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Low-quality language on immigration

by Jogai Bhatt

Orcon IRL’s election special took place Sunday evening, and it was a right time. Kiri Allan mesmerised crowds in te reo. Stephen Berry knocked Rock Enrol. Chloe Swarbrick spoke of a Green future. And I disrespected Russell’s authority and went over my allocated panel time.

But the most poignant discussion took place around an hour into the event, in a panel moderated by 95bFM’s Ximena Smith. This is where Geoff Simmons (TOP), Louisa Wall (Labour), and Tracey Martin (New Zealand First) entered a candid conversation about immigration – and what began as nuanced words on economic migrants and refugee quotas, quickly spiralled into a careless strike on “low quality immigrants”.

The term, employed by Louisa and Geoff, was in reference to unskilled migrants, with the former speaking specifically to student immigration. The core of their arguments had merit, and I’m sure we could discuss it for hours. But that’s a conversation for another time, because what struck a nerve with me during this panel was the nature of the language employed. From Tracey’s "turning down the tap" to Louisa’s concern around unskilled immigrants "flooding" the country, the majority of this conversation felt regressive and disappointing. 

The politicians all agreed immigration was crucial to a thriving Aotearoa. They also echoed similar sentiments in filtering the kinds of immigrants crossing NZ borders.

But ... let's start with Louisa:

“We need immigration but it has to be quality, and the students who come here, I believe, should be at a minimum tertiary education.”

Louisa is also the MP for Manurewa; an area populated by many first-generation Pasifika peoples who were not traditionally tertiary-educated. It’s understandable here that Labour would want to prioritise those highly skilled students in terms of Aotearoa’s student visa intake. Capping off on lower-skilled immigrants would just be an unfortunate consequence. But saying we’re currently "flooded" with low-skilled immigrants is wrong. It’s not just threatening to those incoming – it’s a slap in the face to those already living here too. For Louisa, that’s a large portion of her electorate.

As for Geoff, TOP’s deputy leader highlighted a very straight-cut, technocratic, and economically-minded view on low-skilled immigrants.

“We want to make sure it’s a win-win [situation] ... there are clearly issues with lower-skilled migration coming into this country.”

Geoff’s such a bloody savvy public speaker that I had to check TOP’s website to make sure I heard everything correctly. A subsection titled ‘smarter immigration’ found this. 

 

If standard of living is defined by wealth and material comfort, then this basically translates to: “you are welcome to this country, but only if you benefit Aotearoa economically”. This philosophy employs immigrants as pawns for the sole purpose of economic growth. Funnily enough, in attempting to address this mindset, the best quote that comes to mind is from the NZ First MP on the panel:

“Immigration is about people, it’s not about numbers. These are human beings we’re talking about.”

Tracey captured the facet of immigration so many forget – including Louisa and Geoff. These are human beings we’re talking about, and resorting to numbers, labels, and wounding language to communicate your message isn’t the way. This kind of language only perpetuates the vilification of an already targeted group. It normalises hatred – and it desperately requires a rethink.

Jogai Bhatt is the host of The Thursday Wire, 12pm-1pm on 95bFM. She was a guest host for Orcon IRL: The Election One at The Golden Dawn last Sunday.

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