Suraj Kandath Girijashanker
New Zealand’s prime minister has been rightly applauded for her response to the attacks against Muslims in New Zealand, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that she has helped to empower anti-Muslim bigotry in her rise to power.
“They are us.”
These were the words used by Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s 38-year old Prime Minister to describe 50 Muslims killed in an attack on two Christchurch mosques by a white supremacist gunman. Ardern’s statement signalled the start of her response to the attacks, which has almost unanimously been praised for embodying inclusion, strength and compassion. In a later statement, Ardern acknowledged that what happened in Christchurch “could only be described as a terrorist attack”, in contrast to political and media discourse which is often reluctant to use this label for attacks conducted by non-Muslim perpetrators.
The following day, she expressed solidarity with Muslims by wearing a black headscarf when meeting victims’ families. Then exactly a week after the attacks, Ardern joined 5,000 people at a vigil in Christchurch which included the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. When Donald Trump called to ask how the United States could assist, she reportedly answered simply with “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”
Identifying that the attacks did not occur in a vacuum, Ardern also made a call to address racism on a global scale. As an indication of her emergence as a global leader, opinion pieces have suggested that she is the kind of leader countries like the United States and the United Kingdom need.
Stooping before rising to power: However, a closer look at Ardern’s positions before the Christchurch attack and her response to Islamophobic comments made by New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, suggest that she is not the anti-racism leader the world has been seeking. Instead, Ardern needs to reflect on her role as well as that of her government and the Labour Party which she leads in normalising racism and anti-immigrant sentiments in New Zealand.
Many immigrants to New Zealand will never be part of the New Zealand “us.” Ardern, her government, and the Labour Party are not as detached from this reality as it would appear. The most striking example of the tolerance of racism in Ardern’s government lies with Winston Peters. The far-right New Zealand First party, which Peters leads, formed a coalition government with Ardern’s Labour party following the 2017 national elections.
At the time Ardern and her party agreed on the power-sharing agreement, New Zealand First’s platform carried restrictive immigration policies, and Peters’ long history of racist and Islamophobic rhetoric was well-documented. During the 1996 national elections, Peters led New Zealand First’s campaign by stirring fears of an “Asian invasion.” In 2005, Peters stated that immigration contributed to New Zealand being the “the last Asian colony.” In 2014, on the subject of Chinese investment in the farming sector, he joked that “two Wongs don’t make a white.”
More recently, New Zealand First and Peters have directed their attention to Muslims. Following the 2005 London bombings, Peters suggested that “moderate and militant [Muslims], fit hand and glove everywhere they exist” and that that “New Zealand has never been a nation of Islamic immigrants.” In 2013, New Zealand First Member of Parliament Richard Prosser called for young men who were Muslim, or looked Muslim, to be barred from flying on “Western” airlines. Instead of being removed from the party, Prosser was promoted to third New Zealand First’s 2014 election list.
In 2017, the year he became Deputy Prime Minister, Peters commented on the London Bridge attacks: “What is happening is that families, friends, and confidants are choosing to turn the other cheek, choosing silence, rather than turn these monsters in. That may be the culture of Damascus, but it is not ours. It may be acceptable in Tripoli, but it most certainly is not acceptable in New Zealand.” Following the Christchurch attacks, Peters’ refused to apologise for his comments against Muslims, and instead offered a weak explanation. The remarks he claimed were made in the context of terrorism, and echoed statements made by Muslim leaders. Shared responsibility?
Should Ardern be held responsible for Peters’ comments? No – but to be precise – Peters’ rise to power in the current government is through the acquiescence of Ardern and the Labour party. Labour did not obtain an outright majority in the House of Representatives in 2017 and teamed up with New Zealand First. Despite winning just over 7 percent of seats, it has been suggested that “the real power” of Ardern’s government lies with New Zealand First. If Peters’ party withdraws from the coalition, it would trigger new elections.
Ardern is conscious of the dynamics of the power-sharing agreement and has been unwilling to take a firm stand on Peters’ Islamophobic rhetoric. When questioned on Peters’ comments earlier this month, she stated they were made “14 years ago” and that she had not challenged him on them.
Instead, she focused on the comments he made since the attack: “I have heard what he’s said subsequent to the 15th of March … is that everything’s changed, and that he himself would never claim to be blameless.” Ardern also refused to respond to whether he should apologise for the comments, maintaining that it was not her place to interpret comments, and questions about an apology should be directed at Peters.
Despite positioning herself as an inclusive leader who is committed to combatting racism, it appears that Ardern is unwilling to take a strong stand when it has the potential to derail her political career. Peters’ most recent attack against Muslims was not fourteen years ago, but in 2017, the year Ardern was elected prime minister. These comments were amongst the repeated attacks Peters’ has made against immigrants and Muslims during his lengthy political career.
Therefore, the distinction Ardern makes between rhetoric before the Christchurch attacks and after, seems somewhat arbitrary. A week after the attacks, Peters attended an Organization for Islamic Cooperation meeting in Istanbul, where he expressed “The families of the fallen will have justice.”
Ardern stated that Peters successfully carried out his role at the Istanbul meeting – delivering the message that New Zealand was not a country that allowed white supremacy to thrive. However, if delegates at the conference were looking for an example of someone who had emboldened white supremacists in New Zealand over the years – they did not need to look beyond Peters.
Ardern’s record: Despite Ardern’s defence of Peters, there has been a line drawn to distinguish the positions of Ardern and Peters on immigration and race – with the overwhelming majority of criticism being directed at Peters. While Ardern may not have said anything remotely as incendiary as Peters, on the policy-level the distinction between the two is not always clear-cut. Ardern led Labour’s 2017 election campaign, which included a proposal to cut net migration by 20,000 to 30,000 people during its three-year term. While a Labour spokesperson denied the proposal was related to race, in the months preceding the election, immigration was linked to everything from strains on the infrastructure, housing prices, unemployment and even youth suicide.
Peters himself identified it before the elections: “Labour, the Greens and the National Party were all for mass immigration, were all for calling New Zealand First racist. Now, they’re trying to catch up.” Since the election, Ardern has hardly been questioned on racism and anti-immigrant sentiments from within her party and government. When she has, her responses have been far from satisfactory.
When asked for her response to a Wall Street Journal article which was published with the headline, “Meet New Zealand’s Justin Trudeau – except she’s more like Trump on immigration”. Ardern expressed she was “infuriated”, but did not address proposed immigration cuts. Instead, she focused specifically on Labour’s proposal to double New Zealand’s refugee quota. The proposed cap of 1,500 refugees, however, is not a significant achievement, at just half of Australia’s per capita intake.
In a separate interview, Ardern denied that housing data released by Labour under its previous leadership which suggested an increase in property ownership by people with “Chinese-sounding” names was racist. She went on to offer a weak non-apology: “If anyone felt that it was [racist], then of course we would apologize for that. But that was not our intent.” Intentions are not enough. Ardern has failed to acknowledge her role as well as that of her government in normalising racism in New Zealand.
This may seem at odds with the image the world has of her after the Christchurch attacks. However, it sits comfortably in New Zealand’s political history, where immigrants, who are not part of the New Zealand “us”, are left compromised for political gain. In 2005, Peters was appointed as Foreign Minister in Helen Clark’s coalition government, shortly after he claimed that New Zealand had never been “a nation of Islamic immigrants”. Rather than gestures and statements, a real test of progress on race and immigration in New Zealand will be during the national elections scheduled for 2020. Will the demonisation of immigrants continue to be tolerated in election campaigns? And will politicians with racist trajectories still be able to hold the highest offices in the country?