New Zealand’s image as a remote paradise hides a troubling reality

Not all views are so beautiful.
Not all views are so beautiful.
Image: REUTERS/Henning Gloystein
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How could this happen in New Zealand?

That question is being asked all over the world after shocking acts of terror at multiple mosques in Christchurch, in which at least 49 people are dead. Surely things like this don’t happen in a place so safe that it’s become the preferred destination for billionaires hoping to survive some unspecified doomsday.

For the most part, New Zealand is safe, clean, and uncorrupt. It isn’t exactly the socialist paradise as it’s sometimes portrayed—one-third of the country’s children live in poverty, for instance—but things are generally peaceful. In all of 2017, there were just 48 murders.

The history of New Zealand’s hate crimes and mass shootings is mercifully short, with the last such tragedy more than 20 years ago; most similar events have been domestic incidents that went painfully wrong.

The shooting today (March 15) is an extreme aberration and—as many New Zealanders have correctly said in the wake of the attacks—it isn’t us.

But the attacks, and the attitudes that underpin them, didn’t come out of nowhere. They are the nastiest and most extreme version of a pervasive racist and anti-immigrant mentality present throughout New Zealand. And it exists online, on the streets, and in government policies and party politics alike.

A climate of anti-immigration

Though New Zealand’s Muslim population numbers fewer than 50,000 people, or a little over 1% of the population, there are frequent reports of institutional and casual Islamophobia, ranging from Muslims being repeatedly stopped at New Zealand Customs for hours at a time to the police being called on a Sikh student working in a café. (A fellow patron saw the man’s turban and headphones and assumed that he was a terrorist.) In 2016, members of the Muslim community told reporters that the country’s Security Intelligence Services were asking them to spy on fellow worshippers at the mosque.

This anti-immigrant, Islamophobic strain is also present in New Zealand’s political culture. In the country’s most recent election, the nationalist political party New Zealand First received the third-largest share of votes, turning it into a kingmaker of sorts. The party, run by veteran political maverick Winston Peters, prides itself on a “rigorous and strictly applied immigration policy,” which would cap migrants at 10,000 a year, down from 65,000 in 2017.

Now the country’s deputy prime minister, Peters has repeatedly described New Zealand as being colonized by immigrants. In 2002, he claimed that New Zealand was “letting in” Muslims banned from “Muslim Arab countries” for their security risk and “political baggage” and “giving them housing, health and governmental blessing.”

On Twitter today, Peters condemned the attack, calling it “an awfully, awfully, sad day for New Zealand.” He added: “There are lessons here from which we must all learn”—prompting New Zealanders to suggest that one such lesson might be to “stop pushing anti-immigration rhetoric.”

Far-right extremism in Christchurch

Though anti-immigration sentiment is common in New Zealand, Christchurch has the dubious honor of being home to the country’s largest number of extremist and white-supremacist individuals and groups. It is the largest city in New Zealand’s traditionally conservative—and overwhelmingly ethnically white—South Island.

Rubble around the remains of the Christchurch cathedral, destroyed in the 2011 earthquakes.
Rubble around the remains of the Christchurch cathedral, destroyed in the 2011 earthquakes.
Image: REUTERS/Simon Baker

In 2011, earthquakes devastated the city and resulted in a temporary exodus of around 70,000 people. Prior to the catastrophe, Christchurch had a kind of English prettiness: picturesque bridges, the river Avon, the tall spire of a now-destroyed stone cathedral. But recovery has been slow and thousands have been left homeless, while others grappled with bureaucracy and despair.

A 2012 study by the Canterbury District Health Board and the Mental Health Foundation found that more that two-thirds of those polled said they were “grieving for lost Christchurch.” Sorrow and dissatisfaction seems to have precipitated an uptick in the far-right groups which had long found their home in the city: Blood and Honour, the National Front, Southland Skinheads, and Independent Skinhead. Over 100 people from these groups marched in support of white supremacy in 2012. In late 2017, members of the National Front protested outside of the country’s parliament, while posters asking people to “join the fight” against “white genocide” were plastered through Auckland University.

Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley has worked on extreme right groups in the country since the 1980s. For more than 30 years, he told the local Sunday Star Times, Christchurch had been home to a majority of these groups. The city “had a strong sense of attachment and tradition,” he said, “but it also harbored some groups that took these attachments to an extreme.”

Members of groups such as the Fourth Reich, which was established in a local men’s prison, were often young, male, disaffected, and connected to crime. Nazi ideology and symbols are a common feature of these groups. Racist attacks in the city are not unusual, but have tended to focus on ethnically Asian people. They don’t just come from members of the extreme right, however. Writing in The Press, Christchurch’s local paper, reporters Keri Welham and Amanda Spratt described the prevalence of these racist views, and the abuse they inspire:

This time, however, it isn’t the shaved‐headed goon who’s seen to be putting the boot in. Christchurch’s traditional racist stereotype may be a white‐supremacist skinhead but the complaints from victims now suggest a much more amorphous situation. They report snide comments, shouted abuse, threatening text messages and occasional minor assaults, and say the abuse comes from schoolmates, middle‐aged women, fellow bus passengers, passers‐by.

This happens here, too

Perhaps the biggest barrier to fighting racism in New Zealand is a reluctance to admit that it exists.

A disinclination to recognize the importance of “everyday racism” seemed common among many New Zealanders, researcher Audrey Kobayashi wrote in a New Zealand Geographic journal article. “Because racism was generally viewed as confined to the actions of the National Front, and because most people did not support the National Front, the existence of racism was denied,” she wrote. “The claims of the rally organizers and others that Asians experience racism on an everyday basis were thus taken as an affront.” In an interview with The Press, the former mayor of Christchurch, Vicki Buck, decried “incredibly stupid comments” made by racist individuals as being “not reflective of the community. I don’t believe it to be true actually. I don’t see evidence of racism.”

But extreme views such as the ones that inspired the attacks do not emerge in a vacuum. It’s a devastating truth for New Zealanders and the world to reconcile themselves to: This happens here. Now is the time to acknowledge how, and why.