BY RUTH GRAY
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand - A campaign to "cut immigration to the bone" being waged by Winston Peters, the leader of New Zealand First, has opened up a sharp political debate in this country. In a series of large meetings around New Zealand on this issue over the last three months, Peters has raised his political profile substantially in this election year.
Peters, a former minister of Maori Affairs in the ruling National Party government, formed New Zealand First in 1993. He is one of the party's two elected members of parliament. A further three parliamentarians defected from the National and Labour parties in early April to join New Zealand First.
Rejecting accusations that his views on immigration are racist, Peters says New Zealand First is "color blind." The party's position, he told a public meeting of 600 largely elderly supporters in Christchurch April 11, is about "regaining ownership of the nation that generations of New Zealanders built, and which many even fought and died for."
Drawing a line between New Zealanders and "foreigners," Peters promotes his anti-immigrant policies as an answer to high unemployment levels and under-funded public health and education.
"People are flooding in by the tens of thousands to take the spoils while hundreds of thousands of people already here, including recent migrants, through failure in our education and training systems, economic devastation arising from scorched-earth economic policies and governments which do not care, cannot even earn a decent living for themselves and their families," he told a meeting in Dannevirke February 8.
Peters has gained support among a layer of elderly people, some of whom have formed organizations to defend their standard of living in the face of cuts to pension entitlements and health services. The national organization Grey Power has sponsored many of the meetings at which Peters has spoken.
New Zealand First has also attracted a hearing among some Maori people. Both Peters and fellow New Zealand First MP Tau Henare are Maori.
New Zealand First calls for limiting immigration to 10,000 a year. Immigrants would be subject to a four-year probationary period that would be reviewed yearly. The criteria for staying would be based on their "commitment and contribution" to New Zealand. After four years immigrants could choose between permanent residency and citizenship. Only those who became citizens would enjoy the same rights as other New Zealanders.
Under New Zealand First, no overseas investment in real estate or farming in New Zealand would be allowed.
Immigration into New Zealand has increased substantially in recent years. Official figures show that 54,811 people were approved for residency in 1995 - almost twice as many migrants as in 1992. About 60 percent of the immigrants are from Asia, with the largest number coming from Taiwan.
Peters denies that his campaign is targeting Asian immigrants in particular. But at a February 13 Grey Power meeting in Howick, a suburb of Auckland where many Asian immigrants have settled, he focused on a group of Vietnamese who police allege are responsible for the theft of gold jewelry around the country. Peters blamed the government for letting people of "unsound character" into New Zealand.
Other parties back immigration limits
Prime Minister James Bolger, the leader of the ruling National Party, described New Zealand First as a "racist" party. Trade Minister Philip Burden said Peters's "insinuations and coded criticisms were clearly targeted at appealing to an anti-Asian sentiment which has sadly long been present in this country."
Other parties back immigration limits
Despite their attacks on Peters, however, all capitalist political parties in New Zealand support restrictions on immigration and point to immigrants as putting strains on housing, education, health and other social services. For instance, Labour Party leader Helen Clark stated that immigration made New Zealand a more interesting country to live in, but "the numbers had to be adjusted to what New Zealand could cope with."
The National government itself - despite its criticisms of Peters - recently introduced measures that target immigrants whose first language is not English. These new migrants now have to pay a NZ$20,000 deposit that will be forfeited after one year if they fail a written and oral English language test.
On March 14, Immigration Department officials conducted an early morning raid on an Auckland house containing immigrants from the small Pacific Island country of Tuvalu. A number of residents were served with removal orders for overstaying their work permits. Tuvaluans caught up in the raid said they were "treated like animals." Emboldened by this atmosphere, racist attacks on immigrants have increased in recent months.
Peters has not been alone in campaigning for restrictions on immigration. Rightist groups such as Kiwis Against Immigration and the Government Accountability League have also become more vocal.
About 40 people attended a public meeting February 28 called by the latter group in Auckland. John Lehmann, the League's president, and Ray Cody, the founder of Grey Power, addressed the audience. Lehmann said members of the government were "traitors for selling our sovereignty" and that it was wrong to continue allowing immigrants in when health, education, and infrastructure services were overburdened.
Supporters of the Communist League protested against these views both outside and inside the meeting, receiving national media coverage for the organization's stand in support of open immigration.
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