Shane Jones’ comments about Indian students are a reminder that some New Zealand politicians still do not recognise that the battle against extremism after Christchurch begins at home

It is extraordinary that as we approach the one-year anniversary of a devastating terror attack at two Christchurch mosques by a white supremacist, a senior politician has directed an inflammatory broadside against the Indian student community in New Zealand.

Shane Jones, the New Zealand First Minister for Infrastructure, Forestry and Regional Economic Development in the Labour-led Coalition Government, said on Saturday New Zealand’s current immigration policy is “unfettered” and specifically attacked students from India who, in his view, “have ruined many of those [academic] institutions” they have attended in this country.

While this is not the first time prominent figures have resorted to xenophobic dog-whistle politics in an election year, the Christchurch atrocity highlighted the very real dangers of allowing such narratives to go unchallenged.

After Christchurch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern quite rightly reaffirmed New Zealand’s support for the values of tolerance, inclusion and diversity, and its firm commitment for a rules-based international order.

To this end, the Labour-New Zealand First coalition took a number of sensible measures including the banning of automatic weapons, tighter regulation of foreign donations to New Zealand political parties, and an international initiative, known as the Christchurch Call, to curb online extremism.

But Jones’ comments on Saturday are a reminder that some New Zealand politicians still do not recognise that the battle against extremism after Christchurch begins at home and that there is a responsibility to refrain from words and actions that encourage intolerance, exclusion and even violence.

In this context, not only are Jones’ words racist and inflammatory, they are also wrong. It is important to emphasise that there is no evidence whatsoever to support his specific allegations regarding Indian students, or other groups of international students more generally.

For a long time, for example, academic life at the University of Otago has greatly benefited from the participation of international students. Our first significant cohorts of international students came from Malaysia as part of the Colombo Plan beginning in the 1950s. More recently, students from India (and China, and America and Iran) have continued to enhance our multicultural community. At present, students from more than 100 different countries study at Otago – in fact, we have students from every continent on the planet except Antarctica.

At Otago, we believe it is our mission to train not only the next generation of doctors, lawyers, accountants and teachers, but more importantly perhaps, to nurture the next generation of good citizens and strong leaders. To this end, we believe it is vital that all of our students, whether they hail from Invercargill or India, have the opportunity to learn about the broader world in which they live.

The presence of international students at Otago – a university located outside the major population centres – provides tremendous opportunities to enrich the education of our domestic students. And this is a vital asset for a country like New Zealand whose prosperity depends on understanding and trading with much of the world.

At the same time, many international students at Otago establish life-long friendships with Kiwi students and a sense of identification with New Zealand that endures long after they have returned to their home countries.

Today, all states are confronted by security, economic and environmental challenges that do not respect territorial borders and cannot be resolved by populist-nationalist politicians promising to ‘take back control’ of national sovereignty in New Zealand or anywhere else.

As New Zealand recalls the tragedy of March 15 and works its way through the recent outbreak of COVID-19 it is imperative that everyone, including our elected cabinet ministers, uphold, and by example, promote our national values of tolerance, inclusion and diversity both at home and in the wider world.

Professor Harlene Hayne is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Otago.

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