Pay attention. Who you vote in for Prime Minister is your business. But what Judith Collins just tried to pull off this week is every New Zealander's business.
Smelly political winds are blowing from across the Tasman and their stench should not be welcome here.
I belong to no political party. I am the author of a 2013 book that reported on the abuses by Australia on Manus and Nauru. I hoped to warn Kiwis to stop the contagion of this quiet war on asylum wafting across the Tasman. And I am scared.
I am scared because Australia's dirty trick of using refugees as political pawns in the run-up to an election hit our shores this week. Our job, as Kiwi voters, is to make sure this hits with a thud, instead of wings. For this election — and every election going forward.
We are better than that, I've always maintained. Or so I hoped, until I noticed Collins parroted an Australian phrase that raised a genuine red flag. She said one of our newest New Zealanders, Behrouz Boochani, "pushed ahead of everyone else who's applied for refugee status". She used the word "queue-jumping".
Why is this strange? There is no "queue" in the New Zealand asylum process. Simply put, there is no actual queue to jump. It does not exist.
In Australia, it's different. Australia reduces its annual UNHCR refugee in-take if their asylum arrival numbers rise. That's why spontaneous arrivals are seen to "jump ahead of the UNHCR queue".
New Zealand does not tie the two together. We set an annual UNHCR refugee quota (now 1500) and stick to it, no matter what the tiny, varying number of spontaneous arrivals.
So if there is no "queue" here to jump, why peddle a denigrating Australian slur that doesn't even apply? Perhaps the leader was simply uninformed. But one has to ask, when vote-winning Australian dog-whistling is coming out of a Kiwi politician's mouth, from whose shores is she being advised?
From John Howard to Scott Morrison - Australian prime ministers consistently use asylum seekers as political footballs in the run-up to election. Howard was the first to play on xenophobic fear to look tough during The Tampa crisis. It's been a winning strategy ever since, peddled in the past by media mavens like Australia's Crosby/Textor public relations firm. John Key was quietly a former client. He used the phrase in 2013 to win passage of a bill to lock up potential asylum boat arrivals here.
Collins seems to have watched and learned too. In a 2018 NZ Herald article, she applauded the Australian technique for winning an election. "That was on one issue and one slogan and that was: "Stop the boats". The people smugglers. And you know what? They did. They took that election and they stopped the boats. It's amazing, isn't it?
"They did that. And I think it can be as simple as that. That's what you need - that one ... idea that is so, that people feel that nobody is coping with."
So what do you do when there is no "refugee problem" in this country? You claim political inference in New Zealand's independent, non-political and mostly fair asylum process.
You accuse your opponent of favouritism, Golriz Ghahraman - and by extension a popular Prime Minister in coalition. Then, you don't offer proof.
You light the fire under the media to win the news cycle for a few days, then you move on.
There's only one problem. There is a real man behind this headline-grabbing. A truly outstanding man. Behrouz Boochani. An award-winning journalist who suffered under utterly inhumane conditions for years. An author who wrote a book entreating Australia to disassemble this cruel regime. A filmmaker who rose above his persecutors to steal out secret cellphone footage of their abuse to warn the world. And a human rights defender who has won worldwide acclaim for his tireless advocacy.
His case had more public documentation of persecution and suffering - as required by NZ Immigration when adjudicating his refugee application - than most other refugees in the world. After his eight-month wait for his case to be heard, we can be proud to call him one of our own now.
But Behrouz woke up last week in his Christchurch home and understood the one thing that probably slipped your notice as you flicked over to the next news story; the political football had indeed been passed across the seas. Collins decided to run with it.
Every former refugee may sleep a little less soundly in Aotearoa this week. And for this, we are all poorer.
• Tracey Barnett is an Auckland-based columnist and the author of The Quiet War on Asylum.