Perhaps predictably, last week’s announcement that Behrouz Boochani had been granted refugee status in New Zealand quickly became election campaign fodder.
Both National Party leader Judith Collins and NZ First leader Winston Peters alluded to Boochani being a “queue-jumper” and the beneficiary of elite favouritism.
Originally from Iran, Boochani arrived in New Zealand last November after six years in a detention centre on Manus Island. Using a smuggled smartphone, he detailed his experience as a refugee in what became an award-winning book, No Friend but the Mountains.
His lawyer rejected the queue-jumping label. He said neither the minister of immigration nor Immigration New Zealand had given direction to allow Boochani to enter New Zealand.
Green MP Golriz Ghahraman said the comments of Peters and Collins were “race-baiting” and “dog-whistling” that would lead to New Zealand’s minority communities feeling “less safe”.
Peters called Ghahraman’s comments “disgraceful”, while Collins said her party “will not be cowed into not asking legitimate questions about processes”.
Anti-refugee sentiment as an electoral strategy
The campaign has moved on for now, but the exchange firmly placed Boochani within a history of using anti-refugee sentiment for electoral gain. The strategy was most successful during the Australian election in 2001 when John Howard turned the MV Tampa refugees and the “children overboard” affair into electoral victory.
The fact the 9/11 terror attacks occurred in the midst of that campaign reinforced the border security focus of Howard’s campaign and led to a conflation of Muslim refugees with Islamic terrorism.
The hot-button issues of refugees arriving by boat being a threat to border security, the queue-jumper claim and global terrorism were all parts of a deliberate attempt to sow fear and division in the electorate.
Its primary purpose was to draw attention away from negative coverage of other issues. Crafted by Howard’s campaign directors Crosby Textor (now known as CT Group), it became known as the “dead cat” strategy.
According to a later Crosby Textor client, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “throwing a dead cat on the table” inevitably makes people focus on the cat – “and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief”.
This style of campaigning won plaudits for Crosby Textor (and a knighthood for Lynton Crosby) and led to a high demand for their services in other parts of the world, including the UK, Canada and New Zealand.
While anti-refugee politics has never packed the punch in New Zealand that it has in Australia, former prime minister John Key occasionally referred to the threat of a boat making it from Indonesia to these shores, and in 2012 he declared Sri Lankan asylum seekers were not welcome.
The link to March 15
The 2019 terror attack in Christchurch was so shocking in its scale and in the depth of hatred and racism it revealed that many hoped it would transform political conduct in New Zealand and internationally.
The fact the attacker was born and raised in Australia lent support to the claim that a toxic political culture built in large part around anti-refugee and anti-Islamic sentiment was at least partly responsible for what happened.
Many of the refugees who were rescued by the MV Tampa and became central to the Australian election in 2001 were later resettled in New Zealand. Tragically, many were personally affected by the March 15 attacks at the Al-Noor and Linwood mosques.
Boochani himself has said the attack had “roots in Manus and Nauru”. The Australian government and a compliant media, he argued, “produced violence and exported that violence to Manus and Nauru for years […] and finally they exported this violence to such a peaceful place such as Christchurch”.
Beyond the dead cat strategy
In her contribution to the parliamentary condolences after the attack, Judith Collins expressed her “hope that when we get to the bottom of what could be done in the future to help stop this happening again, we will have a much safer and a much better community from it”.
Winston Peters praised Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s “clarity, empathy and unifying leadership” following the attacks and promised to “follow that example”.
Unfortunately, “queue-jumping” rhetoric during an election campaign gives the opposite impression – that National and New Zealand First are again reaching for the false comfort of the dead cat strategy.
One legacy of the March 15 attack should be that political campaigns are conducted carefully on any issues that relate to race, religion, immigration and refugees.
It should not be up to the voting public to ignore the dead cats being thrown on the table. The political leaders who would throw them should show greater responsibility for their words, listen to those who are the potential victims, and reconsider how they want to conduct their campaigns.