Is tolerance enough to bind a multicultural nation together?

Immigration Minister David Cunliffe framed his proposed new legal framework last week against the Prime Minister’s three priorities, economic transformation, prosperous and secure families and a “strong national identity”. The last has deep importance.

National identity asks: “Who is the nation?” And it asks: “To what values must a person subscribe to be part of the nation?”

Europeans, particularly the Dutch, French and English, are asking this second question as they grapple with what seems alien presences in their midst. Winston Peters made his name and party here on that question.

It flashed briefly in the electoral sky last year when Don Brash said National would reject would-be immigrants “who have no intention of adopting New Zealand values”.

Brash, though a liberal deep down, was essentially dogwhistling to voters discomforted by the numbers of Chinese, Indian and other nationalities they see in their streets. He said he would expel immigrants with a taste for bombing people (though neglected to add that that would not have forestalled last July’s London bombers, who were migrants’ British-born offspring).

But don’t dismiss Brash’s policy line as only dogwhistle. It went to the heart of what constitutes a liberal democratic society. What are the “New Zealand values” to which he would have immigrants subscribe?

Presumably they would be values which the great majority of those already here share. But how do you find out what those values are? With a vote or by osmosis or by cabinet-room decision?

And when there are borderline disputes, who would decide what is in and what is out?

And would these values be set in concrete? Or would they adjust as society changes? People of Brash’s vintage lived through a values revolution in their twenties that shook to the core what had seemed settled.

And if “New Zealand values” change as society changes and immigrants are part of this change, how would Brash deal with immigrants’ impact on values?

This is not academic. “New Zealand values” have changed considerably under the impact of one 1950s “immigrant” wave, the migration of Maori into the cities. Their children and grandchildren did not all accept to be “brown pakeha”, as they themselves had. Some, then many, learnt te reo, immersed themselves in traditional culture and recovered for iwi and hapu a place in the nation’s customs and power structure.

That was a powerful challenge to the settled values of the time. From tolerance of some expression of Maori custom as colour in a British-inherited system, this country has gone far down the path to acceptance of parallel customs and values and is now to some extent beginning to merge them.

This is a powerful lesson to those who think that if immigrants conform to “New Zealand values”, as the city-immigrant Maori did, that settles the matter. Their offspring might instead prefer ancestral values.

This bothers Europeans now host to multitudes of second- and third-generation muslim citizens.

It is easy to state what is grossly alien. Brash listed spitting in the street (a health issue, given great attention last century), female circumcision and stoning gays and adulterers.

And it is easy to state what is inalienably liberal-democratic: the rule of law, freedom of belief and expression, free votes. Holland’s Prime Minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, in a speech in January, listed liberty, equality, respect for human rights, democracy and solidarity.

The Oaths Modernisation Bill now nearly through Parliament requires new citizens to swear to be “loyal to New Zealand … obey the law and … respect the democratic values of New Zealand and the rights and freedoms of its people”.

But where is the line to be drawn between those wide horizons? Can a line in fact be drawn?

National’s immigration spokesperson, Lockwood Smith, a liberal, celebrates the diversity of cultural expression immigrants have added to this society, thereby enriching us. But he struggles to define which values we must all subscribe to if this society is to continue to function well.

Public service policy wonks are struggling, too. Victoria University’s Institute of Policy Studies this year published a book-length study on diversity and its implications, including for social conflict, ethnic tension and political instability.

Some analysts settle for “tolerance”. They say we all have prejudices — for example, about muslim burqas or parking women in the second row in Maori ceremonials — and, as Andrew Norton of Australia’s Centre for Independent Studies put it after last year’s Cronulla riots, “harmony depends less on ending prejudice than ensuring tolerance”, if necessary with strong state action. In other words, prejudice kept private is tolerable.

Is tolerance enough? Or does a modern multicultural nation need stronger glue. That is liberal Cunliffe’s challenge as he goes about building a “strong national identity”.

A nation, to be more than an address, needs powerful unifiers.