Immigration policy and values statements

Vernon Small has an interesting column in the Dominion-Post this morning (not yet online) under the heading “Terror risk muddies rational migration debate”.  He seems keen on a national debate on the economics of our immigration policy, including highlighting  The Treasury’s concerns about whether the skill level of the typical migrant is really fully consistent with the original vision of a skills-based migration programme providing economic benefits to New Zealanders.

But at the same time, with a somewhat lofty condescension, he seems uneasy about other public concerns. In particular, he isn’t taken with calls from Winston Peters and David Seymour for immigrants (including refugees) to sign some sort of national values statement.

Actually, I’m also not keen on requiring immigrants to sign values statements.  Not just because they don’t seem enforceable –   and if you really want to get to Australia, why would a commitment to “respect” (whatever that means) “a spirit of egalitarianism” (one element of the required Australian values statement”) deter one?.  Who knows what it means anyway  Perhaps turning over the Prime Minister every year or so, so that as many people as possible get a go?

My concerns are about two, perhaps opposing, risks.  The first is that any values statement becomes a lowest common denominator statement as to be totally meaningless.  The second is that the wording of any values statement –  if taken seriously –  would be hotly and continuously contested, as culture wars ebbed and flowed.  And frankly, I don’t seem to be welcome in David Seymour’s New Zealand.

Here is the Australian Values Statement, required of migrants to Australia:

I understand:

  • Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good
  • Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background
  • the English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society.

I undertake to respect these values of Australian society during my stay in Australia and to obey the laws of Australia.

I understand that, if I should seek to become an Australian citizen:

  • Australian citizenship is a shared identity, a common bond which unites all Australians while respecting their diversity
  • Australian citizenship involves reciprocal rights and responsibilities. The responsibilities of Australian Citizenship include obeying Australian laws, including those relating to voting at elections and serving on a jury.

If I meet the legal qualifications for becoming an Australian citizen and my application is approved I understand that I would have to pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people.

No doubt it isn’t aimed at people like me, and were I migrating to Australia, I could probably, at a pinch, sign it.  But I would have a few mental reservations.  If I knew what the sprit of egalitarianism was, I’d certainly accept it as part of the folk mythology of Australia,  but I’m not sure I’d really “respect” it.  And as for “equality of men and women”, well yes certainly in the most important senses –  equality before the law and before God.  But I’m a Christian, and like most Christian churches (including in Australia the Catholic church, and the Anglican church in Sydney), I don’t believe that women should serve as priests.  I don’t see that as matter of inequality, but many would.

I’m not sure when the Australian Values Statement was written, but it feels as though it might be 10 or 15 years old.   The culture wars have moved on, and David Seymour offers this, rather shorter version as a possibility for New Zealand.

Seymour said it wouldn’t be difficult to pull together a simple charter, stating for example: “We believe regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or religion, you have the same legal rights as everybody else.”

If by that he means that, for example, people should be able to “marry” others of the same sex, then I don’t believe that.  Actually, for almost all of history –  including New Zealand’s history –  very few people did. Most Christian churches don’t today.  It is, for now, the law in New Zealand, but it doesn’t mean I agree with or respect that law.    And, for better or worse, in some respects New Zealand law isn’t even consistent with Seymour’s statement: after all, to name just one example, we have Maori seats in Parliament.  And where does the Treaty fit in the mix?

In fairness to Seymour, his might have been the fruit of 20 minutes scribbling on the back of an envelope. Any values statement actually put into legislation would no doubt be more carefully drafted –  and for that reason, among others, quite a lot longer, to capture all the caveats and competing emphases.

And where would it stop?  I had a quick look this morning at statements I could find in which each of the three largest political parties describe their values.  There was some overlap (and the particular Labour Party document I found had three of four pages of text, while the Greens and National Party had quite short lists), but there were quite a few substantial differences.  Which is what one might expect: a significant part of political debate is the contest of ideas and values, particularly in an era of cultural transition (eg secularization, in which culture and religion are no longer intrinsically interwoven).

I might find the references to loyalty to the sovereign, and limited government, in the National Party’s list appealing.    Many other New Zealanders wouldn’t.   “Respect the planet” might be something central to a Green view on things, but to me the concept of respecting an inanimate object just seems weird.  And even though there was serious uncertainty about the consequences of doing so, I’m glad our ancestors took decisive action to confront Hitler, rather than “take the path of caution”.

As far as I can see, none of the values statement (yet) talk of the rights of the unborn, or transgender rights to bathrooms –  to take just a couple of issues that have convulsed American debate.

Perhaps we might get agreement on process issues –  parliamentary sovereignty, a universal franchise, the rule of law etc –  but even on process it might be thin pickings.  There are probably plenty of supporters here of moving to a written constitution, and others who still hanker for a return to FPP.  In the end, is there genuine common ground on very much at all, other perhaps than that change should occur non-violently?  We can all agree that individuals do and should have rights, and probably all agree that in some circumstances the needs/interests of the “community” override those individual rights.  But where that boundary is, and how it should shift, is the intrinsic stuff of politics.  We can’t agree among ourselves, so what is there for immigrants to sign up to, other than today’s (temporary) shifting majority.  I was amused, for example, to read the Prime Minister’s rewriting of history, in answering the values question, noting that for him it included “understanding that New Zealand’s always been a tolerant society”.   Really?  To name just one low-key example, our treatment of conscientious objectors during the two World Wars meets no reasonable definition of “tolerant”.

And yet the people who call for migrants to sign values statements do capture a fair point.  When large numbers of people are allowed by our governments to come and live in New Zealand they have the potential to change our society.  People are not just bloodless economic units –  dessicated calculating machines.  They bring their own attitudes and values, and while the new arrivals are likely to be changed by living here so –  if the numbers are large enough – is our society.  One need only think of European migration to New Zealand over the last 200 years –  we their descendants may be changed by living here rather than in, say, the United Kingdom, but the similarities with modern Britain are probably greater than those with pre-1840 Maori society.  The point is not that modern New Zealand is better or worse for those migrants (and their values/attitudes/technologies), but that the fact of change is inescapable and largely irreversible.  Seeking that sort of change is itself a political act.

Which is one of a number of reasons why I’m skeptical that –  even if there were material economic benefits to residents of the recipient countries – large scale immigration programmes are normally a legitimate role of government at all.  We’ll always have some immigration.  New Zealanders travel, and some will meet and marry foreigners.  Often enough the new couple will want to settle here.  And our humanitarian impulses will, rightly, drive us to take some refugees.  But in neither case –  both on generally quite a small scale – do we grant permission to reside here with a goal of changing our society.

But once we get into large scale immigration programme, governments are in the culture change business, actively or passively, often without even realizing it. In terms of the domestic culture wars, and ongoing debates, the ability to attract more people like one side or another skews the playing field.  Instead of working out our differences, and debating change, within the existing community of New Zealanders, we tilt the playing field one way or the other. I might be comfortable with a large influx of mid-western evangelicals, while most Wellingtonians might prefer liberal Swedes.  I might be happy with strongly Anglican Ugandans or Kenyans, while many would prefer secular French.   In the specific New Zealand context, few migrants have any strong reason to feel a commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi, and for those New Zealanders for whom that is an important issue, any large scale immigration skews the game against (that representation) of Maori interests

It is far easier to resolve disputes, and find an ongoing place for each other, among communities with shared memories, experiences and commitments.  Families do it better than countries.  Countries do it better than the world.  Globalists might not like to acknowledge that, but it doesn’t change the reality.  Families don’t usually resolve their differences –  sometimes painful lasting differences –   by injecting new members into the family.