What value do we put on the values worth valuing? How New Zealand First has it wrong

New Zealand First's push for an immigrants 'values test' has taken a dark turn, so let's have a look at all the things New Zealand First is getting wrong here

The devil is always in the detail. It's often not until you get down to the nitty gritty of an idea that you can tell it doesn't just look bad on the surface, it's truly rotten all the way through. Such it is with New Zealand First's dead-end bill on a values test for immigrants.

At first blush, the concept of a bill asking migrants to prove they understand and commit to "New Zealand values" - whatever they are - is pretty ropey and dopey. I've actually got some appetite for a conversation about the ties that bind citizens in a rapidly globalised world, but this is a terrible way to have it. More on that later. Because we need to get to that detail. Today, the sponsor of the 'Respecting New Zealand's Values bill', Clayton Mitchell, told Guyon Espiner on Morning Report that perhaps a panel could be set up to stop an immigrant "behaving that way" or to deliver them "a consequence".

Well, hello Mr McCarthy.

That's pretty disturbing and surely is a pretty hefty mound of dirt on an idea that had already been nailed into a coffin for the term of this parliament at least, given it has been rejected by every party bar, remarkably, ACT.

But Mitchell has vowed to fight on for this cause, so it's worth briefly picking apart some of its many failings.

First of all, to support this idea you have to take the heroic view that New Zealand First is a champion of diversity and civil rights committed to fighting bigotry in all its forms.

Mitchell didn't start off terribly well, telling Newshub they're "largely Christian-based, but not necessarily aligned to any religion". The man has a point in terms of the history of our laws, but it's hard to argue for tolerance when you single out one religion from the get-go, even with qualifiers. He also, weirdly, suggested a key value was "respecting your mum and your dad". By that standard, most teenagers in this country would be on the first ship outta here.

Still, within a day or two the party had found the line its MPs were to repeat. New Zealand values were, it seemed about respecting the law, religious tolerance, treating women as equals (presuming you're a man) and respecting same sex marriage. 

This, from the party which voted to an MP against marriage equality just five years ago. And whose leader voted against legalising homosexuality in the 1980s. Winston Peters has been criticised for 'playing the race card' more than any other politician in my lifetime, for saying things such as, "The government's lax immigration laws are changing the face of our country forever. At this rate, it won't take long for New Zealand to be unrecognisable". Or "We are being dragged into the status of an Asian colony and it is time that New Zealanders were placed first in their own country." 

Why are all those dogs howling?

It is really is rich when Mitchell has the gall to warn that he doesn't want "the redneck brigade to hijack this". Yet at the party conference, supporters said they were concerned about "certain types creeping in". One delegate, apparently without irony, expressed concern about immigrants who "are not actually kosher with New Zealand's way of life".

But being a hypocrite doesn't mean you're wrong. So let's look at how the party is wrong. 

First, Winston Peters has said repeatedly that this suggestion is doing nothing but following the lead of other countries. "Canada does it. Australia does it", he said. Well, not that I can see. Not yet anyway.

Australia has a citizenship test, but no values test. Oh, Malcolm Turnbull had a crack at it last year, but it was kicked to touch by the senate. Turnbull tried again this year, but he's no longer Prime Minister and the new administration is silent on the idea thus far.

Canada has a citizenship test - something NZF MP Tracey Martin said she thought would be preferable (and distinct) to a 'values test'. It asks questions about its national symbols, coat of arms and where the word Canada comes from (Fact: It's a first nations word meaning 'village'. Who knew?). So not values.

Since Mitchell's weekend speech, however, the Coalition Avenir Québec party has won the Quebec state election, promising to introduce a values and language test to immigrants in its state. Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau has been caught up in a values test scandal of his own; but one aimed not at migrants but rather some Canadian citizens. 

In another spooky twist, Britain's Conservatives have, in the past 24 hours, flagged a new policy to introduce a values test. It already has what it calls a 'Life in the UK' test, asking questions about Dunkirk, the heir to the throne, what lobby groups do and how old you have to be to buy a lottery ticket.

So while Peters was eerily prescient, none of those equate to his claim that such countries already have values tests. 

As for the argument itself? Here are four instant problems.

First, those values expressed say nothing about the values that are indigenous to this land. What about, for example, manaakitanga? How would our test capture that unique type of hospitality espoused by the tangata whenua? 

More significantly, how can you have a conversation about the values underpinning our national life without acknowledging the Treaty of Waitangi? Peters is on the record opposing attempts to sneak the Treaty's "mythical principles" into our laws. So how does this law capture our values without regard to the Treaty?

Second, why do we expect immigrants to reach a standard and have a knowledge people born here don't? Looking at questions from the British and Canadian tests, I'm sure many citizens of those countries would struggle to pass. The same would be true here. Be it about values, history or our democracy, why would we expect new New Zealanders to pass a test the rest of us don't have to... or couldn't.

So much for one law for all.

And talking about law, what's wrong with the ones we have? If Peters is concerned about immigrants abusing our employment law, improve the employment law. Why single out migrants, when an exploited worker should be able to expect help from the government regardless of who the ethnicity of who's exploiting them?

If somone is showing prejudice against someone's gender or sexuality, complain to the Human Right's Commission. Further, we already have the Bill of Rights. That captures New Zealand values and locks in the freedoms and rights we endorse as a country. All other laws have to be consistent with the values it lays down.

So why do we need this test as well? Anyone agreeing to be a citizen of this great land is buying into a country where BORA already sets the bar. And it sets the bar for all New Zealanders, not just immigrants. 

Fourth, and finally, good luck defining the consensus values in the current climate. We might immediately say 'free speech' is a core value, but we've learnt this year how hard that is to define, let alone enforce. If a university vice-chancellor can survive putting restrictions on free speech, as Massey's Jan Thomas has thus far, then how do we enforce that on others? (As it happens, Thomas is Australian. Should she be brought before a panel and potentially extradited for her actions?) 

If we want to pull together values, that's a major constitutional discussion to do as a country, not just target it at immigrants. 

Talking about the ties that bind in an increasingly globalised world is not a bad thing. We've seen with the election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit that these issues are weighing heavily on people, so it's reasonable - even vital - to talk about these things if we are going to remain cohesive as a citizenry. Arguably, a willingness to talk about these issues is a core New Zealand value.

But how you start and frame that conversation matters. And singling out immigrants or talking of panels is not the right way.