With the election in sight, political parties have begun sharpening their narratives around immigration and labour market – the two important issues in public debate.
This week Prime Minister Bill English came up with a comment that young Kiwi workers are without jobs because they are on drugs.
Speaking at his weekly media conference, Mr English said two or three business owners a week told him about the difficulty in getting Kiwi workers who apply for jobs to pass a drug test.
He said he had heard anecdotal evidence of it across most industries.
To add to this narrative, there was few other media news where some business owners vouched about the value immigrant workers bring to their respective businesses.
Expectedly, there was a normal push-back to this claim from the main opposition parties, and media commentators.
Few even sighted government’s data from the NZ Drug Foundation.
Labour’s employment spokesman Grant Robertson said English's comments were a "diversionary tactic" based on anecdotes rather than hard fact.
NZ First leader Winston Peters said taxpayers were being "bled dry" from National's open door policy on immigration.
In an election year, this is not unusual, and not altogether new.
From an immigrant’s perspective, especially from that of a “new” immigrants who are supposedly at the core of this public debate; this statement would have come as a welcome recognition of their individual grit and determination, especially coming from the country’s top leadership.
However, there are some other dimensions of this apparent clash of narratives around immigration, which should not be ignored.
One critical dimension is that how such clash of narratives at the top does affect the challenge of social cohesion in our fast changing New Zealand society.
When Mr English uses the word “Kiwi-workers” to compare with “immigrant workers” little bit callously, then it automatically exasperates social cleavages present in any multicultural society.
It automatically generates a perception in the public that all “immigrants” are temporary workers and expected to leave sooner or later, and at the most, they are not “Kiwi”.
The point being made here is that all immigrants, including new immigrants, aspire for a “Kiwi” identity, regardless of their countries of origin, ethnicity or colour.
Therefore by clubbing them together just as immigrants, and not as “Kiwi–workers” automatically strengthen the perception among many people that “new” immigrants are not Kiwis, as of now or even in distant future.
Mr English’s statement depicts Kiwi-workers not as an inclusive group but as an exclusive group of specific colour, habits and attitude.
The reason why this point is being made here is to relate to a recent incident of an alleged racial slur on an Indian immigrant worker.
The ease with which the alleged perpetrator of that racist rant shouted “go back to your country” and “were you born here” are often formed and fossilised over a period through such callous war of words at the top political level.
It is not suggested that political debates are not expected or welcomed in a vibrant democracy, it is just that little bit of caution does not hurt and goes a long way in promoting social cohesion in our fast changing New Zealand society.
Since new immigrants also aspire for a “Kiwi” identity, therefore it would be in larger public good to be more thoughtful in the choice of words in the public debate.
Probably the debate around immigration and labour market could be better shaped by using “local” workers instead of “Kiwi” workers.
Former Prime Minister John Key had made similar comments about six months ago in the month of September last year stating that the problem of laziness and drugs was keeping “local workers” away from the job market.