In the niche world of MMP politics, parties need to brand themselves clearly. Bill English's failure to do this contributed to National's recent poor performance. Unambiguous branding, however, seems to require extravagant utterance from politicians. Whenever I return from abroad I am struck by the hyperbole they use. Not content with labelling an opponent's actions "awful", "unacceptable" or "muddled", they are more likely these days to use words like "outrageous", "thoroughly reprehensible", or "horrendous". There is some irony in this; we were assured by MMP's proponents that it would produce a kinder, gentler more cooperative political world. In practice MMP seems to make political parties even more intolerant at election time, even though, at the end of the day, two or more of them must work together or there'll be no government.
A good example of this is the reaction to Winston Peters. Sure, he has a spotty record. He's a showman. He exhausted our patience big time following the 1996 election, and the antics of his inexperienced colleagues destroyed any remaining confidence during the next two years. But, of all the party leaders, he is the one who best understands how to manipulate MMP. Having done next to nothing for twenty four of the last thirty months, he suddenly emerged from his slumbers with three broad policy areas, index fingers at the ready, and the "Can We Fix It?" jingle from a kid's TV programme. Using robust language, he denounced this one and that, often barely able to suppress a grin at his own daring. His opponents feigned shock and horror. But at no point did his campaign issues of immigration and the Treaty Industry receive more than perfunctory discussion by others. Several promised to take hold of the Treaty Industry, but the running was mostly left to Winston. Others seemed to feel that to discuss his issues would be to let him set the agenda, thus derogating from their own election brands.
Immigration requires measured consideration - something it didn't always get from Mr Peters who occasionally sounded like France's Jean-Marie Le Pen. Immigration goes to the core of New Zealand society. We are a nation of migrants. Polynesians beat Europeans to a vacant land mass by about 700 years, while most Pacific Islanders and Asians arrived over the last forty years. Recently, more exotic ingredients were added to what initially had been a bi-cultural society. We have become multicultural, a mini version of what the Americans call their "melting pot".
Several things we now know to be true about immigration. The old trade union fear that it threatened jobs is bunkum. On balance, an active immigration policy bringing both skills and money into the country, has nearly always been beneficial for our economy. Immigrants stimulate demand for goods and services. A good mix of skills helps them supply those needs. New Zealand has always required development capital from abroad, too. Only genuine "know nothings" argue against immigration. When Mr Peters occasionally talked of putting a wall around New Zealand, I counted him among them. Fortress economies are neither desirable, nor possible, in today's world. We tried that and failed between 1938-84.
The wider question that needs addressing is whether we have been sufficiently careful with the mix of peoples we bring to New Zealand. In the 1990s my colourful colleague, the late Trevor de Cleene, observed that we were importing too many liabilities, while exporting our assets. In other words, too many immigrants were unskilled refugees, or joining families, and becoming charges on the State. He was right. Not enough possess the trades, skills or money necessary to build our economy. Meanwhile, too many skilled young, trained at our expense, depart, many never to return. Only a growth rate equal to, or ahead of the OECD average, can slow, or reverse that.
Fixing migrational imbalances is difficult. But other countries are trying. The Canadians, according to a recent London Financial Times article, ensure that at least 60% of their intake of 250,000 migrants each year are classified as "economic migrants" - that is, people with degrees, trade certificates, or apprenticeships, who are likely to lift the country's economic performance. Over the last eight years, Canada's population has risen from 27 to 31 million, an increase equal to the population of New Zealand. Much of that increase is from immigration. Canadian embassies actively seek migrants, especially from universities and polytechs. They trawl job fairs all over the world. Canada's resulting immigration mix is similar to New Zealand's, with Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis and Philippinos providing nearly half their total intake. The quality of immigrants, however, seems to be higher than ours. Serious consideration is also being given by Canada to contracting migrants to reside in under-populated, slow-growing areas. Shouldn't we be discussing this too? Even if Winston sometimes sounded extreme, he deserves some credit for putting immigration on the agenda.
Historian and author Michael Bassett was a Labour MP for 15 years.