migrant numbers would mean slashing the skilled migrant intake, thereby undermining Labour's argument that the country's future prosperity hinges on having a more highly-skilled workforce.

Cunliffe is averse to setting immigration targets.

But not setting a target makes Cunliffe's talk of "gradually and smoothly" adjusting the flows "so helping to sustain our communities, add to economic growth but not put too much pressure on house prices" sound wishy-washy.

In positioning Labour somewhere between the status quo favoured by National and Peters' more hard-line approach, Cunliffe might think he can please everyone. The danger is he satisfies no one.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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