But what about all the others, Paul Spoonley

Immigration and National Identity in New Zealand: One People, Two Peoples, Many Peoples?
Stuart W Greif (ed)
Dunmore Press, $39.95
ISBN 0864602382

Some things endure. One is the hostility towards those from Asia who have chosen to emigrate to New Zealand and have arrived during periods of major social and economic change. This hostility is as obvious in the 1990s, as a recent poll has demonstrated, as it was in the 1890s. But this is to gloss over the considerable differences, both in the characteristics of the migrants and the nature of the changes being experienced by New Zealanders.

As a fin de siècle fling, we have certainly restructured with a vengeance. The radical economic reforms of the post‑1984 period have been accompanied by major changes to the functions of the state (the first post‑welfare state, as the British newspaper the Independent called it) while yet to come is the transformation of the system of political representation and decision‑making.

To add to this maelstrom is the remaking of ethnic relations and how we think of ourselves in cultural and national terms. Domestically, the resurgence in Maori politics is a product of the postwar migration from ancestral turangawaewae to become an urbanised industrial worker and then more recently to urban underclass. The feisty articulation of cultural identity and Treaty of Waitangi rights has provided one of the enduring themes of the 1980s and 1990s, with important concessions drawn from both Labour and National governments.

In turn, it has provoked a consideration of what it means to be pakeha amongst some, and anger and opposition from others. But none can deny the contemporary significance of such cultural politics, whatever the issue.

Another major migration in the postwar period involved Pacific islanders. In the late 1980s for the first time, the number of tagata pasifika born in New Zealand outnumbered those born in the Pacific islands. The fact that these groups have yet fully to negotiate what their cultural identity might look like in a New Zealand location will become an ever more significant issue as we head into the twenty‑first century. An indication of the potential importance of these evolving cultural politics can be seen in a range of areas, from national sports teams to Shortland Street.

As if these were insufficient to raise the profile of cultural issues, immigration policy has become much more welcoming of non‑European (read non‑British) migrants: those with professional qualifications (South Africans) and with economic resources (north Asians), interspersed by much smaller groups of refugees (south‑east Asians).

All of this has been unsettling for New Zealanders and therefore anything which provides us with a considered contribution to the resulting debates is welcome. But this book from exclusively academic commentators is deficient. A book which claims to look at immigration and identity in New Zealand but then offers nothing on Pacific island, British, Irish or South African migrants is difficult to fathom. Stuart Greif, the editor, acknowledges the “risk” of ignoring these groups but says nothing further. Their absence leaves a very large gap and the integrity of the book never really recovers.

There are some powerful contributions. Jacqueline Leckie, who will be known to many for her work on Gujaratis in New Zealand, provides two chapters, on gender and migration and on south Asians. Gender issues have tended not to receive much attention from academic commentators and she persuasively demonstrates why this is an oversight. In particular, she discusses how women migrants can be estranged from their own ethnic networks as well as those of the surrounding society.

Her second chapter contributes to one of the more impressive aspects of the book. It is one of five chapters (out of 10) that discuss migration from Asia.

Man Hau Liev focuses on the 10,000 refugees from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam between 1976 and 1992. These migrants and their descendants have experienced a number of difficulties, not the least of which is post‑traumatic order syndrome as a result of their experiences prior to and during migration.

Tom Brooking and Roberto Rabel provide an excellent overview of migration to New Zealand, including material on the migration of Chinese which is again taken up by Manying Ip. She supplies considerable detail on the reasons for Chinese migration and then what happens to them once they arrive in New Zealand. She highlights the fact that. recent Chinese migrants (37,000) outnumber those who arrived prior to 1986 (10,000) or those born in New Zealand (10,000), which not only challenges the monoculturalism of this society but can also lead to tensions amongst the different waves of migrant communities.

Manying Ip’s chapter is interesting but there are one or two comments that grate. She echoes a comment often heard that Chinese were “model migrants” because they were, amongst other things, law‑abiding and “they hardly featured in negative statistics of accidents, crime and prisons”. (p186) That is not strictly true, as of the 113 people charged with drug offences in 1965 103 were Chinese. A visit to the police museum at Porirua will demonstrate the long‑standing interest of the police with the Chinese involvement in gambling and drugs.

She also comments that the education system is in serious distress because it is not used to “coping with any sizeable group that is different” (p197), which will come as a surprise to those schools in inner city and state housing areas that catered for migrants in the 1960s and 1970s and for many of whom English was a second language. The issue is hardly new but the location of the schools might be. Indeed, a Ponsonby school of the 1970s (and up to the present) might well have expected non‑pakeha pupils to account for 80%‑ plus of the school population, which is still a long way ahead of the current percentages of non‑pakeha, and specifically Asians, attending schools in the eastern suburbs of Auckland.

Finally, there is an interesting political position on economic issues which emerges as the chapter proceeds. Manying Ip comments:

The country’s proud, egalitarian and liberal socialist tradition is at odds with capitalism in all forms and is certainly not sympathetic to alien, Asian capitalism. (p193).

She ends the chapter with an argument for Asian migrants because of their skills and ability to link New Zealand with Asian economies. She clearly sees Asians as “quality migrants”. These are essentially political arguments for the desirability of some migrants and not others and it would be dangerous to suggest that New Zealand is without options. Are Asian forms of capitalism, especially those more exploitative forms that rely on family and clan links, a model for New Zealand? Has New Zealand ever been that socialist or indeed at odds with “all forms” of capitalism? Surely parts of the economy have been never anything but devotedly capitalist, however defined.

Moving away from the focus on Asian migration, Hal Levine explores the issues for New Zealand Jews, especially given the small size of the local community. He sees the options as limited, and often orthodox Jews are required to emigrate to larger communities, notably in Melbourne and Sydney, to preserve Jewish traditions. The pressure for those who remain is to assimilate and the question is how to preserve cultural integrity when the easier option would be to soften ethnic practices and allegiances. An important conference late last year in Auckland examined precisely these issues.

Alexander Trapeznik provides a good overview of current immigration policy although his subject is ostensibly recent European (non‑British/Irish/Dutch) migration. In particular, he provides details of eastern European migration which, with 1600 migrants in the 1982‑91 period, constituted only 1% of all migrants. More could have been said as to what happens once they get here.

Andrew Trlin and Martin Tolich explore the often complex politics of those who have migrated from the former Yugoslavia. Early in the chapter they clarify what is meant by a “Yugoslav”, “Croat”, “Dalmatian” and “Croatian”. The importance of these distinctions would have passed most New Zealanders by until the escalation of conflict in Bosnia and the regressive nationalisms which have emerged. These same politics are played out in the larger Auckland community, although the authors note that there is a preference for the label Dalmatian rather than Croatian which signals an important degree of assimilation. These are complex politics which are well‑explained by two members of the community.

Indeed, all the authors are either members of the communities they are discussing or migrants themselves.

We are left with three chapters which express disquiet about recent developments. Ranginui Walker is teamed with Ramesh Thakur at the end of the book. Ranginui Walker is unconvinced of the need for substantial migration from Asia and argues for domestic treaty politics to be given precedence. It is a position that has been aired elsewhere and the opportunity is taken to attack corporate interests in promoting business immigration.

In the opposing corner, Ramesh Thakur and to a lesser extent Stuart Greif share a number of concerns about biculturalism. In Stuart Greif’s case, these concerns are sometimes voiced in dubious terms. For example, he says of Dalmatians:

So strong have the cultural ties been and so attractive and versatile the culture itself that not even frequent intermarriage with Maori and pakeha alike has cut these people off from a respect for a participation in their ethnic inheritance. (p13)

I wonder whether he means “racial” (that is, genetic) rather than ethnic inheritance and whether he has actually read the chapter by Andrew Trlin and Martin Tolich which demonstrates that there is no one thing that can be labelled “Dalmatian” culture. There are competing and often quite different conceptions. To describe as “attractive” is dangerous, especially what else he has to say.

Further on, he makes a plea for assimilation and discusses the ethnic affiliations of Americans as a “dangerous undertaking” and invokes the lessons of nazism as an example of where this might lead. It is certainly true that there are exclusive and regressive ethnic politics, but equally, there are those that sustain and provide a sense of humanity and inclusiveness.

Ramesh Thakur’s chapter is a sustained critique of the recent policies which have been associated with ethnic rights. I must confess to being opposed to the arguments he offers, although I would acknowledge that his is by no means a lone voice. He assumes that recent concessions reflect “European” guilt, as the following illustrates:

Feeding on a pervasive and all‑enveloping sense of European guilt, the “indigenous” cultures begin to claim ever‑expanding spheres of privilege while nursing real grievances and inventing new ones. (p260)

If there is any substance to the reference to “guilt” being a contributing factor, then that would be unfortunate and an unsuitable basis for the establishment of new social contracts that underly the resolution of ethnic differences. I do not think it has been a major factor. Rather, recent concessions from pakeha and the state reflect the fact that major legal and social contracts between coloniser and colonised were broken and the future requires that they be addressed by reparation.

But the other element which should be contested is the suggestion that groups such as Maori are manipulating a situation to establish spheres of privilege. That has not been my experience at all and, while it might happen on occasion, to suggest such motives is to cast highly dubious aspersions about the current Maori leadership. This is very dangerous territory.

He argues that it is possible to be American and Irish and that assimilation has not excluded the potential for ethnic minorities to maintain their own identity. But this, he goes on, has been done without government involvement and individuals are free to choose between identities. In the wake of the events in Los Angeles over recent years, the idea of choice or that all Americans have equal access to resources such as justice or education will come as news to blacks or hispanics. If anything, the rise in ethnic claiming and resistance has come as a defensive reaction to being systematically excluded from those things which are said to mark the American system.

Here is a conservative position which derives from a strong internationalism and a belief in the irrelevance of minority cultural traditions in a market economy. Given what others have said in the book, it is hard to see this position as anything but the wish to see a diminution of cultural politics at the very point in history when they become predominant. There will be excesses and old forms of exclusion may be replaced by new forms. But neither is inevitable. Moreover, recent debates and developments in New Zealand suggest that there is a real potential to balance cultural and economic considerations in a way that benefits the larger community.

Ramesh Thakur, of course, has every right to articulate such arguments. The more problematic issue is a book that does not include a discussion of the major migration flows of the postwar period and especially the migration and impact of migrants from the South Pacific, Britain and South Africa. How can a book about immigration policy or the evolution of cultural identity be taken seriously with such gaps?


Professor Paul Spoonley is the Associate Dean of Social Science at Massey University’s Albany campus and the author of Racism and Ethnicity (OUP, 1993) amongst other books.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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