This summer the Chronicle is bringing you another look at some of the best content of 2019. This story originally ran on August 06, 2019
Around much of the world, migrants and refugees have become hotbed issues. And the conversations are polarising and increasingly nasty.
Middle Eastern migration into Europe, the southern border of the US, the Australian "boat people" and "501" deportees have sparked heated debate.
The "Chinese-sounding names" Labour raised before the last election was arguably as bad as it's got for us. But in the past week or so, conversations on immigration and refugees have popped to the fore in prickly ways, and I would bet this won't be the last of it, nor the worst.
The first came out of the Ihumātao occupation, when Māori Council executive director Matthew Tukaki suggested housing demand caused by immigration was behind the need for the contentious Fletcher's building plans. This was called "offensive" by a prominent Māori commentator, and a TV journalist called it a "xenophobic dog whistle".
Then another debate between people from our oldest and newest communities was sparked by Tūpoho iwi leader Ken Mair who suggested that instead of Whanganui taking 110 refugees per year, impoverished Māori of the area should be looked after as a priority.
The head of the local Multicultural Council, Pushpa Prasad, said Māori should worry less about refugees and more about helping themselves.
She said: "We are chucking money in a leaky bucket or in a bottomless pit. Never mind how much you dump in there it still won't be enough unless people stand up by themselves and go and start fixing things for themselves or looking after themselves."
The irony that similar arguments are often levelled at refugees oughtn't be lost, but this highlights the idea that we shouldn't wait until people are responding to specific, often tricky, issues before we discuss migration.
Better consultation and planning in Whanganui would have had a good chance of avoiding conflict, and that is true of the country generally. We ought to make the arguments around the topic as clear as possible and gain a broad consensus or at least broad understandings. What are the economic benefits of migration (and our moral obligations with regard to refugees)? What is the ideal size of our cities and size of New Zealand, and what is the optimal pace of growth?
What ought be in place to assist with assimilation, and what does assimilation best look like? What is the relationship between migrants and crime? Is it right to favour some migrants over others? Do things such as school "white flight" suggest a problem, and if so what do we do?
Some of these questions can be informed by data. House-price pressure is clearly increased by demand, first-generation migrants tend to be less criminal than the overall population, and the broad economic advantages from migration are demonstrable, but sometimes the benefits and costs need to be balanced and that requires a subjective judgment. Further, some of these questions will not be informed by data, but simply by values.
Conversations on migration are in many ways discouraged. Accusations of racism are often quickly levelled, or people fear to say things that might offend. And in few areas of public policy are the extremes so obvious or toxic.
New Zealand's bona fide alt-right appear few. But their views are deeply entrenched. Xenophobia in New Zealand does not start and end with the far right, and the causes of racism are many, but the importance of echo chambers and a lack of informed debate are among them.
As though extremism required a counterbalance, the left-wing fringe in New Zealand, as it has around the world, has grown intolerant. Getting shouted down or de-platformed is common for any transgressions, real or perceived. Which is was why the issues at Ihumātao and Whanganui are intriguing. Both pit Māori versus migrants, groups the left tend to rally around. Who gets shouted down when they clash? God knows. But the fact Matthew Tukaki's comments received sharp criticism but Pushpa Prasad's got a free pass was curious.
Those at the fringes are loud and often dominate social media. Each use the other's extremism to display their own righteousness. Everyone who disagrees is the enemy. This leads to a false idea that the debate is totally polarised.
If proactive and informed voices don't create new debates, things will not improve. Those conversations will be uncomfortable at times. But in letting things drift, and only engaging in debate when issues arise, we aren't avoiding problems, we are incubating them.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the director of criminal justice at the University of Canterbury and lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions.