(First published in The Dominion Post, September 30.)
Internationally, the anti-immigration Right is on the rise, and the only surprise is that anyone should be surprised.
Donald Trump in the United States, Pauline Hanson in Australia, the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) Party in Germany, the triumph of the Brexiteers in Britain’s EU referendum … all point to a backlash against the liberal multicultural consensus that has dominated Western politics for decades.
It’s happened with a speed that has left the political establishment reeling and blindsided the predominantly liberal opinion-shapers in the media.
Consider the following:
● The British government is being forced to back-pedal on EU immigration policies that allowed freedom of movement within Europe. In the EU referendum, the United Kingdom Independence Party very effectively exploited a growing feeling that the British had lost control of their own country.
● In Germany, Angela Merkel is paying a high political price for throwing the doors open to one million migrants from the Middle East. Merkel not only played into the hands of despicable human traffickers in the Mediterranean but has given oxygen to the right-wing AfD, which recently defeated her Christian Democratic Union in her home state and now looks likely to become the third-largest party in the German federal parliament.
● In the US, Trump – a classic demagogue and political outsider – has confounded seasoned pundits by coming heart-stoppingly close to winning the presidency on a platform of anti-immigration and protectionist rhetoric.
● In Australia, the woman liberal Australians most love to hate, Queenslander Pauline Hanson, is back in Parliament, where she used her maiden speech in the Senate to tell Muslims who are unwilling to adapt to the Australian way of life to “go back where you came from”.
All over the democratic world (France, Austria and Italy too) politics is in a state of turbulence and uncertainty as the old political order unravels. Former British prime minister David Cameron is the most conspicuous casualty of the disruption, but he may not be the last.
The common denominator is immigration. While it might be the natural inclination of compassionate Western European countries to shelter millions of desperate refugees fleeing instability and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, it was only a matter of time before Islamist terrorism provoked a backlash.
After all, what sort of person repays his hosts’ hospitality by trying to kill them?
The ideal of multiculturalism, long an article of faith in liberal western democracies, is now under intense pressure. But if the mood has turned against refugees, it’s largely because having risked their lives fleeing from corrupt and tyrannical Muslim regimes, some of those refugees then perversely and illogically set out to destroy the civilised and tolerant societies that have given them sanctuary.
Small wonder that attitudes against immigration from Islamic countries are hardening. Europe has experienced the worst of it so far, but America hasn’t escaped and even Australia isn’t immune, as Hanson’s comeback attests.
The liberal Australian media can barely disguise their horror that Hanson, whom they thought had been seen off after her last foray into federal politics in the 1990s, is back – and totally unrepentant.
Hanson tests liberal Australians’ tolerance of free speech to the limit. Green Party senators staged a theatrical walkout rather than listen to her.
But here’s the thing: Hanson is in the Senate because a substantial number of Queenslanders like what she says and voted for her. They are just as entitled to a voice in Parliament as the inner-city Sydney and Melbourne progressives who vote for Labor or the Greens. It’s called democracy.
All of this prompts an obvious question. Who will be the political beneficiary if the anti-immigration mood spreads to New Zealand? It can only be Winston Peters.
It hasn’t happened yet, but that’s not to say it won’t.
New Zealand has been spared the terrorist outrages experienced in Europe and the US. Any anti-immigration sentiment here arises not because of terrorism fears, but from anxiety about the impact on the cost of housing and – increasingly – competition for jobs.
Otherwise, most New Zealanders seem relaxed about multiculturalism. Many (I, for one) welcome the demographic transformation of recent decades as providing vibrancy and diversity that was lacking in Anglo-Saxon New Zealand.
Will we remain cosily insulated from the pressures that are building over immigration in other countries? The government's inclination, as in all things, is to assure us that everything's sweet; no cause for alarm. But only a fool or an incurable optimist would ignore the lessons from overseas.