I moved to the United Kingdom on the September 18, 2014, the day Scotland voted on whether to cleave the 300-year-old union in two. A news junkie with no deep feeling for the outcome, I was curious about the idea of the Yes (independence) vote winning.

Like a passing motorist drawn to a car accident, I was morbidly fascinated by what it would look like to unpick centuries of history and graft a new, nationalist state from the union. A little less than two years later, chastened by the intervening political tumult, I would witness the severing of a different union, though this time I wished I could avert my eyes.

I returned home in December. Far from the optimistic and welcoming country I encountered on my first visit in 2009, the three and a half years I lived in the UK were set against the backdrop of a rapidly degenerating politics, culminating in senseless xenophobia and rampant nationalism.

Brexit’s most strident critics are still bemused by the vote. They fruitlessly scour the history books for an example of a wealthy nation deciding, en masse, to embrace a future of relative penury. They’re wasting their time. Defying all prediction (and, I might add, reality), most voters are still happy with the way they voted.

But like any apparently simple political problem, the UK’s predicament is marbled with veins of ineluctable complexity.

What high immigration looks like

For reasons of family, I spent one weekend a month in the Brexit heartland: rolling green fields and quiet country lanes pocked, here and there, by rustic, welcoming pubs. The dark satanic mills long since converted into restaurants and museums, the nation’s ire is now directed at the vast housing developments that blight the countryside. They are now so vast and numerous that in many parts of the country they connect hitherto distinct communities.

Village-creep has entered the popular lexicon. Homes for around 300,000 people (about 80 percent of the population of Christchurch) must be built each year just to cater for the new arrivals. This is what high immigration looks like.

Other, urban parts of Brexit country are suffering with a more familiar problem: immigration-driven population growth has overwhelmed underfunded public services. In Italy, Greece and Germany, where hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived from the Middle-East and Africa, the situation is even more complicated.

New Zealanders don’t yet know what this sort of strain looks like — and probably won’t for a generation. Auckland roads are too busy, school rolls have crept up, and house prices are too high, but not until we’re forced to rezone the Waitakere Ranges, Zealandia or the national parks for housing will we have a truly difficult discussion about immigration. As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has stressed, our problems have as much to do with poor planning as numbers.

Europe’s lurch to the far-right, driven mostly by anti-immigrant rhetoric, has made me cynical about New Zealand’s lazy flirtation with populism, and the triumphalism exhibited by many in our public life that our populists are either not as bad or not as effective as those overseas.

Though cities across Europe and the United States have, for the better part of the decade, been dealing with record numbers of arrivals (annual net migration to the UK has been over 250,000 since 2004), New Zealand lurched to the anti-immigrant right after just three years of above-average arrivals. So quickly and completely did the mood of the country change that nearly every party pivoted to soak up wayward votes.

Our enthusiastic embrace of radical immigration cuts should give us pause, especially in these troubled times. We need to ask ourselves how we handled our immigration debate, and whether or not we have joined the ranks of the northern hemisphere democracies in embracing populist, xenophobic politics.

Debates on New Zealand populism tend to boil down to two questions: whether Winston Peters means what he says, and if he is effectively neutered by MMP.

Many of our columnists suggest not. RNZ’s Tim Watkin, responding to an (admittedly hysterical) column in the The Washington Post on Winston Peters, labelled the idea that New Zealand was in the pocket of the far right “twaddle”. He claimed that Peters’ interventionist economic policies exclude him from the smear of ‘far-right’ politics.

Toby Manhire, in The New Zealand Herald, wrote fondly that, “If Winston Peters is our closest analogue of Pauline Hanson or Donald Trump or Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen, then bless him forever.”

Watkin’s defence is the easiest to rebut. If being ‘far right’ means adhering to non-interventionist economics, Watkin’s definition would exclude nearly all of the ascendent right-wing movements around the world, particularly those in Europe. In fact, unlike the centre-right, the far-right is almost always opposed to non-interventionist neoliberalism.

France’s Le Pen wants to leave the Euro and revoke the independence of the Banque de France, allowing her to create money to finance social welfare spending and her industrial strategy. She also wants a more generous pension and ‘patriotic’ regional investment (sound familiar?). Nigel Farage’s UKIP and leave.eu campaigns were similar: pensions, health spending and regions. It was about more of the state, not less.

Indeed, the Brexit campaign’s commitment to more state intervention was pretty impossible to miss — it was written on the side of a now-infamous bus. The far-right isn’t and has never been defined by government spending, but rather by who and what the government spends on — vintage Peters territory. These parties are quite happy to have a bloated, completely public health service, so long as it isn’t used by foreigners (or people with foreign sounding names — some members of our current government have conflated the two).

Debates on New Zealand populism tend to boil down to two questions: whether Winston Peters means what he says, and if he is effectively neutered by MMP, which allows populism expression and representation without affording it power — a stress-valve, as it’s commonly called.

The first question misses the point. It’s an open secret in Wellington that Peters is a competent minister and intelligent politician, far from the firey, cantankerous bigot he plays in the media. As a minister, he proved himself competent and even boring. Indeed, on the point of immigration — one of his signature policies — he has followed the lead of the major party.

But Peters’ (relative) competence as a minister should not be used to excuse his dog-whistle politics. That would be to miss the point. His talent for government makes his politics even more cynical. He’s a man who will whip up the electorate’s hate for a shot at office. Sure, few of his promises might make it into the books, but Peters’ anti-immigrant stirring doesn’t just vanish after the election like his 33 (or was it 38)-page coalition document.

Tinderbox just needs a match

Such politics fester in the electorate waiting for another politician to capitalise on them. Take it from someone who has lived it, the tinderbox of a racialised immigration debate takes just a spark — a foolish crime committed by a single immigrant or refugee, or a spate of immigration frauds — to catch light and rage out of the control of even a benign populist. It’s happened overseas and it will probably happen here.

MMP is the opposite of a stress valve for populism in this country. By the end of this Parliament, Peters will have served three terms in Government (two as deputy Prime Minister), as long as Helen Clark or John Key. In fact, the opportunities for politicians like Peters to work across the political spectrum has arguably made it more likely for extremists to wander into government than not.

Research from psephologists’ and political scientists’ dissections of the US presidential election of 2016 and the European Union referendum in the UK suggest that MMP actually obscures the extent of populism in New Zealand.

New Zealand First’s paltry 7.5 percent on election night might seem like reason for complacency, compared to the shocking number of votes won by Trump in the US election. But, as pointed out recently by Cambridge political scientist David Runciman, the main driving factor for US voters in the last election was not candidate, but party.

Sure, Donald Trump was loathed by much or most of his party, but voters who historically pulled the lever for the Republicans continued to do so. Considered this way, only 10 percent of Americans directly voted for Donald Trump in the Republican Primary — the rest got into line largely as a result of loyalty. In an MMP system, where populist politics don’t need the support of a major party to launch themselves into government, it’s difficult to see whether a populist like Peters could, in fact, capture a major party like Trump has.

Tolerance of bigotry and populism

We can hazard a guess. We’d need to know what Labour and Green voters think of Peters. Can they tolerate bigotry in their government if only to keep National out? One wonders whether Peters’ repeated assaults on neoliberalism, long the bête noire of diehard Labour and Green voters, have placated any dissenters in the other two parties.

The overwhelming support (three against, 140-odd for) of Green Party delegates for the party’s support of the Labour-NZ First coalition is one indication that the three parties’ mutual loathing of neoliberalism has triumphed over any compunctions they might have held against getting into bed with a known bigot and populist.

The progressive left should not be too eager to embrace Peters’ assault on neoliberalism. The interventionist utopia remembered by Peters and his army of Gold Card-wielding nostalgists was not always value-neutral or benign on the question of race.

Even the well-intentioned first Labour Government, which banished discrimination in social services between Maori and Pakeha, zealously interned German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants and their children during World War Two. Our collective memory of that government is probably similar to that of Janet Frame’s in To the Is-Land, who recalls her family celebrating it like the ‘second coming’.

I, however, like to temper that jubilation with observations from Patricia Grace’s most recent novel, Chappy. Set during World War Two, it shows families ripped apart by a hostile society.

Harry Krauss, a village baker is ratted out and by his former friend — his only crime being his German name. He is interned with his New Zealand-born sons on Somes Island. The book’s eponymous protagonist, Chappy, though old and weak, is ripped from his wife and daughters and sent to his native Japan. Dispiritingly, he ponders his best defence might be to pass as a ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’. This was not a friendly society. This was a place where the might of the state was used against innocents to punish as well as protect

My wish for 2018 is that our immigration policy be injected with a much-needed dose of humanity. Immigrants in New Zealand are already subjected to draconian intrusions on their relationships, the prospect of being separated from their children or spouse. Households with one foreign spouse and a Kiwi-born child with a disability or health condition have difficulty getting residency for the foreign parent. These are intrusions upon private, family life that no conservative or progressive should tolerate.

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