Immigration is a hot topic coming up to the election but just talking about it can be a tense experience. In episode two of Slice of Heaven, a 4-part podcast series for RNZ in association with Massey University, Noelle McCarthy asks what those tensions are, who is stoking them and why are we so touchy about it all?

By John Daniell and Paul Spoonley

Recent political results in the USA and in Europe remind us that immigration remains a sensitive issue that generates anxiety and anger among some.



New Zealand has been here before. It was a galvanizing topic in the 1996 General Election which translated into substantial support for a new political party, New Zealand First.

Will it have the same effect in 2017?

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One of the ironies is that New Zealand First appears to need high immigration numbers to generate support. And in 2017, they certainly have that with the net immigration rate hovering at around 72,000, an historic high.

This association between immigration flows and support for New Zealand First is obvious in the graph of net migration and the seats won by the party over the last two decades.

The correlation is broken only in 2008, the year New Zealand First's political donations were investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.

Peters was found not guilty of any wrongdoing but lost the electorate of Tauranga and the party fell below the 5% threshold, failing to win a seat in Parliament. Since then support has again risen as the number of immigrants has increased.

If the correlation holds, it suggests the potential for a strong New Zealand First surge this year.

This growing anxiety about immigrant numbers has been confirmed by recent polls, notably UMR earlier this year. The electorate is divided - although not as much as some would have us believe.

The MBIE polling in 2016, the annual Asia New Zealand Foundation polling and the Ipsos Public Affairs survey in 2016 all show that the support for immigrants and immigration is relatively positive - much more so than most other countries.

But there is also concern that immigrants are not adapting to New Zealand and some see a country and its values under threat.

This group typically numbers between 10 - 20% of those polled, but they have been joined by others recently who see the numbers arriving as too high and putting strain on infrastructure.

The Ipsos polling shows that conservative voters are likely to see immigration as one of their two top issues facing New Zealand; left wing voters rank it much lower.

New Zealand First appeals to these anxieties - which is perhaps why other parties are also echoing the line, "New Zealand for New Zealanders" and wanting to dial back the numbers arriving.

This reflects a mix of legitimate concerns - the additional pressure immigration places on infrastructure and housing affordability - with perceptions that might not be so accurate. When a Massey University study asked people about the number of immigrants arriving, they routinely overestimated the number.

In this kind of environment, Winston Peters' message that "unfocused wholesale immigration is taking jobs away from New Zealanders" will reach a receptive audience.

If the message becomes one of fear - fear that you will not get a job, or you will get paid less for the job, you will not be able to afford a house, or your national identity is at risk - then the story is the important element, not the facts. And claims that the media are peddling "alternative facts" or "fake news" are useful cover.

It's a tactic that might look ridiculous to some but it will find an audience, and by delegitimizing the media a candidate can avoid being held to account.

There are a number of effects as the rhetoric scales up. One is that accusations of racism often have the effect of generating sympathy - it justifies claims of "political correctness" and that debate is being stifled.

The other is that key sources of information - the media, some commentators - are often derided as being politically motivated if they seek to explain the complexities of immigration, and its benefits.

Take the target of 10,000 net immigrants. Given that New Zealand (and Australian) citizens, as they return, depart or simply stay in New Zealand, are critical to the current high rates of net immigration, then a figure of 10,000 does not make much sense - unless we're thinking of legislating the movement of our own citizens.

But in the context of a story that appeals to emotions, making sense is not really the point.

As a recent New York Times editorial said of Canada (it applies equally to New Zealand), immigration is based on hard-headed economic reasons, not "race" or ethnicity. And immigrants outperform the locally born over the long term. But surveys in the United States and elsewhere also reflect the common fear of cultural displacement and racial resentment.

An election campaign is when those concerns are most on display.

There are legitimate concerns about immigration that deserve discussion, but whether they will get considered debate over the next few months is an open question. Will we return to a moral panic like that we saw around immigration in the 1996 election?

Jim Bolger, who appointed Winston Peters as Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition government after the 1996 election, told Slice of Heaven that Peters is operating in the same space as Donald Trump and other politicians by practicing "xenophobic populism."

Bolger says this is "based on identifying some definable group by religion, by ethnicity, by colour, by nationality ... and you blame them ... and that to my mind is an appalling indictment on those who do it and on any society that would accept that as a reason to change policies."

When we asked Peters whether he was happy to be lining up alongside people like Donald Trump, he described it as "an indolent, stupid question."

This story was produced for RNZ National by Noelle McCarthy and John Daniell for Bird of Paradise Productions Limited in association with Massey University. The sound engineer was Andre Upston. Thanks to Dave Dobbyn for the title and theme and to all the musicians who generously allowed us to use their music. The executive producers were Justin Gregory and Tim Watkin. This episode used archival audio from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision. You can subscribe or listen to every Slice of Heaven podcast on iTunes, Spotify or at radionz.co.nz/series.