In an interview with the editor of the Indian Weekender, Sandeep Singh, the prime minister has her harshest words yet for Shane Jones over his comments about Indian students. Below, the interview in full.
Sandeep Singh: One of the most pressing issues that our community is facing today is that, probably, under this government we have seen a trivialisation of racism at the topmost level of New Zealand politics? Is that a fair charge?
Jacinda Ardern: No, it’s not. And I will be as clear as I can be on this. We are in an election year, and that has, I think, driven electioneering out of some of the different parties that are in parliament and that includes parties in the government. But what you’ve heard in recent days, and let’s be frank, what you’ve heard in recent days coming from Shane Jones is not the position of this government. It is certainly not the position of the Labour Party.
What have you done to change that position or address that issue?
I have spoken as clearly and as frankly as I can that not only do I totally vehemently disagree, I consider those comments to be both wrong and I consider them bad for New Zealand.
But you don’t consider it racist?
For me that is the strongest condemnation that I could possibly give those comments. What says more that the fact I consider them to be not only bad for a community but bad for New Zealand?
I understand that part, that condemnation, I’ve heard it many times from you. But the nation, the community, they need to see more action. Because your reprimand and displeasure is not enough.
Well, again, this is one of the issues, of course, that we face with the design of the government structures that we have in New Zealand. We make up governments that have parties that disagree with each other, and in fact that is the whole basis of an MMP environment. If I had a member in my own party making statements like that I would have a very obvious ability and course of action that I could take. I could demote, I could reprimand, a range of things that I could do. But when I have someone in a different political party who expresses a different opinion; they are their own party, they will by default as a different party have different opinions. That’s why they’re in another party than me.
I understand that part, but the thing is, don’t you think it’s a lame excuse to allow the casualisation of racism at the topmost level of the government?
I don’t consider that I have excused it in any way. I have condemned it. I have spoken clearly against it –
But you haven’t stopped Shane Jones from giving –
Ultimately, the only things that stop that are voters. Voters decide who we work with.
Are you saying you’re giving him free bandwidth for the next six months –
– that he can come back and say whatever he wants to say?
I think actually what you’re doing is diminishing a little bit, if I may say, the power of actually being admonished in this public way. I do think actually me standing up and saying what I think they’re saying is bad for New Zealand, that actually, I think matters. I don’t want to trivialise that, but equally, my message to voters is this: in election year, the power now sits with you. You determine who is able to form governments and you have it within your power to decide what you make of those remarks as well.
Don’t you think you’re risking too much goodwill that you’ve rightly earned from last year’s Christchurch terror attack, where you have firmly stood beside the community that was affected and you have condemned the racist ideology in the strongest words?
I have condemned in the strongest words possible these words on this occasion, but really it will come down to the fair-mindedness of others whether they condemn me for the statements of others. I would consider that to not be fair, that I’d be punished for the opinions of others which I personally strongly disagree with. Or indeed Labour, we stand directly opposed to those statements – and also we are the ones of course in government that are in the position to be able to correct issues when they arise, as we did when you recently would have seen, when we had a policy issue with cultural marriages. We stood to fix that issue because that’s what’s within our power. Ultimately, though, what is within others’ powers is to join in the condemnation of statements like those we’ve seen made by Shane Jones.
Nobody doubts that you are standing firm on that, but the perception’s going out there that you may not be a strong prime minister, that you are being a little bit weak, that you are letting your minister, who is directly responsible to you as a cabinet minister, go rogue time and again and hit a community.
And I’m sure that you’ll do me fair justice in reporting exactly how strongly I have condemned those statements and again. For me the issue of inclusiveness in New Zealand, of our diversity being our strength, you will see me repeat, time and time again, they are values I believe strongly in, and that I live. But what I would again say to members of the public, it is simply not fair to take the statements of one individual MP and cast a shadow on an entirely different party, because we have condemned those statements, and now I ask voters to act on their values when it comes to election time.
Two issues that have affected our community and were represented in your manifesto as well in the 2017 election, was immigration, cutting down immigration numbers, and housing issues. Do you think you have been able to achieve what you set out to achieve in 2017?
In terms of immigration, do you think the numbers have been cut down?
One of the things we’ve always been really clear on is we’ve never set a specific target because actually that doesn’t serve the interests of New Zealand or New Zealanders or even our migrant community. That actually wasn’t ever true, we had a set of policies designed that we thought would make sure that we were best serving our migrant community and New Zealand, which was let’s make sure people aren’t exploited in our private education institutions, and we saw the heavy price that some students paid when that was happening, so let’s fix that regime, and also let’s make sure that we get our skills match right when we’re working through work visas.
We then made an estimate of the impact that would have on numbers, and that’s what some people then assumed was a target, but that’s never what it was designed to be. We haven’t seen the full effect of that yet but we have seen a start. What we’ve seen particularly for our students for instance who are coming from India, we’ve seen a decrease in some of our PTEs [private training establishments], our private training institutions, but an increase in the numbers in our tertiary institutions. To my mind that says… our students therefore are starting to access higher-quality courses that will be in their best interests for their long-term job opportunities and job prospects. Hopefully that also means we’re weeding out some of that exploitation we were seeing from PTEs which weren’t up to scratch. That’s exactly what we wanted to see – so still good access but in better-quality courses.
Since you’re talking about students, would you agree – sorry, I go back again to Shane Jones –
You don’t even have to finish – no I do not agree with his comments.
So you don’t agree with the comment that Indian students are ruining New Zealand institutions?
Absolutely not, in fact we have benefited greatly from the fact that we have had patronage from those students choosing to come to New Zealand. In fact the economic impacts alone are significant, so I absolutely reject that, it is utterly wrong.
Moving forward to immigration, you still have got more things coming up that you want to do, is that right?
Most of our policy you’ve already seen, it’s out there in the open. We are continuing to work on exploitation. We want to make sure our protections in our system are what they should be, because there is vulnerability when you don’t have a support network and you are a new migrant. We want to support those who call New Zealand their new home. We’ve got a bit of work to do there, and of course there’s the ongoing work that any government does on residency, but ultimately some of the biggest pieces of work you will already have seen.
Housing was one of the major issues of 2017. Do you think your government has been able to do what it wanted to do, getting more first home buyers in the market?
I was just looking at some of the statistics around first home buyers taking up mortgages yesterday, and it really does show the same thing we’ve seen out of core logic that when we first came in. First home buyers made up about 18% of the market, now they’re making up about 24% of the market, so we have seen that increase. In part that’s because we’ve seen a stabilisation in house prices in Auckland, but in other regions we’ve seen a bit of activity in the housing markets. In part that’s because we’ve been trying to stimulate those regional economies, the provincial growth fund activity means that you see a bit more population growth. So it’s causing some solutions and causing other tensions.
Overall, we’ve increased public housing places by over 3000, we’ve got 3000 houses currently under construction. That’s why we’re building more houses than any government since the 1970s and building consents are hitting records. Is it completely fixed? No. We have more work to do, particularly as we try and improve the number of people who are getting into more affordable housing than what they have now.
Six months before we all go and vote, what do you think will be your main emphasis where you’ll be taking action?
A big emphasis for us – and it will change a bit over the next six months because of the global challenges we’re seeing, but actually even as we are coming into dealing with global issues of Covid-19 New Zealand been really well placed. Something you’ll hear me talk about a lot is the work that we’ve done to make sure the economy is in a strong position. We’ve been running surpluses, we’ve got debt down from what we inherited, unemployment is down at 4% some of the lowest in a decade, and wages are up, Of course, that puts us in a good position to do things like invest in infrastructure – $12 billion projects we’ve announced recently. So what we’ll really be talking about is the rollout of some of those programmes, and pointing out that we are only two and a half years in. We’ve made a good start, we’ve made a number of changes to some real challenges we were facing as a nation, but I’ll be asking voters to let me keep going.
Before we let you go today, the main concern is about the casualisation of racism. I know that’s an immediate concern, you have already said that very firmly but, relaying what we are hearing from our community, they are seeing more racism.
This election I’ll be campaigning as a Labour leader, and as the Labour leader I am going out there to get as many votes as I can for Labour. Not for anyone else, for Labour. And so, I hope that your readers will see the values that we hold as a party, not the values of anyone else.
Transcript is published with permission and edited for clarity. Read the Indian Weekender report here.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.