When Opposition leader Don Brash talks of banning immigrants who do not share what he believes to be New Zealand’s “bedrock values”, who does he want to keep out of the country?
Muslims believe he was talking about Muslims. Brash is reluctant to give a straight answer when I meet him in his Wellington office. “I’m not someone who wants to say, only that country, or that one,” he says. “It’s not a question of what they look like or where they come from.”
But eventually he says, “Some Muslims believe strongly in the establishment of an Islamic state and that’s not consistent with bedrock values. If you look around the world you find more people supporting an Islamic state in some countries than in others.
“I don’t want people coming to New Zealand who repudiate our key values. That doesn’t mean that we exclude all Muslims, at all. I can’t say I have a lot of Muslim friends. I don’t. I know probably only one moderately well. But she makes a fine contribution. But if they want to overthrow a secular state in New Zealand, this is the wrong place for them.”
New Zealand’s “key values”, according to Brash, are accepting democracy and the rule of law, religious and personal freedom, and legal equality of the sexes. Unless immigrants share those values, he says, they should not be allowed into this country.
So who are the ideal immigrants?
“British immigrants fit in here very well. My own ancestry is all
British. New Zealand values are British values, derived from centuries of struggle since Magna Carta. Those things make New Zealand the society it is. So, people who bring in those values because they imbibe them with their mothers’ milk, almost by definition make good immigrants.”
“I concede that some of the other immigrants we brought in, from the Balkans, from Asia in the gold-rush days, turned out to be very solid citizens.
“After the war we had Dutch immigrants who were also very good because they were determined to work hard.”
And Australians, of course. “People have this image of the archetypal Australian who speaks with an awful accent and stands out like the prover-bials. But the reality is most Australians are not visible in New Zealand. Again, they share common values, which we’ve inherited from the British. As do some Asian countries.”
New Zealand’s reliance on high rates of immigration – Brash points out that last year’s immigration rate was about 13 per 1000 residents, compared with Australia’s seven per 1000 – threatens to unbalance us even without shared values, he argues. “You strain a country’s capacity to absorb immigration in an harmonious way if you’re dependent on very large-scale immigration.”
It’s not quite Enoch Powell and the rivers of blood that the British politician predicted would follow continued immigration.
Still, Brash believes British multiculturalism is failing and we could follow suit: “If, for fear of offending people, we say happy holiday rather than happy Christmas, I think that’s going down the wrong track. I’m told you’ve got an increasing tendency in Britain for government departments to abandon traditional greetings if they’re offending somebody.
“Here’s a specific example in this country. My wife is Chinese,” he says, ignoring the point that she is from Singapore, a state not best-known for its democracy. “When she first arrived here in 1977 she was enthusiastically welcomed. She was a bit of a novelty. She went to Wellington when we got married in 1989. There weren’t many Chinese or Asians here and again she was warmly treated. She went back to Auckland three and a half years ago and there was a perceptible difference in the street. Over that period there’d been very high levels of Asian immigration and New Zealanders felt threatened.
“If you’re going to have the harmonious integration of people of different cultures, different races, you have to do it at a rate which the community can comfortably absorb. So they’re integrated and don’t form ghettos.
“You’ve got severe stresses and strains in the UK, in which British-born people are plotting mayhem against other British citizens. The British train bombers were born in the UK, and suspects in the aircraft bombing plot, too. That’s why we have to be careful of the rate we change the nature of society. The UK allowed a large number of immigrants in, and they formed a substantial ghetto where traditional British values were largely excluded.”
Brash points to the Netherlands and France as other immigration models we should not follow. “Those societies have substantial minorities of people who don’t feel Dutch or French or English, who don’t subscribe to the values with which those societies grew and prospered. Potentially they’ve got very serious problems down the line.
“Had those countries screened immigrants for those core values they might not have nearly the problems they have now.”
But how exactly do you screen for values? “I’m still thinking through that. But it may well be that when an immigrant seeks citizenship you give them a piece of paper and say, ‘There are the things you’re signing up to when you become a New Zealander, are you comfortable with that?’ We may need to be particularly careful with people who are known to pull a lot of stunts.”
Who, then, are the undesirables?
“There’s no quick or short answer to that. For example, yesterday I met with four people from the Federation of Islamic Associations. They were entirely comfortable with the bedrock values I talked about. They had felt I was getting at Muslims. It’s significant they lived for a number of years in Fiji, a secular state which has many of the traditions of British common law.”
Brash is evidently prepared to forgive the Fijians their two coups, which accepted neither democracy nor the rule of law. In any event, the Islamic Federation president, Javed Khan, remains unconvinced: “I still believe some of the comments he made were directed towards Muslims.”
So how does Brash counter the accusation that effectively he is for immigration as long as it is white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant? “My wife is Chinese,” he says, again. “That surely gives me some protection against that charge. I’m not guilty.”