Technicolour Dream or Technicolour Nightmare? God is Watching Us

Thinking about Immigration and Multiculturalism in New Zealand


The freighter lay at anchor some distance from the shore. As well as cargo, the ship carried a large group of hopeful migrants. At the main mast flew a yellow flag indicating the presence of infectious disease. That disease was smallpox, one of the most virulent and feared diseases known. Four of the passengers were sick with smallpox, and a further three had died during the trip. On shore people were frantic. Some wanted the ship to turn around and return to its port of origin. Others suggested it be sent to some uninhabited islands, some hundreds of miles away, and only return when the disease had run its course. Eventually the healthy passengers were offloaded onto a nearby island, and the ship kept in quarantine for over a month. Both the ship owners and those waiting for the freight were less than impressed over the resulting loss of revenue.

No, this was not the Tampa, or some other international ship caught up with unwanted boat people. This was the Gloucester, a sailing ship carrying 119 Chinese immigrants to New Zealand in 1877. The port was Dunedin.

This incident was one of a number that occurred during the high noon of immigration to New Zealand in the 1870s.1 Whilst the date and context were different from the present, however, some of the expressed sentiments were not. Smallpox was bad enough, but the fact that 'Chinamen' were the carriers of the disease was even worse.

One Dunedin citizen expressed the unproven belief that "smallpox introduced by Europeans is different than that introduced by Asiatics".2 There was something perceptibly less controllable and more menacing in the 'Asiatic' strain of the disease and, by implication, something to be feared in the presence of non-European settlers. New Zealand was meant, by and large, to be white.

Population Trends 1991-2001

A century or so later New Zealand's population has taken on the many coloured hues of Joseph's technicolour dream coat, as migrants from all around the world settle here. Some are refugees, some are temporary, increasing numbers are here for education, and many come to join family or to gain residency. All of our metropolitan and provincial centres, and many smaller centres too, now have residents from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, as well as from the 'more traditional' European localities.

At the 2001 Census there were 231,801 Pacific Islanders, 237,459 Asians and 24,924 of other national/ethnic groupings resident in New Zealand, alongside 2,868,009 Europeans and 526,281 Maori.3 Since 1991 the three immigrant groupings have grown as a percentage of the population.

The population is still predominantly European although, in the larger urban centres at least, the balances are markedly different for different areas or suburbs. However, when we consider the growth rates of these broad groupings, since 1991, the picture is quite different.


The 1990s was a decade of little growth in the European population, modest growth in the Maori and Pacific Islander population, and comparatively phenomenal growth in the other non-European groupings. There are indications, however, that this growth was fastest in the 1991-1996 period, but had slowed significantly by 2001.

By 2001, Chinese (People's Republic) were the dominant grouping under 'Asian', followed by Indians and Koreans. Under 'Other' the three equally dominant groups were Arabs, Iranians and Iraqis. Altogether there were at least sixty-six different nationalities or ethnic groups listed in the Census. If we take the Chinese component of the population as representative, then the largest concentrations of migrant populations are typically in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and, to a lesser degree, in Hamilton, Palmerston North and Dunedin.

The face of New Zealand has changed in many ways over the last two decades, and the changing composition of the population is just one example of this transformation. This has resulted in increasing diversity in such things as the languages we hear in the streets, the cultures we rub shoulders with, the religious architecture of some suburbs, and the range of restaurants that we eat at. The rest of the world has literally been brought into our suburbs, workplaces and classrooms.

At the same time it is obvious that, for some New Zealanders, this has not been an easy adjustment. The rhetoric of the last election, the success of certain political parties and the ongoing debate in Parliament all indicate that there are many who are not comfortable with the changes going on around them.

Some of that discomfort emerges from concerns about the impact on jobs and community services. Some of it is of a more irrational nature. Commentators were right in suggesting that some of the rhetoric of the last election was a blatant appeal to the darker side of the human psyche.

So what are we to make of these changes to our population over the last two decades? Should we be alarmed by them or should we see them as opportunities for a more informed and realistic engagement with the wider world of which we are a part?

Universal Phenomenon

There is no getting away from the fact that international migration has been one of the enduring features of the last two hundred years, and that New Zealand has been inextricably caught up in this process. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have seen unprecedented movements of people worldwide. Early on this was from the old world (continental Europe and Britain) to the new world colonies and republics. A staggering 42 million Europeans migrated overseas in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.4

More recently, especially with the breakdown of colonialism since 1945 and the growing developmental chasm between the north and the south, migration has been primarily from less developed to more developed countries. Population pressure, political instability, famine, poverty and war have all contributed to this.

Recent United Nations estimates expect international migration levels to remain high throughout the 21st century. Further, international migration will be the principal means by which the populations of the more developed countries (like New Zealand) will grow, for at least the next fifty years.5

Despite all geographical appearances New Zealand is not an island, alone and aloof from such processes. From the earliest human settlement of this region of the world, migration has been the key dynamic in its being populated. For better or worse New Zealand as a colony owed most of its nineteenth century (European) population growth, up to the 1880s, to immigration.

Similarly since World War Two, and particularly since the 1960s, the population's growing ethnic diversity has also been due to immigration. As a country we are merely hiding our heads in the sand if we think that we can avoid being a part of what, historically, has been a global phenomenon.

Complex Process

There are various ways of explaining the migration process. A simple and useful model is to think of migration as a result of various 'push' and 'pull' factors. Things like lack of jobs, overcrowding, poverty, environmental disasters, war, famine, high living costs, poor or expensive education are all 'push' factors that may motivate people to leave home and seek refuge or residency in another part of the world. 'Pull' factors are often the reverse of these 'push' factors. They can also be more a perception in the minds of people either keen or desperate to move - the notion that somewhere else the grass is greener, and a new start can be made and opportunities found (or even exploited).

The large numbers of migrants who end up in exploitive employment or in ghetto-like housing, in both North America and Europe, suggest that such perceptions are sometimes more dangerous than helpful. However we need to recognise that New Zealand is perceived to be a good place in which to live and, by and large, that perception is a correct one. We are a highly developed country, with much to offer. Any suggestion that we are rapidly attaining two-thirds world status is simply not true, however we might define it.

Migration is more complex than just a simple 'push' and 'pull' process. Worldwide, and in New Zealand, family reunification has been an important factor in the ongoing high volumes of migration since 1945. Again, for most parts of the world, migrant numbers have often been greatest from former colonies and dependencies, and as a result of regional agreements such as we have with Australia and Western Samoa.

The breakdown of European communism and the opening up of the economy of the People's Republic of China, all since the late 1980s, have considerably widened the scope of migration possibilities. New Zealand, like all other countries, has been caught up in the affairs and changes of the wider world, and what has happened here has been repeated in most if not all developed countries.

An Endemic Human Problem

The xenophobic comments that we have heard about migrants and immigration policies in the last few years are not new. The late 1800s in New Zealand were marked by an increasingly alarmist mindset about the possibility of the country being overrun by the 'yellow peril'. Such attitudes were particularly directed towards the Chinese and, later, were also a response to the modernisation and perceived threat of Russia and Japan.

Legislation from the 1890s effectively served either to exclude immigrants of non-(Protestant) British origin, or to restrict their rights as citizens. The celebrated Prime Minister Richard Seddon, in promoting the "Asiatic Restriction Act" in 1896, described it as "an Act to Prevent the Influx into New Zealand of Persons of Alien Race, who are likely to be hurtful to the Public Welfare".6

The recent Government apology over poll taxes on Chinese settlers dates back to this period. Up to and even after World War Two discrimination and racist attitudes were an enduring part of the New Zealand mindset and, more implicitly, of government policy. So the rhetoric is not new.

If we are to have an informed debate about immigration, and about New Zealand's future role in the wider global community, then at the very least we have to own up to and confront the legacy of racism. In a recent newspaper column Labour MP Steve Chadwick made the timely observation that racist sentiments are "not far below the surface in civil society. Stirring the mud at the bottom of the pond could be disastrous for race relations, as subliminal feelings of racism can lead to actual violence and discrimination. We are a multi-cultural society and need to enter into the debate based on facts and not half-truths."7

At a point in our history when we are possibly getting to grips with the legacy of racism in our bicultural relationships, we are in danger of simply transferring what is essentially an endemic human problem onto a new target.

Historically racism is as enduring a problem as any. Theologically we need to recognise it and name it for what it really is - one manifestation of a sinful human inclination to degrade other members of humanity who are equally made in God's image.

The Nation State

It might well be that our modern emphasis on the (sovereign) nation state is a further complicating factor in all of this. In the past, historians have placed an emphasis on the irrational dimensions of racism towards non-British New Zealanders, or have explained it as a working class fear of job losses. John Stenhouse and Brian Moloughney, of Otago University, have an alternative suggestion.

They argue that late nineteenth century racism was part and parcel of colonial New Zealanders seeking to define their own national identity. In essence they were seeking to create a 'Better Britain' in the South Pacific that, among other things, would be marked by a population of British (and perhaps preferably Protestant) stock. Therefore all other incoming groups were demonised - being seen as essentially inferior, and less desirable.8

The Palestinian writer Edward Said has called this the process of 'orientalism' - whereby Europeans progressively defined themselves by contrasting themselves with the non-European peoples whom they were increasingly in contact with and wielded power over from the 18th century onward.9

Whatever its strengths, it must be admitted that the concept of the nation state is not always helpful in building bridges between the peoples of the world. The 'nation' is a modern, human construct (not something that has naturally existed from the beginning of time), and often serves to exclude and divide people. As historical examples remind us, how a nation is defined can often lead to the most horrendous of outcomes.

Further, when national boundaries are arbitrarily constructed and laid over territory on a map, they may serve to divide, dissect or blur existing tribal or religious definitions of that territory. We no longer think of defining ourselves as a 'Better Britain'. However, one of the critical questions to address in the present globalised climate is how we want to be defined as a nation in the early 21st century. If it is to be on 'tribal' or exclusivist lines, as is happening with the break-up of Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, then perhaps we won't get very far.

The Treaty of Waitangi is one of the fundamental tools for working out this definition. Another tool may be the idea of the nation as an "imagined community" - in which we share a "common style of imagining [our] own identity and interests".10 We also have a rich legacy of international peacemaking, of people going to all parts of the world for humanitarian and religious reasons, and of free-wheeling globe trotters - all of which can be drawn on to help us define ourselves as a nation that welcomes, rather than rejects, the wider world.

Perhaps the Christian community in Aotearoa New Zealand has a potential 'salt and light' role in debating, shaping and modelling how this 'imagined community' might turn out. Jesus modelled the building of relationships that crossed lines of ethnicity as well as gender, income and social propriety. If our allegiance is to God, first and foremost, then we have a responsibility to see that our society is inclusive of all Earth's citizens no matter their national, racial or ethnic labels.

Issues to Address

If we are to have an ongoing debate over national identity, immigration and multi-culturalism, then we also have to address honestly some of the negative issues that emerge. Somehow we have to get past the various superficial knee jerk reactions of politicians, and the irrationalities of our own prejudices and fears. I have tried to paint a background picture that puts some of those misunderstandings, fears and prejudices into some form of context. I hope that it serves as a starter for further thought and discussion.

A set of questions may raise some of the negative issues, as well as provide fuel for further thought and discussion.11

· When we express alarm over growing multi-culturalism in New Zealand, what are we really giving voice to? To what extent are we concerned about concrete issues (such as pressure on jobs, health services, taxes and education), and to what extent are we expressing a deeper set of fears, insecurities and prejudices? If the latter, to what extent are these legitimate, and to what extent do they highlight our human heart of darkness?

· What does New Zealand have to offer to the world community, and how can this be achieved through the receiving of immigrants into our society? To what extent is New Zealand limited in what it has to offer? What sorts of controls should be placed on the numbers and types of people allowed residency here, and how would we justify the criteria for these?

· To what extent are we simply trying to assimilate immigrants (that is, making them New Zealanders in our own image)? How do we feel about having a New Zealand that is made up of many different cultural groups, all of which are free to be different and yet also find an identity in being called New Zealanders? Indeed, what do we mean by the term 'New Zealander'?

· What are the ethical problems involved in how New Zealand approaches immigration? For example: To what extent is immigration policy driven by financial gain? Who is exploited (eg overseas students in schools and tertiary institutions)? How far are we implicitly supporting parents of overseas students dumping their children on a country like New Zealand, because they are an embarrassment in their home communities? Do we see immigrants as evangelistic fodder (in its narrowest sense) or as neighbours needing and desiring holistic human companionship?

· To what extent is immigration a part of the solution to the growing developmental chasm dividing the world? To what extent should New Zealand be investing in the reception of migrants from struggling countries, and to what extent should New Zealand be investing monetary aid, intellectual property and human resources in those countries themselves?

· What do we learn from biblical reflection on such things as the 'alien' passages in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; the story of Ruth; and the various ways that Jesus related to people outside the usual bounds of 1st Century Jewish society?12

· What might it mean for groups of Jesus' followers to be 'salt and light' in debating, shaping and modelling a multi-cultural community? What examples do we know of where this is already happening, and what have been the results?

· Finally, what do we want New Zealand's international reputation to be, with respect to the needs of the world?


I recently attended the promotional evening of a local high school. An item on the programme indicated a contribution from the school's international students. As the lights came up and the curtains parted the whole auditorium let out an audible "ooh" and "aah". On stage was a large arc of students, perhaps forty in number, all in their various national costumes. Each nationality came forward and gave a greeting in their language that was then translated into English by one of their group. I counted ten nationalities, and knew that the school had even more than that.

That spectacle and experience, wonderful as it was, is one side of the story. On the other side I also know that having those students in the school is not always a straightforward process. Many do not easily mix with their Kiwi classmates, and in fact the Kiwi students seem quite reticent at times to befriend these students.

Some are lonely, more or less dumped in our schools by ashamed parents. Others quite blatantly or knowingly manipulate the system to serve their own ends or ambitions. There are sometimes frictions between different national groups, and even within nationalities.

What is happening, both positively and negatively, in our schools is mirrored in the wider community. Often we are multi-cultural in name only. We rub shoulders with other nationalities, but scarcely know them as neighbours and friends. This reminds us that any attempt to be a multi-cultural community is always going to be fraught with difficulties, but this should be a challenge to persevere, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant, arrogant, angry or aloof.

For the first time the whole world has truly come to the shores of Aotearoa New Zealand, as it has to most other countries of the world. Perhaps we have come full circle from the great separation of peoples in the Babel story, and are closer than ever to that other great Biblical image in John's Revelation, where all the disparate peoples, cultures and languages of the world are ultimately brought together in worship before God.13 Perhaps we are experiencing a foretaste of heaven.



1 H D Morrison, 'The Keeper of Paradise: Quarantine as a Measure of Communicable Disease Control in Late Nineteenth Century New Zealand', BA (Hons) Long Essay in History, University of Otago, 1981, pp 14-15, 94-96.

2 Otago Witness, 31 March 1877, p 9.

3 2001 New Zealand Census, Table 2a - Ethnic Groups, 1991-2001,

4 Malcolm McKinnon (ed), New Zealand Historical Atlas, Auckland: Bateman, 1997, Plate 49.

5 "World Population Prospects: The 2000 Revision", Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, United Nations, p vii,

6 Tom Brooking and Roberto Rabel, "Neither British nor Polynesian: A Brief History of New Zealand's Other Immigrants", in Stuart Grief (ed.), Immigration and National Identity in New Zealand: One People, Two Peoples, Many Peoples?, Palmerston North: The Dunmore Press, 1995, pp 24-25.

7 The Daily Post, 10 September 2002, p 4.

8 John Stenhouse & Brian Moloughney, "Drug-besotten, sin-begotten fiends of filth: New Zealanders and the Oriental Other, 1850-1920", New Zealand Journal of History, 33:1 (1999), pp 47-50.

9 Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

10 William Storrar, "Vertigo or Imago? Nations in the Divine Economy", Themelios, 21:3 (1996), p 5.

11 For those wanting to take this issue further a good resource book is Malcolm McKinnon's Immigrants and Citizens: New Zealanders and Asian Immigration in Historical Context, Wellington: Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University, 1996. It is a pithy book of eighty-six pages, laid out in such a way as to be useful for group discussion and for individual reading.

12 Examples only: Exodus 20:21 and 23:12; Leviticus 19:10, 33-34; Deuteronomy 1:16 and 10:17-19 and 24:14-15, 17-22; Jesus and the Roman Centurion (Matthew 8:5-13); Jesus and the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28); Jesus and the bleeding woman (Mark 5:24-34); Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10); Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:4-42); and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

13 Genesis 11:1-9; Revelation 7:9.

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