Thursday 27 April 2017

If you debate immigration and Winston doesn’t comment, did you have a debate about immigration at all?

The New Zealand Herald released an analysis and visualisation of immigration data from Statistics New Zealand this week. Most of the recent debate about immigration between National and Labour has centred on work visas, and whether too many migrant workers were coming into the country to take jobs away from hard working kiwis. Contrary to the belief of many, it turned out that “Chinese and Indian chefs” were not representative of the majority of work visas. The article reported that “despite China and India being among the biggest source countries for permanent residents, they are not among the top five for direct migrant workers.” The top five ended up being the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, South Africa, and the United States, and so racists who claim that Asians are coming and stealing all the jobs might be, well, wrong.

Harkanwal Singh and Lincoln Tan put a lot of work into this piece. They both clearly explained the data in the article and presented the data through interactive visualisations to communicate clearly with different audiences. They interviewed diversity expert Paul Spoonley from Massey University to provide additional context to the data. They interviewed an immigrant health worker to humanise the data and show the tangible effects of recent policy changes. They did a good enough job that the editor decided to make it the front page headline.

Then Winston Peters heard about it. You can imagine him making his best impression of White Island, with hot smoke coming out his nose and ears, furious that the media was reporting that immigrant workers might not be all Asian. Obviously, this was unacceptable, and a press release had to be written and published! His criticism came in two parts:

“Asian immigrant reporters”
Harkanwal Singh is from India and has been here for 9 years. He has probably single-handedly made the largest impact on data journalism in New Zealand, ever. He’s the data editor at the Herald and runs the Insights section, and supports the broader statistics and data visualisation communities. (Disclaimer: I know Harkanwal and have done some work with him before). Lincoln Tan is from Singapore and has been here for more than 20 years. He’s been a journalist for the Herald for over 10 of those years and written hundreds of articles, leading to a Canon Media Award in 2016 for Best General Reporting.

So sure, Winston is right in his press release that Harkanwal and Lincoln are “Asian immigrant reporters”. Even though he doesn’t say anything explicit beyond this, it’s obvious that he is attacking their credibility by implying that they have some bias or vested interest when they report that the “top five source nations for migrant workers [are] not Asian”. He makes it a bit clearer later in a phone call with Newshub saying “you have two immigrants themselves as reporters for the Herald writing what is clearly misleading information [and] headlining it on the front page”.

What Winston is doing here is actually undermining immigrants so that they can’t discuss or argue about the issues that affect them. He’s trying to disqualify the immigrants from the debate, and that’s not going to be good for our democracy if smart and well-intentioned people who try to provide facts and analysis are marginalised for their ethnicity or migrant status. This is further confirmed when he says in the Newshub call “they’re like the New Zealand Initiative, who are majorly immigrants themselves, and they are heavy into being pro mass immigration” in reference to their immigration report released in late January this year.

The fact that these two particular migrant reporters have contributed massively to New Zealand journalism doesn’t matter to Winston. The fact that they have been in New Zealand for a long time and are productive members of society doesn’t matter to Winston. The fact that they are reporting on verifiable data that come from a government agency doesn’t matter to Winston. They’re migrants, and that’s sufficient to call the reporting “propaganda”. That’s just lazy racism, and we have to expect better if we want the immigration debate to go anywhere.

“Completely wrong and based on flawed analysis”
The primary substantive complaint from Winston is that the Herald article is based on Statistics New Zealand data for Permanent and Long Term (PLT) arrivals and departures. It turns out that this data is derived from “arrival cards” at (air)ports, rather than the actual number of visas granted. Apparently, the Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment (MBIE) has this data, so the Herald article is therefore “rubbish” according to Winston.

As much as it pains me to admit, Winston does have a point here that is tarnished by his personal attack on the journalists. The MBIE data may be a better indicator of where migrants are coming from than the Statistics NZ data since it’s based on the actual visa numbers. To call the Herald analysis “defective” is harsh though; the analysis is accurate and still informative based on the official Statistics NZ data available. It’s also unfair when we consider that politicians regularly quote the Statistics NZ data when braying on about “record immigration”. In fact, Winston has used the same source himself for net migration statistics. He used that Statistics NZ data on the same day he criticised the Herald for “creating confusion and spreading misinformation” for not using the MBIE data.

Just as an aside, Winston’s arguments seem suspiciously similar to the ones made by Michael Reddell (published on his blog and in the NBR). In that article, Reddell closes with a plea for MBIE to “markedly improve” access to this data, saying that “good timely data just aren’t made easily available”. This data is only published once a year, while Statistics New Zealand publishes data monthly. It certainly helps explain why no one else has been using this data.

This particular Herald article was based on PLT data, and maybe more articles can be written based on better data. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; the Herald article still represents an improvement in analysis and data visualisation for the immigration debate beyond what we had before. The immigration debate is hungry for better data beyond anecdotes, for better analysis beyond preconceived assumptions, for better discussion beyond “record net migration”. Politics only exists when we cannot agree on what the correct answer is, when we are in the face of uncertainty and imperfect information, when the decision maker has to make a judgement call. Perhaps if we can find it, better data can be used to inform policy too.

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