English’s middling approach to the Trump immigration controversy might lose him support, but he’s focused on keeping onside with the world superpower.

The condemnation of Bill English is nearly as strong as the condemnation of Donald Trump in New Zealand politics at the moment. It seems that in playing a cautious role over the controversial US ban on migration from seven Muslim countries, the Prime Minister has lost the public debate and is being universally criticised. In fact, amongst all the current political commentary and debate it's hard to find any support for the way the PM is handling the situation.

Essentially, English is attempting to tip-toe a fine line between registering New Zealand's disagreement with the Trump "Muslim ban" and keeping onside with the world's biggest superpower.

Condemnation of English's approach

Newspaper editorials have, so far, been stridently against the PM's response. Today the Dominion Post says: Bill English's response to Trump's travel ban was too late, too quiet. The paper asks: "why is it too much to ask for a vaguely proportionate response to an objectionable policy that has enormous ramifications around the world?" It argues that "New Zealand doesn't need to match Trump's utter disregard for diplomatic niceties. But his response, while technically an objection to the ban, was so late, qualified and careful that it came out as a murmur."

The paper concludes that "if he wants to avoid seeming trapped by indecision, or cowed by fear of a great patron, he should speak more forcefully when faced with a moral outrage." A similar line is pushed by The Press: "The tacit support for Trump's order by the Australian government is disappointing, and we should not follow our Anzac mates on this issue. New Zealand is a small country but is seen as an honest broker on the world stage. With condemnation of Trump's action around the world, we would be in good company to oppose his policy in any way we can" - see: New Zealand must condemn President Trump's bigotry.


Political observers have also been highly critical. Audrey Young says "When English finally spoke to the news media about an issue that has horrified New Zealanders, the best he could do was to say he 'disagreed' with the Trump move and that is was 'discrimination.' More astonishing than the flaccid response was English's insistence that it amounted to criticism of the US policy. English was slow to respond to an issue causing anguish around the world and his response was inadequate" - see: Bill English needs to get out of cruise control.

From the left, Gordon Campbell is scathing of English's obviously calculated approach: "We have a bean counter who seems fixated on the political calculations involved here. One can imagine the weekend vacillations: no need to front this ; wait and see what the UK/Australia/everyone else does first; delay a response until we're safely invisible, way back in the pack. Above all, try not to get conspicuously offside with the Trump administration. To that end, be sure to welcome any sign that the White House is (belatedly) showing restraint" - see: On NZ's silence over Trump's anti-Muslim agenda.

TVNZ's Jehan Casinader has responded to English, saying "Many young Kiwis have cultural ties to the seven countries on the 'Muslim ban' list.

They deserve a Prime Minister who speaks up for them. They deserve a Government that will raise its voice in the face of injustice and intolerance, despite the possible political consequences" - see: Not enough to say 'Yeah, nah' to Muslim ban. Casinader characterises the PM's response as "kind of bob-each-way comment made by a seven-year-old who doesn't like the school bully, but is desperate to be invited to his birthday party."

And English's management of the issue is scathingly evaluated by Patrick Gower who says "In the five days since Donald Trump issued his travel ban, the Government has looked hopeless" - see: NZ Govt 'hopeless' in response to Trump ban. Gower calls for English to take a harder line against Trump: He's actually got to take a stand for New Zealand and say the whole policy is wrong."

English's middling approach

The middling approach taken by the National Government has led Tracy Watkins to ask: Could Donald Trump cost Bill English the election?. She explains how this Trump controversy is likely to be the start of many that the Prime Minister will have to navigate: "He better get used to it.

Because this is how it's going to be for the coming weeks, and months. Trump's presidency doesn't leave much wriggle room. World leaders will be put on the spot again and again over whether they stand with Trump or against him.

Standing against Trump risks alienating a world super power, and could easily get personal - that exemption to the Muslim ban, for instance, could just as easily be whipped away. Maybe that explains the Government's apparent reluctance to confirm New Zealand is on the list of countries with an exemption, despite it being reported as fact by the world media.

But standing with Trump is hardly risk free either and risks setting off a firestorm at home. National suffered electorally for years over its loyalty to the defunct Anzus defence alliance and opposition to New Zealand's nuclear free legislation."

Watkins examines English's delicate positioning: "English is understandably worried about grabbing such an unpredictable tiger by the tail. In his first comments on the Muslim ban, English has followed the more cautious line of the likes of British Prime Minister Theresa May, saying the policy is wrong, while not condemning it outright" - see: Bill English toes cautious line over Trump's Muslim ban.

Watkins also brings attention to the lessons English may have drawn from the last Labour Government's more vocal differences with the US government: "When then-Labour leader Helen Clark ended up on the wrong side of the ledger for her opposition to the Iraq war, the chill from Washington was palpable."

But some measured support or an explanation for English's approach is supplied by Fran O'Sullivan in her article, Reading between the lines. She says "Trump has wiped the TPP, but English will be hoping that this does not mean other avenues to make doing business easier between the US and NZ will dry up."

O'Sullivan suggests that "The Prime Minister was clearly not going to aim a direct shaft at Trump no matter the Opposition urging and baiting. First that is not English's style. Second, there is nothing to be gained for New Zealand when the most important issue - at this stage - is to ensure our citizens (particularly dual citizens) are not impeded when it comes to entering the US amidst the current immigration furore."

Politicisation of Bill English's Trump difficulties

Bill English's political opponents and even his sometime allies have been taking strong advantage of his difficulties in navigating the Trump controversy. Obviously this has been perfect for Labour. It has played right into their current election-year strategy of painting English as someone not morally equipped to lead the country. This was in fact Andrew Little's key attack line in his State of the Nation speech on Sunday - that English lacks leadership and moral courage.

And Audrey Young points out that "For the first time in a while, Labour and the Greens look sharper and more focused than National. Andrew Little in his state of the nation said New Zealand had a new Prime Minister but not a leader. English came close to proving him right yesterday" - see: Bill English needs to get out of cruise control.

But it's not only Opposition parties criticising English's stance. Less explicitly against the PM, government minister Peter Dunne has penned a strident opinion piece, saying "From New Zealand's perspective, the response should be loud and clear. What is currently happening in the United States is an outrage" - see: NZ's response should be loud and clear: what is happening in Trump's America is an outrage. He says that New Zealand needs "to loudly condemn the current United States' approach, like Canada, Britain and Germany - the countries we like to associate with".

But, so far, less has been heard from New Zealand First, who might be thought to be more sympathetic towards Trump and his immigration policies. But Darroch Ball, a New Zealand First list MP has had his views reported on the subject: "the ban did not come as a surprise following Trump's campaign.

He was not in a position to condemn or show support for the policy, he said. The country's housing crisis, infrastructure, and current immigration numbers needed to be considered before bringing any more people into the country, he said" - see Georgia Forrester's Manawatu people condemn Trump's Muslim ban.

Responding to Trump with an increased refugee intake

Numerous commentators have suggested that the best response to Trump's immigration controversy is for New Zealand to increase the number of refugees that it takes, perhaps including some of those who were destined for the US. This has been suggested by The Press newspaper, as well as by Peter Dunne, who says New Zealand's should double its refugee quota as a kind of protest.

Eric Crampton of the New Zealand Institute has made this case in more detail: "New Zealand should announce a new visa category for people who were legally entitled to live and work in America until the Executive Order broke things. If the New Zealand government has wanted to attract more highly skilled migrants, there would be few better bets than trying to help those who have been hurt by American policy."

"New Zealand could expand its sponsored refugee trial to accommodate those refugees with whom America has broken faith. This need not be at any particularly large cost to the Government. All the government needs to do is let caring New Zealanders help" - see: Doing good, and doing well as a consequence.

The authority on this issue is longtime refugee campaigner Murdoch Stephens, who says, "English won't even need to raise his voice, we could just increase our quota and let that example be our voice" - see: Why should Kiwis care about Trump's Muslim and refugee restrictions?. And you can sign Action Station's petition here: Bring refugees banned from the US to New Zealand.

But Stephens also raises the interesting question of whether New Zealand already practices its own discriminatory refugee policy: "I've been running the Doing Our Bit campaign to double the refugee quota for the last few years and in that time I've become acutely aware of how New Zealand is also, in a much more subtle manner, rejecting refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

I wrote about it in 2014 and 2015, but the issue never really got picked up. New Zealand has our own softer version of the refugee ban. It is neither bombastic or explicitly based on religion, but the consequences are the same: we've had a drastic reduction in refugees arriving to New Zealand from Muslim countries" - see: Trump's refugee ban is a moral outrage that shames America. When will PM Bill English say so?.

Finally, for a short satire on the Government's stance on Trump, see Ben Uffindell's English: up to 'others to decide' whether ethnic cleansing is wrong, but 'certainly not the direction we plan to take'.