New Zealand is a country that stands up for its values - unless it involves the inconvenience of bringing a few more desperate people into New Zealand for a new life.

Back in February of this year, the House debated a Prime Ministerial statement on New Zealand's contribution of some 143 military personnel to help combat ISIS in Iraq. You may remember it - sparks flew as the Government members spelt out the case for New Zealand's involvement and the Opposition tried to poke holes in it.

There sure was some fine and stirring rhetoric deployed on that day. John Key justified the National Government's decision in this way:

New Zealand is a country that stands up for its values. We stand up for what is right. We have an obligation to support stability and the rule of law internationally. We do not shy away from taking our share of the burden when the international rules-based system is threatened, as it is today.

Gerry Brownlee was dismissive of those who questioned the likely effectiveness of New Zealand's contribution, emphasising that no matter how small it may be it remains our moral duty to act:

People over there can say: “What difference does it make?”, yet I know that in other circumstances, they will come in here and talk, in all number of other cases, about how one person can make a difference. Well, what we are doing here is simply sticking our hand up and saying: “We want to get rid of this. We do not see it as being legitimate.”

Chris Finlayson concluded his contribution to the debate by reminding the House of our obligations as common members of humanity:

Let me, in closing, remind the House of the well-known words of that fine young brave supermarket employee. When giving his reasons for hiding Jewish customers during the recent terrorist attack in Paris, he said: “It’s not a question of Jews, or Christians, or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat and we have to help each other to get out of this crisis.” Exactly. 

And, of course, John Key returned to have the last word in the discussion by using words that have become somewhat well known.

I will not—will not—stand by while Jordanian pilots are burnt to death, when kids execute soldiers, and when people are out there being beheaded. I am sorry, but this is the time to stand up and be counted. Get some guts and join the right side.

That's leadership, that is! Putting aside cavils about risk and concerns about cost in order to serve a greater principle - to be on the right side of history in the face of a threat to our basic human decency. It may be difficult. It may demand sacrifice of us. But what is right is right.

Except then, a bare six months later, we see in graphic terms the humanitarian cost of the evil force that we're sending our armed forces to help defeat, as young Syrian Kurds wash up drowned on Turkish beaches. A kid who looks an awful lot like my own son.

So where is our moral leadership now? Apparently buried deep beneath an abundance of risk-averse caution.

John Key told Radio NZ:

Everyone accepts the enormity of the challenge of what's taking place, but New Zealand can pride itself on the fact that it's one of the countries that's consistently taken refugees for a long period of time. There are quite a few countries that don't take refugees.

Yes, it is true we have taken refugees for a number of years. But at the moment we're 87th on world rankings for intake of refugees per capita, and going down that list every year. And yes, it is true we are only one of 25 developed countries that agree to accept refugees for resettlement. But equally we don't have large numbers of asylum seekers arriving independently of this agreed intake of refugees for resettlement - so we effectively get to set our annual numbers without any worries that lots and lots more people will arrive unexpectedly.

The important question then isn't "are we doing anything at all?" It is, "are we doing enough, given the crisis that we see unfolding?"

Key then continued:

If we were ever going to increase that number, I'd have to be convinced that we can make sure we can give the same level of service. Because I think you do a disservice to people if you just bring them in and literally just half dump them on the street.

I suppose that's a fair enough position to take. But it's a question of resources - and allocation of resources is a question of priorities. Like, "should we spend $11 million on an Agrihub in Saudi Arabia to buy-off a businessman who might be stopping our FTA?" Or, "should we spend $32-to-$69 million on bridges in Northland in the hope that it gets our candidate elected?" Or even, "should we spend $65 million sending our armed forces to Iraq to combat ISIS?"

And, of course, there is still the small matter of the alternative to "bring[ing] them in and literally just half dump[ing] them on the street." Which is this (at best).

However, Key seems happy that our current intake of 750 is a magical Goldilocks number, not too many, not too few:

The general view is that 750 works well, on the balance of a number of factors, and that's been the wisdom of successive governments going back 28 years.

Two other things have happened in the intervening 28 years. First of all, the number of asylum seekers reaching our shores (people we are obligated to accept over and above the 750 refugees we accept for resettlement) has dropped markedly, due to increased scrutiny of international air travellers. So we're actually taking in less overall refugees today than we did in the past.

Secondly, in 1987 the population of New Zealand was 3.27 million people. The Toby's have a nice infographic of the change/no change dynamic in their article on the subject here. And have a look at how our GDP has shifted upwards in those 28 years ... even as we keep our refugee quota locked down.

Despite all of this, John Key and his National Government is not going to allow pesky external events like millions of people flowing out of a war zone and dying whilst trying to get into Europe interfere with our bureaucratic timetables:

We will have a review in 2016. We will assess our capacity and capability and whether we think it's right to keep it at 750 or change it, and we will make the call.

To which I really have only one thing to say. Get some guts and join the right side.

Comments (7)

by John Allen on September 03, 2015
John Allen

You call on John Key to get some guts and join the right side.  He will come to 'find' those guts, but only when the polling has been done and he finds that it is more than opposition politicians and political commentators who are calling him out to do the right thing.

by Ian MacKay on September 03, 2015
Ian MacKay

We would expect that these words should come back and bite him in the bum, but since Mr Key is quite relaxed about the problem then the population will be as well. Flag it away John, why don't you?

by Lee Churchman on September 03, 2015
Lee Churchman

My gut feeling is that this will end the same way as Sandy Hook did in the US. Once it is apparent that enough people will put up with dead children rather than allow anything to be done, all discussion of the issue is pointless. I'm not sure if we're there yet in NZ, but the UK seems well over. 

BTW that picture has made it so that I can't get Mahler out of my head today (no prizes for guessing which piece).

by Andrew Geddis on September 04, 2015
Andrew Geddis

"Kindertotenlieder" would have made a great post title! Except, perhaps, that Rückert's poems lack the necessary rage that I think the image requires.

by Lee Churchman on September 04, 2015
Lee Churchman

Yes. My go is still the Baker/Barbirolli recording. This is the one that's been in my head.

Kindertotenlieder (Rückert) (1999 Remastered Version): I: Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgeh'n

by Andrew Geddis on September 04, 2015
Andrew Geddis

@Lee,

There's a free version here, for anyone wanting to avoid iTunes.

FWIIW, this was the inspiration for my post title.

by Colin Fleming on September 04, 2015
Colin Fleming

I can't find the reference right now, but I remember seeing a quote from John Key when he was implementing one of the recent spate of anti-terrorism measures. It was along the lines of the fact that he felt obliged to do it because he didn't want to have to meet the families of someone who had been killed by terrorist action. I wonder how he'd feel if he had to speak to the father of those boys. What would he say? Perhaps "Sorry Mr Kurdi, we couldn't accept you because we didn't think we could give you an adequate level of service. We would have done you a disservice. You were better off taking your chances in the boats."

Get some guts, indeed.

Post new comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.