A plea for national identity

Published in The National Business Review (Auckland), 25 September 2015

It was a great week for New Zealand – and for me personally. Statistics NZ reported a net gain of more than 60,000 people in the year to August.

Prime Minister John Key was right when he called this figure a “vote of confidence in New Zealand.” It demonstrates why this country is an attractive destination.

Also this week, I had a letter from Immigration NZ. Having spent the past three years in New Zealand on the virtue of holding an Australian permanent resident visa, my application for a New Zealand Permanent Resident Visa had been approved.

This doesn’t only mean I can now stay indefinitely and travel overseas any number of times I like. To me, that turquoise sticker in my German passport is more than just an administrative act. It also made me feel I have finally and properly arrived in New Zealand.

A permanent visa really is the last step before citizenship. Yet I am not sure that Immigration New Zealand, part of the Ministry of Business (MBIE), realises its emotional significance. If it did, it probably wouldn’t have sent me back my passport with an equally slanted and faded photocopy of a standard letter without any address or greeting.

It is a trifle, of course, and frankly I cared more about the speedily granted visa than the accompanying letter (so thank you, MBIE!). Then again, perhaps a bit more thought should go into the way New Zealand communicates with its migrants. It might also help to reassure the autochthonous population that migration is something that enriches the country and does not jeopardise its identity.

When I applied for my Australian resident visa many years ago, I needed to fill in loads of forms. Of course, the Australian authorities wanted to know whether I had ever committed any crimes, belonged to terrorist organisations or was in any other way a risk to national security.

Fortunately, supporting a notoriously unsuccessful football club and having a strange sense of humour were not deemed offensive enough. But in all of this bureaucratic exercise, it was Form 1281 that caught my attention. It looks like any other, densely printed with a box for office use only and room for applicants’ signatures. It is the Australian Values Statement.

What Form 1281 asks applicants to acknowledge is that they understand some basics about “Australian society and values.” In particular, it explains certain elements of life in Australia are non-negotiable.

Among these are respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, and equality of men and women. It also stresses equality of opportunity for individuals regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background and the importance of the English language, as the national language, in unifying society.

The signals to potential migrants are clear: You are welcome only if you subscribe to our way of life. But once granted a visa, you are also expected to become part of the community (while you are free to follow whatever religion you like, eat your old favourite national dishes and listen to your old favourite radio stations on the internet).

The New Zealand immigration system also involved a fair share of form-filling – and rightly so. It is important to control the borders and the government knows who it lets in.

But beyond this, we do not communicate to migrants that more is required to live in New Zealand than just not having a criminal past. They are not required to sign up to “New Zealand values” (which should be the values of the Enlightenment). And once granted, we do not even properly welcome migrants into the community.

‘Tenants in our own country’ fears

For a country whose history was shaped by migrants, this oversight is quite astonishing.

Explaining to migrants what kind of country they enter is important for them. It is also important for the rest of the New Zealand population. A sizeable part of the community is sceptical, anxious or even hostile about New Zealand’s dealings with the rest of the world. Migration and foreign direct investment are viewed with suspicion.

There are fears, sometimes not even properly articulated, about becoming “tenants in our own country” or “losing our national identity.”

Economists might belittle such sentiments but they need to be taken seriously. You can argue the benefits of an open economy as much as you like but that will not convince people whose main concern about interactions with foreign countries, companies and people are mainly cultural.

National identity still matters

You will not win over someone who is culturally sceptical about foreign direct investment with a lecture on trade theory. What it takes is something completely different.

Last week, the government blocked the sale of Lochinver Station to a Chinese investor. The reasons given were formalistic. It was claimed that not enough jobs were created in the takeover process and that the benefits to New Zealand were thus not substantial.

Though these were the official reasons given, it was a deeply populist decision. It pandered to the negativity on foreign direct investment (FDI) and allowed the government to appear tough (while actually approving the bulk of FDI applications).

Political points can be scored by blocking high-profile transactions such as Lochinver Station. The public does not feel assured foreigners are going to play by our rules or that these foreigners are going to make a positive contribution.

It is here New Zealand politicians should make a greater effort if they want to convince the public of the benefits of an open, internationally connected economy. The public needs to know that whoever comes to New Zealand as a migrant or an investor will not change the New Zealand way.

Mr Key rightly calls strong migration into New Zealand “a vote of confidence.”

But New Zealanders also need confidence in the migrants arriving – and then they might also feel more confident in foreign investors, too.

In a globalised economy, national identity may seem to be an anachronism. For many people, it still matters greatly.

But to sell the benefits of economic integration, free trade and the free flow of capital, New Zealand also needs to reaffirm its national identity.

And I am saying this as a recent migrant – with or without a proper welcome letter.

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