Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Labour’s dangerous racial politics

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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

Will Labour become characterised as “the racist party”? That’s the risk that Andrew Little and Phil Twyford are taking in their current housing campaign based on Chinese-sounding names – that their party could become associated with nasty, racist populism.

Labour is onto a winner. Its brazen foray into racial populism is winning it plenty of attention, and will possibly help lift the party out of the electoral doldrums. But in undertaking such a deliberately cynical campaign it risks losing credibility and opens itself up to fair questions about racism and xenophobia. But worst of all, by feeding into fears about Asians and foreigners it potentially creates a dangerous mood of prejudice and bigotry in society.

In his Herald column, John Armstrong confirms the cleverness of Labour’s latest dog whistle strategy, saying “Labour has to get people thinking and talking about the party. Last weekend’s real estate expose is just what the doctor ordered” – see: Little happy to tread on toes if it starts talk. Yet Armstrong also warns that Labour could alienate its ethnic minority vote. 

The danger is actually bigger than that. Labour has brought upon itself accusations of racism, which are coming from all areas of the political spectrum. Therefore Labour is in danger of becoming seen as “the racist party”. This can be seen in Hamish Rutherford’s column: Could the Chinese-sounding names stunt be Labour’s Orewa? Rutherford draws attention to the similarities between Labour’s campaign and that of Don Brash in 2004. He says “the consequence could be long term damage to the party’s credibility”. Similarly, see the Ruminator’s blog post, Orewa 3: The Orewa-ing

What has been particularly surprising is the level of condemnation coming from the political left, and from Labour supporters themselves. Many of them have warned of the dangers for race relations and the safety of ethnic minorities when such “race-baiting” techniques are used by politicians. 

Protests against Labour from the left

Some of the harshest critiques of Labour’s racial politics campaign are coming from former party staffers. Phil Quin, who has been a party activist for three decades and formerly worked for Labour, yesterday blogged his Resignation letter. His disgust is clear: “In light of Labour’s calculated decision over the weekend to deploy racial profiling as a political tactic, I resign my membership of the party.  I am stunned that Labour, as a matter of conscious political strategy, would trawl through a dubiously­acquired list of property buyers to identify Chinese­sounding names”. He adds, “I cannot, however, belong to an organization that considers racial profiling fair sport”.

In an earlier blog post, Quin states, “the use of an algorithm to assess degrees of foreignness is hamfisted, embarrassingly amateurish and staggeringly racist.  I joined the Labour Party in large part due to its principled stand against Apartheid. Racial profiling of any kind was anathema to me thirty years ago, and remains so today.  The party should admit its mistake, apologise, and move on” – see: Labour should apologise for racial profiling

Another Labour Party activist, Stephen Judd, has also registered his disgust: “I just wrote and cancelled my regular donation to the party with the message that it can restart when we have three clear months without race-baiting or hippy punching.  As someone who belongs to another ethnic minority where people stereotype about money and leap to conclusions based on names, this shit makes my skin crawl”.

Other former party staffers are also publicly dissenting. Keith Ng, who worked for the party when Helen Clark was PM, delivered one of the first devastating blows to Labour’s racial campaign in his must-read blog post, Twyford’s offshore buyer claims made up. Ng suggested that the housing problems are very serious and require serious solutions, “which any half-competent political party ought to be able to communicate, without using the Yellow Peril as the boogeyman.  This is cynical, reckless dogwhistling. Like Winston Peters, just without the smirk”.

Former staffer, Lamia Imam, also called foul against her former employer, questioning the strategy: “we have resorted to racially profiling buyers to explain why Kiwis are unable to buy their own homes? This is particularly heinous, given other surveys show that British and American buyers also make a chunk of the foreign purchase of Kiwi homes” – see: Housing Crisis: Targeting Chinese people isn’t what Olivia Pope would do. She says “A policy that uses data analysis of people’s ethnic last name is an inherently racist policy and should be rejected”.

In another blog post, Imam complains that Labour could have focused on real solutions instead of scaremongering – see: These aren’t the xenophobes you are looking for

There are plenty of other voices of the left registering their disgust with Labour. Blogger No Right Turn says that “Labour unveiled its new political direction: racism” – see: Sounds like racism. He says it’s a deliberate strategy to turn the housing issue into a racial one for voter gain: “they’ve decided that Winston really is heading for the exit, and are trying to position themselves to grab his 200,000 dead white racist voters”.

A feminist blogger at the Hand Mirror website labels the campaign as “vicious racist dog whistling” that deflects from real problems with housing affordability – see: If you’re saying the same kinds of things as Paul Henry, you should probably stop talking.

Socialist John Moore argues that “Labour’s descent into xenophobic and racist politics comes from the party being completely devoid of big ideas that can tackle serious problems such as those concerned with housing”, as it’s much easier to “blame the foreigners” and “blame the greedy Asians” – see: Labour’s Asian-bashing shows a party devoid of ideas.

Left-green blogger John Palethorpe says the problem with Labour’s approach is that “it feeds a particularly virulent xenophobic and racist trope regarding racial and cultural groups” – see: Labour descent

Danyl Mclauchlan has labelled the strategy as “race-baiting”, and reminded us of the racial context in which Labour has lobbed it’s bomb: “This is a country in which people were confiscating car keys off Asian drivers just a few months ago with the media and police cheering them on” – see: What we talk about when we talk about Chinese people. According to Mclauchlan, Labour actually want to be called “racist”, because this creates sympathy for the accused.

Unsurprisingly, Labour is being strongly supported by New Zealand First. But it’s other common ally, the Greens, have come out strongly against the campaign. Co-leader Metiria Turei has accused Labour of “making some racist assumptions” and making the housing issue about race – see Hamish Rutherford’s Greens accuse Labour of ‘crude racial profiling’ on housing sales

Protest from the political right

The strongest analysis of Labour’s campaign from the political right comes from National Party-aligned blogger Liam Hehir, who puts forward four reasons that Labour supporters should be troubled by the racial campaign – see his newspaper column, Labour’s ‘expose’ on Chinese investors poor form. Hehir argues that “It will assist National to expand its own electoral coalition – National has for several years been working hard to bring immigrants and ethnic minority communities into its constituency”.

Plenty of those in National are making some interesting arguments against Labour’s stance. Housing Minister Nick Smith has condemned it and pointed out that “The National Government in the 1980s made not dissimilar comments about the Pacific Island community. And it took us 20 years to rebuild trust with Pacific Islanders” – see Claire Trevett’s Little backs home-buyer stats

Steven Joyce also says “Now, if the National Party had done that at any time in the last 20 years, the liberal intelligentsia would be tearing the house down” – see Radio New Zealand’s Labour: House sales data crude but useful.

Similarly, David Farrar says: “John Key demoted Lockwood Smith for his comments on Asians. Will Little continue to defend Twyford?  Imagine if for example a Don Brash led National Party had come out with a shonky analysis like this, and used the language Twyford did? Every Labour and Green MP in Parliament would have been calling Brash racist. Instead, we have silence” – see: Rutherford on Labour’s surname policy

Criticism from statisticians, economist and journalists

Not only is Labour being hammered from all political sides, but also by numerous experts and commentators. The political journalist with the strongest condemnation and analysis is Rob Hosking, who has emphasised that Labour’s policy is a cynical exercise in racial populism, saying that “By emphasising the racial aspect of the matter, Labour has deliberately embarked on a move calculated to raise racial tensions” – see: Labour’s anti-Chinese ploy will probably work – but then what? (paywalled). 

According to Hosking, the motives behind Twyford’s ethnic strategy are twofold: 1) Labour winning New Zealand First votes, and 2) Twyford becoming deputy leader. Hosking himself condemns it: “This is really nasty stuff. Anyone with a passing acquaintance with some of the more bloody racial conflicts of the 20th Century will feel a chill that the Labour Party is doing this”. Nonetheless, such an unprincipled manoeuvre will be successful, according to Hosking: “The question is not so much whether this ploy will work.  It probably will.  The question is what the consequences will be. By basing this move on racial issues, Labour has forfeited its natural home, which is the moral high ground on such matters”.

The Race Relations Commissioner has also spoken out. Susan Devoy has accused Labour of scapegoating an ethnic group for the problems caused by larger forces – see Isaac Davison’s Chinese buyers deserve better than being blamed for Auckland’s high house prices: Devoy

University of Auckland statistician Professor Thomas Lumley isn’t impressed with how Labour have used the data, telling them: “you’re doing it wrong, and in a way that has a long and reprehensible political history” – see Thomas Lumley’s What’s in a name?

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub – someone with plenty of recent experience analysing the problems in the Auckland housing market, has reacted strongly to Labour, saying “It draws this line across race and ethnicity, which is very damaging for a multi-cultural, welcoming place like New Zealand” – see Laura Walters’ Labour’s ‘half-baked’ property data turns Chinese buyers into ‘scapegoats’

Another economist, Geoff Simmons, challenges Labour’s proposals, and doubts they’ll be effective – see: Labour – focusing on the ‘Wong’ things

In practical terms, Labour’s policy against foreigners buying houses has been revealed to be discriminatory – in that Labour will allow Australian to buy houses here, but not buyers from other countries such as China. So it’s not a level playing field for all nationalities – see Richard Harman’s Labour would exempt Australians from its foreign buyer ban

Ethnic minorities under attack

The personal stories of those who feel under attack from Labour have provided a special perspective on the issue. For example, statistician and blogger, Andrew Chen has been upfront about how the campaign has made him feel: “The entire analysis is based on shoddy assumptions (even if the analysis of it is good), but the statistics and conclusions drawn will make people feel more secure in their prejudices and make them feel more justified when they say “yeah, those Chinese are buying too many homes”.  Most importantly, it makes me feel like I do not belong. It makes me feel like a drain on society, that I am somehow contributing to a problem when I have done my best for a country that I love” – see: A Chen by any other name

Other excellent accounts from Asian New Zealanders are Tze Ming Mok’s Identification strategy: Now it’s personal, Jem Yoshioka’s New Zealand has a racism problem and Bevan Chuang’s Hey mom, just popping down the road to buy a house!

A further interesting insight is provided by Raybon Kan in his Herald opinion piece, ‘If Chinese buy houses and pay you too much – you don’t like it’

It is in this context of racism experienced by Asians in New Zealand that Labour’s campaign needs to be understood. This is essentially the point made by Danyl Mclauchlan in his latest must-read blog post: The racist style in New Zealand politics. He argues that we need to pay special attention to how ethnic minorities feel in judging whether or not Labour is being racist. 

Of course if we take Labour’s “ethnic name guessing game” to its logical conclusion, we could end up with some empty stereotypes, without useful facts. This is Michele A’Court’s point in her column today – see: Don’t let facts sully a good race row.

My own opinions are similar. Context is crucial for judging Labour’s racial campaign. As I said, last time Labour sought to scaremonger in this way over housing, “the policy cannot be viewed in isolation from the political climate it’s being used in – and that’s a climate in which there is obvious xenophobia and racism about immigrants and foreign investors” – see: Debating Labour’s ‘racist’ housing policy. My views are also reported today in Dene Mackenzie’s article Housing stand seen as ‘cynical policy’.

In defence of Labour

There have been plenty of people defending Labour’s controversial stance. By far the best account is Tim Watkin’s blog post, What’s in a name… and a number? In this he puts the case in favour of having a debate about the evidence rather than resorting to “just throwing the ‘racist’ label around”.  And for a more amusing defence of Labour’s line, see Scott Yorke’s Labour’s race war? 

The originator of Labour’s ethnic housing data is party spin-doctor Rob Salmond – and you can see his explanation here: How Labour estimated ethnicity from surnames and House-buying patterns in Auckland

Chris Trotter says “Labour’s Chinese whispers have nothing to do with racism. They’re about national sovereignty and the people’s will” – see: China has expectations of New Zealand

This is essentially an “economic nationalist” line. And it’s put even more strongly by John Minto, who says, National playing the reverse race card on housing.

Of course much of the support Labour will receive will relate to the very real problems being experienced in the housing market in Auckland – see Peter Calder’s opinion piece, House rage – we’re right to be angry

Finally, much of the reaction against Labour’s racial populism has been online, especially in the Twittersphere – see my blog post, Top tweets opposing Labour’s racial housing strategy

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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