Peters' circular logic levers off cultural security fears

Who said this last week? “The Jews rule the world by proxy. They invented socialism, communism, human rights and democracy so that persecuting them would appear to be wrong.”

A bigot. A loudmouth. And, to boot, a senior Asian leader: Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia, the world’s 17th biggest trading nation.

Mahathir instituted extensive special economic rights for indigenous Malays at the expense of economically enterprising ethnic Chinese. He has long vilified the west.

He is getting old and retires on October 31. So perhaps he could be ignored. Except that on this occasion he added religion to his racism. He was addressing a 57-nation summit of islamic leaders and said they must defeat the Jews, who, he said, now control the most powerful countries.

The good news, if there is any, in this atrocious diatribe is that Mahathir rejected violence. And he excoriated muslim fundamentalists who teach that scientific studies are un-islamic and thereby hold back modernisation.

But put yourself in the emotions of those in this country who fear muslim extremists. Each paean of hate of the Mahathir sort and each Bin Laden threat to Australia, as at the weekend, magnifies those fears.

And they are grist to Winston Peters’ polling mill as he rails against immigration. Reverse racism from Asia does nothing to discourage concerns about Asians here.

Peters also now talks of “self-perpetuating, self-sustaining … ethnic ghettos where English is a foreign language … the stuff of which nightmares are made”.

This is emotive hyperbole. But to some it is plausible. And, actually, he is levering off a kernel of truth.

In a country which once was homogeneous (except for Maori but they were supposed to blend in over time), diverse communities with deeply different cultures, practices, preferences and habits of congregating discomfort some conservative folk. This discomfort is particularly evident among older people, more noticeably if they are immigrants from Britain, and has been growing.

In our history, worship of British homogeneity generated laws excluding and discriminating against ethnic Chinese.

What Peters is giving voice to are a minority’s fears about cultural security. Established mores, habits and social orders seem under threat. They are genuine and understandable fears, largely (in my experience) held by people who are not racist. Peters and New Zealand First are the only significant political force recognising and sympathising with those fears.

The fears are not of all immigrants. I haven’t heard Peters worry about the number of white South Africans turning up, without whom some of our professions and the building trade would be in deep trouble.

Labour and the left used to fret about white South Africans because of apartheid. Now that apartheid has gone, those same Labour and left politicians are keen to have white South Africans fill labour shortages.

It helps that, apart from their accent, white South Africans fit in. Other whites do not see them as a threat to their cultural security.

Nor, obviously, are returning expatriate New Zealanders a threat. And they have been a large proportion of the high immigrant numbers of the past two years with which Peters has been stoking his polls.

Peters skilfully conflates three factors: high overall numbers; temporary migrants (such as foreign students, notably Chinese who congregate in large numbers in downtown Auckland but mostly return home after study); and refugees and asylum-seekers, some from dangerous places such as Afghanistan.

Peters shuttles between high-level generalities about “open-ended” immigration and micro-specifics about some deviant or law-breaking immigrants. This creates a heady circular logic.

And so he contrives, without being explicit, to generate in the minds of the culturally insecure minority a sense that the country is being flooded with no-good ghetto-formers with anti-western values that fragment this placid society.

Actually, immigration is not open-ended. Controls have been tightened, favouring English-speakers. Numbers are also falling as the economy cools. So 18 months from now, as the next election looms, Peters’ appeal on immigration grounds might well also have cooled a bit.

That is not to say his poll figures will have fallen. His pitch to both traditional and poor Maori by way of high-level generalities (while also insisting on “one New Zealand” which appeals to his party’s whites) may have gathered most of any Maori fallout from Labour on the foreshore/seabed issue. He is a more credible campaigner against Labour’s PC policies than National. And he is nearer suburban battlers’ economic instincts than ACT, National and United Future.

But none of these have the emotional combustibility of immigration.

Cultural security is a minority issue and will not make New Zealand First a major party. But it is a real issue, however much it makes liberals’ skin crawl. And the government pays it scant attention.