Against values tests

New Zealand First’s conference over the weekend apparently supported some form of values test for immigrants.  It has been ACT Party policy too –  perhaps one of the few things the two parties (one strongly pro-immigration, one ostensibly a bit sceptical) actually agree on.

Such provisions aren’t unknown: Australia has its Australian Values Statement , a pretty watered-down thing that newcomers have to subscribe to. It isn’t clear that doing so makes any useful difference at all.    As I noted in an earlier post

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. 

Here, any serious suggestion of a values test just seems to offer another avenue for fighting the culture wars, in ways that would – among other things – end up delegitimising the deeply held views of many New Zealanders (native and non).   According to Newsroom’s account of the New Zealand First proposal

The bill would legally mandate new migrants and refugees to respect sexual equality, “all legal sexual preferences”, religious rights, and that alcohol was a legal substance that could not be campaigned against.

I certainly don’t respect “all legal sexual preferences”, let alone the acting out of those “preferences”.   And, on the other hand, the public health academics at Otago seem to lament that alcohol is legal.  More generally, for 100 years or so –  ending only 30 years ago –  we used to have a referendum every three years at which one of the options was Prohibition.   Kate Sheppard and the WCTU campaigned for women’s suffrage partly as a means to the desired end of Prohibition.     It is a long time ago now, but I suspect I probably voted for prohibition myself, and my (New Zealand born) father was a leading figure in the Temperance Alliance, which campaigned for it.    And what of “sexual equality”?  Who knows precisely what it is meant to mean here –  or in the Australian Values Statement –  but perhaps it means faithful Catholics would be banned from migrating to New Zealand because they don’t believe a woman can (from the nature of things) serve as a priest?    I don’t suppose that is what NZ First will mean, but some Green MPs might think that sort of restriction was rather appealing.

And does anyone suppose that if such a values test was established in New Zealand it wouldn’t include something about the Treaty of Waitangi, and something rather heavily loaded towards an interpretation that would have been unrecognisable 50 years ago.  Perhaps migrants would be required to undertake to “respect” the Treaty, whatever that means, or something that went even beyond that.   Or that if a values test was imposed by the current government it wouldn’t be full of rhetoric about the environment, climate change, and other left-wing priorities.

I dealt with this in an earlier post when, a couple of years ago, ACT was championing its proposed values test.

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 [John Key] 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.

It is one of the reasons why I’m opposed to large scale immigration programmes at all.  They allow governments to attempt to skew the playing field one way or other, rather than letting the inevitable cultural/values conflict play out, and be sorted out,  by New Zealanders themselves, as New Zealanders.  Perhaps it is a little different when the immigration largely involves people with similar backgrounds (culture/religion) to those of people already in the recipient country.   One might argue that was the case in New Zealand for a long time, although even then one could only do so by ignoring the position of Maori in New Zealand.

I also dealt with some of this stuff in a post on the culture/identity aspects of last year’s New Zealand Initiative report on immigration.

So long as we vote our culture out of existence the Initiative apparently has no problem.  Process appears to trump substance.  For me, I wouldn’t have wanted a million Afrikaners in the 1980s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, not breaking the law to do so.  I wouldn’t have wanted a million white US Southerners in the 1960s, even if they were only going to vote for an apartheid system, and not break the law to do so.  And there are plenty of other obvious examples elsewhere –  not necessarily about people bringing an agenda, but bringing a culture and a set of cultural preferences that are different than those that have prevailed here (not even necessarily antithetical, but perhaps orthogonal, or just not that well-aligned).

When governments facilitate the inward migration of large numbers of people –  as ours is every year –  they are changing the local culture in the process.  Now, cultures and sense of national identity are not fixed and immutable things, but cultures also embed the things that the people of that country have come to value and which have produced value.  Those people (“natives”) typically aren’t seeking change for its own sake: the culture is in some sense the code “how we do things here”, that built what people value about the society in which they live.  Whether it is comfortable or not to say so, in the last few centuries, Anglo cultures have tended to be among the most stable, prosperous and free.  So it is far from obvious why should embrace change so enthusiastically, or why we would want to adopt the Initiative’s stance, and only want to exclude those whose views and actions are “antithetical” to our own, or who might want to topple our society illegally.

Perhaps if there were really substantial economic gains to New Zealanders from bringing the huge numbers of non-citizens to live in New Zealand it might be different. At very least, we might face the choice –  give up on some of our culture and sense of national identity in exchange for the economic gains.  In some respects, that was the choice Maori faced when the Europeans came –  a clearly more economically productive set of institutions etc, but on the other hand the progressive marginalisation of their own culture. ….

There is also a degree of naivete about the Initiative’s take on culture and/or religion (and the two overlap to a considerable extent).  Back in one of the earlier quotes, the Initiative argued that it was fine with people of whatever belief coming, and

Within New Zealand, people are free to pursue their beliefs, be they spiritual or corporeal, provided these do not impose on other people’s pursuit of the same.

They don’t seem to recognise that most people hold to beliefs that they think should influence how society is organised.  Even libertarians do. This is particularly obvious in Islam, which has never had a very strong distinction between ‘state’ and “church’, but it is no less true of Christianity.  Both are evangelistic religions, proclaiming what they believe to be true – and seeing truth as an absolute concept.  Both can, and have, survived at times and in places as minority faiths, but neither has ever been content to believe that its truths are just for its people, and not for export. I’m not so sure it is really much different either for today’s “social justice warriors”, or for libertarians –  whose proposed rule is, essentially, that we should all just leave each other alone (even though this has never been, and never seems likely to be, how human beings have chosen to organise themselves).

I’m not convinced that stable democratic societies can survive that long without a common culture and/or common religion (the two aren’t the same, but they overlap considerably, and necessarily).  It is hard to know.  We don’t have a long track record of democratic states –  a few hundred years at most (even if one doesn’t use universal suffrage as the standard), and then only for a handful of countries.


Democracy involves agreeing to live by a set of common rules, agreed by some sort of majoritarian process.  In almost any state, those rules include procedures for handling those least able to support themselves (whether it was Old Testament gleaning rules, the Poor Law, or the modern welfare system).  In a democracy, the willingness to help and support others is likely to be limited, to a considerable extent, to those with whom one feels a sense of shared identity.  The boundaries aren’t absolute, but revealed preference –  and introspection –  suggests that almost all of us are willing to do much more for our own families, and then perhaps for friends or members of other close communities of interest (neighbourhoods, church groups etc), and then for others in one’s own country, and only then for citizens of the world.  Is it a desirable model? I’m not sure. But it is human one, one that seems fairly ineradicable at a practical level.   Speaking personally, I don’t feel a strong sense of obligation to support someone down on their luck just because they became a New Zealander yesterday.  And I don’t feel a strong sense of obligation to support someone who won’t work to support themselves.  But I’m much more willing to vote my taxes to support those people than I am to support those down on their luck in Birmingham or Bangalore.  It is partly in that sense that “being a New Zealander” matters.  Mostly, humans will sacrifice for those with whom they sense a shared identity –  and generally that isn’t just the Initiative’s line about a shared belief in equality before the law, free speech etc etc (important to me as those things are).

Of course, what unites and divides a “country” or community changes over time.  In the wake of the Reformation, divisions between Protestants and Catholics were sufficiently important to each to make it practically impossible for both groups to co-exist for long in any numbers in the same territory/polity.  And, sure, multi-national multi-faith empires have existed for prolonged periods –  the Ottomans and Habsburgs were two examples – but not as democracies. Prudent repression can maintain stability for a long time.  But it isn’t the sort of regime that Anglo countries (and many others) have wanted to live under.

But the New Zealand Initiative report doesn’t seem to take seriously any of these issues, not even to rebut them.  They take too lightly what it means to maintain a stable democratic society, or even to preserve the interests and values of those who had already formed a commuity here.    I don’t want stoning for adultery, even if it was adopted by democratic preference.  And I don’t want a political system as flawed as Italy’s, even if evolved by law and practice.   We have something very good in New Zealand, and we should nurture and cherish it.  It mightn’t be –  it isn’t –  perfect, but it is ours, and has evolved through our own choices and beliefs.  For me, as a Christian, I’m not even sure how hospitable the country/community any longer is to my sorts of beliefs – the prevalent “religion” here is now secularism, with all its beliefs and priorities and taboos – but we should deal with those challenges as New Zealanders – not having politicians and bureaucrats imposing their preferences on future population composition/structure.

Values tests simply aren’t any sort of sensible answer, and particularly not in western societies  whose “values” and “religion” are not remotely stable or settled.   Perhaps it would work in Saudi Arabia.  Perhaps it even could have worked in many places in the 19th century.   And if such tests were seriously adopted in a society like New Zealand they would probably end up being used most against the sorts of people who now call for them.  Our culture’s heritage once included Test Acts, and I hope we resist the growing pressure to establish some modern form of them.  We can’t avoid the cultural conflicts within our own society, but we can give ourselves space to work them through as New Zealanders, people with some sort of shared commitment to this place and its people, that few newcomers –  wherever they are from, whatever their values, whatever their religion – are likely to share.