4 Sep 2018

Peters' 'economic refugees' comments miss the mark

9:19 pm on 4 September 2018

by Murdoch Stephens*

Opinion - Whenever Labour's 2017 election policy to "turn off the tap on immigration" led to people questioning her progressive values, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke of doubling the refugee quota.

Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern

Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Doubling the quota was "an important point of principle" she said in her first international interview as prime minister.

But in recent days, that commitment to principle has been called into question by deputy prime minister and New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters.

Speaking in Nauru, Mr Peters said he had never agreed to doubling the quota. He also said that, according to the OECD, New Zealand had taken on more "economic refugees than most countries on earth in the last twenty years" and that he did not agree with those calling for "ten and twentyfold increases in refugee numbers without any concern as to how they might be housed".

To those closely following the issue, his comments were strange.

In 2015 Mr Peters had been very clear to distinguish immigrants from refugees, noting that our humanitarian quota needed to be considered separately. But by using the term "economic refugee" Mr Peters muddied the water he once sought to clear.

And to be clear, by no measure is New Zealand a world leader on refugee resettlement. If Labour can push through the increase to 1500 we will still be doing half as much as Australia on a per capita basis.

It was also bizarre to hear Mr Peters state that some were calling for the quota to grow ten or twenty-fold. While the Greens and TOP campaigned on going at least twice as far as double, literally no one is talking about increasing the quota by this much.

Only one media outlet mentioned the anomalies in Mr Peters' comments. This suggests that, like US President Donald Trump, Mr Peters has bamboozled the press so many times that few feel the point in trying to hold him to mere facts.

Mr Peters did say, before the election, that he would consider increasing the refugee quota to 1200 or maybe 1500, if immigration was drastically cut.

The 10 percent decrease in net migration might not be enough to satisfy him, though in raw figures the decrease of 7000 places vastly overshadows the 500 people, or 120 families, that the quota would need to grow by.

The tension with housing is also less acute than some might imagine as the vast majority of those on the state housing wait list are seeking one and two bedroom homes whereas resettled families tend to require the more available three and four bedroom homes.

Housing is still the number one issue but Invercargill and Christchurch have recently joining the pool of resettlement locations which is helping.

Even if his comments were intended as political positioning, there is little point in me speculating on what Mr Peters wanted to achieve.

But what may be decisive, and what has not been noted yet, is the final decision on the quota does not require New Zealand First's vote in Parliament. Any increase must pass through the more opaque channels of Cabinet where there is provision for coalition members to "agree to disagree" but still implement a decision.

The paper that will determine if New Zealand First "agrees to disagree" is due in Cabinet in the first half of 2019. Only then are we likely to find out about the real strength of Ms Ardern's position or if this is the issue on which Mr Peters would see fit to abandon the coalition.

*Murdoch Stephens recently released the book Doing Our Bit: The Campaign to Double the Refugee