PETER DUNNE: Fulminating against Donald Trump goes only so far

02/02/2017
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, wisely observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is a point that the world should perhaps have pondered more when candidate, and now forty-fifth President, Donald Trump, pledged during the last Presidential election campaign to ban Muslim immigration to the United States. No-one then took the pledge to be anything more than empty campaign rhetoric, and outside of the United States, even fewer people expected him to be elected to office anyway.

Well now it has happened, and to confound matters, this most unusual and unpredictable of Presidents seems hell-bent on keeping his election promises, at least the more outlandish of them. All this puts the rest of the world, especially America’s allies and close friends, in a quandary. Do they turn a blind eye to what he is doing, in the hope, perhaps, that after the flush of excitement wears off, the President will “come to his senses”, or do they speak out now to possibly circumvent the next move? The Statue of Liberty does still bear the legend “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” after all!

What is currently happening in the United States is certainly contrary to the principles its Founding Fathers espoused so eloquently. George Washington’s famous aspiration, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong,” has defined the United States for nearly 250 years. It has been given constant effect in American history from the nineteenth century migrations, through to the German and Jewish refugees of the 1930s, and the Asian refugees of the 1970s. The United States have been the world’s great melting-pot. Until now.

So, what, if anything, should New Zealand do? Fulminating against the President (while possibly good for the soul) ultimately only goes so far. So, for a start, we obviously need to clarify quickly any potential impact the new American policy might have on New Zealand residents with passports from the affected countries, and to offer them whatever support is appropriate (reports dual nationals are not affected unless they have visited one of the seven banned countries in the last five years are still concerning and confusing).

As to the wider question, as a small nation, we have historically played our part, albeit parsimoniously at times. The resettlement of the Polish children under Peter Fraser is our shining light, but we have responded well on other occasions as well. We have always acted on the basis of perceived need, rather than the political views or religious affiliations of those in strife. We have always upheld the value that former President Obama promoted just this week, “We do not have religious tests to our compassion.”

An obvious move we could make is to increase the number of refugees we accept each year. A doubling in our refugee quota has long been argued for. That would be a good start, but our overall approach to immigration also needs to change, because we do not fill the annual quotas we have now. Resettlement policy should no longer just be the preserve of central government, a tap to be turned on and off as it suits, if you like. Rather, we need to involve local government, business and the community far more than is currently the case, as part of an overall long-term population strategy.

At another level, the events of the last week – in New Zealand as much as in the United States – have reinforced the place of a party like United Future in our political spectrum, with its overt commitment to keeping our country open, tolerated and united. We need to be unafraid of upholding diversity, and supporting creativity, innovation, and New Zealand’s place in the world. These are enduring liberal values, under a pressure they have not faced for at least two generations. Although they are common sense, reflective of the shared values of our communities, they cannot continue to be taken granted, and so need their champions.

We need to give those New Zealanders who share them an explicit place in our political discourse which they can rally around. After all, Thomas Jefferson’s observation is as relevant now as it ever was.