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Political Roundup: Politicians under scrutiny in the wake of Christchurch terrorism

Dr Bryce Edwards.

The murder of fifty Muslim New Zealanders on Friday has triggered intense soul-searching and debate about hatred in our society. As part of this, attention has turned to politicians and political parties and the role they play in furthering racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia

Allegations have been levelled at every party in Parliament for fostering xenophobic concerns in recent years. Mostly these relate to immigration, and in some cases explicit Islamophobia.

One of the first prominent expressions of this was made in Wellington on Sunday at the Basin Reserve Vigil, where migrant and refugee rights campaigner Gayaal Iddamalgoda made a powerful speech imploring New Zealand political parties to reflect on their role in escalating hate: “When will politicians, left and right own up to the fact that they have scapegoated and blamed migrants and refugees, for so long, for social and economic problems that they are not responsible for? And when will they admit that while they have been doing this, they have allowed unspeakable hatred to brew under their noses? I want answers. I want accountability. I want something to change.”

You can read Iddamalgoda’s full speech here: Kia Ora Te Whanau. He presents some immediate actions politicians can take to atone for past sins: “I call upon the New Zealand Government to immediately remove the previous Government’s ban on Middle Eastern and African refugees, that is still in place and based on bogus security concerns and; I call for New Zealand to triple the refugee quota.”

For the best account of how New Zealand First, Labour and National have utilised such negative politics, see Thomas Coughlan’s Time to recall MPs’ anti-migrant rhetoric. He looks at speeches by Winston Peters, the National Party’s campaign against the UN’s Global Migration Pact, and the Labour Party’s Chinese-sounding names campaign, as well as anti-immigration campaigning by all three parties.

Coughlan is very clear from the start of his article that there is no direct link between the actions of the politicians and the terrorism in Christchurch: “No one in Parliament can be expected to wear the blame for Friday’s tragedy… Blame belongs almost exclusively to the terrorist himself. But hate does not breed in a vacuum, and the time is long overdue to hold our leaders to account for playing fast and loose with rhetoric — particularly when it comes to Islam.”

In terms of Peters, Coughlan looks at a range of statements from the NZ First leader. For example, “In a 2005 speech titled The End Of Tolerance and delivered in the wake of the London bombings, Peters singled out Muslim migrants for special attention.”

Here’s one of the quotes from Peters’ speech: “This two-faced approach is how radical Islam works – present the acceptable face to one audience and the militant face to another. In New Zealand the Muslim community have been quick to show us their more moderate face, but as some media reports have shown, there is a militant underbelly here as well. Underneath it all the agenda is to promote fundamentalist Islam. Indeed these groups are like the mythical Hydra – a serpent underbelly with multiple heads capable of striking at any time and in any direction.”

The National Party’s recent campaign against the Global Migration Pact is highlighted, with Coughlan pointing out that National’s warnings about New Zealand losing sovereignty if the pact was signed was “a fear which has been stoked and disseminated by online far-right groups”.

National has now removed its online petition against the pact. The controversy over this is reported by Jason Walls – see: An ’emotional junior staffer’ is responsible for deleting National’s UN Migration petition.

The incident has been embarrassing for National. Nonetheless, leader Simon Bridges has used the controversy to assert his party’s pro-immigrant credentials, saying “If you look at our immigration position, I think we have the strongest pro-migration position across the Parliament.”

On the political left there have been some been willing to criticise both sides of the divide. Former Green Party chief spin-doctor, David Cormack, has called out National, Labour and New Zealand First, saying “When politicians stoke fear of ‘them’ or ‘others’ coming to New Zealand, or blow racist dog whistles when they claim we’re giving up ‘our sovereignty’ when we sign up to international migration compacts, we should call them out. Because words cause fear” – see: Words matter.

Cormack continues: “When politicians say there’s a housing crisis in Auckland and the evidence is that people with ‘Chinese sounding names’ have bought so many houses, we should call them out. Because words stoke bigotry. When political parties make entire ethnic groups the target of their election campaigns and make jokes like ‘two wongs don’t make a white’, we should call them out. Because words embolden racism.”

Even the Greens have not escaped criticism, with leftwing blogger John Moore saying “the socially progressive Greens have dabbled in anti-immigrant rhetoric, such as when former Green co-leader Russel Norman complained of Chinese investment in NZ and of Chinese businesses using ‘foreign Chinese workers'” – see: The politics of the mosque shootings tragedy.

Moore argues that there is no “direct link between anti-immigrant sentiments promoted by mainstream politicians and the actions of an extreme nationalist terrorist” but politicians still need to be accountable for the attitudes that might result from their campaigning. He argues that the form of “othering” is particularly pernicious: “The argument goes that the politics of Othering – the demonisation of the ‘foreign’ Other – provides the necessary fertiliser for more extreme and violent forms of nationalist, communalist and sectarian politics. And a number of New Zealand politicians have all played a role in promoting various forms of xenophobic politics in New Zealand.”

Writing for an international audience, Branko Marcetic lays into New Zealand First as being part of the problem – see: Right-Wing extremism won’t win. He categorises Winston Peters’ party as “economically nationalist” but gives details of them allegedly “appearing to flirt with the alt-right” in 2017.

On the political right, Cathy Odgers points out that in the wake of this atrocity, Winston Peters hasn’t yet had to account for what she regards as past Islamophobic campaigning – see: Put a fork in him Winston is done. She argues that Peters’ past rhetoric has put New Zealand at more risk of political violence.

Generally, Odgers believes New Zealand First is in more electoral trouble now, as although the party might normally benefit from increased concerns about domestic security issues, in this case it involves an extreme nationalist rather than a Muslim fundamentalist who has carried out the terrorism. She also details Peters’ past opposition to increased gun control as a result of terrorist attacks, which raises questions about how much support his party will really give the reform efforts.

Today, veteran political commentator Richard Harman has also questioned the role of the Deputy PM in the Government’s response to the terrorism, reporting that “Peters seemed reluctant yesterday to accept much New Zealand responsibility for what happened in Christchurch” – see: What lies under the rocks?

Harman reports on what Peters apparently told Turkey’s Vice President and Foreign Minister, who has just visited New Zealand: “Peters said he told them that New Zealand did not start nor bring about the disaster.”

Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern backed up Peters, saying he was “absolutely right”, she added a very pointed statement that some have suggested might actually apply to her coalition partner: “However, that is not to say that there are not those who live in New Zealand who hold values and ideas and use language that is completely counter to what the vast majority of New Zealanders believe… I don’t think we can ignore that.”

Finally, although he wrote it prior to the terrorist attack in Christchurch, Liam Hehir has detailed some of the reactionary and ethnic-conservatism of Winston Peters and New Zealand First, and he ponders why the Greens won’t criticise him – see: Why are the woke set not battling to de-platform Winston Peters?