Labour leader Andrew Little was standing frim last night on decision to release figures about Chinese house purchase in Auckland.
But the party’s Housing spokesman, Phil Twyford, has come fire over the weekend from figures from both the party’s left and right who have accused him of racism.
What seems a move by the Labour Caucus to portray itself as more populist runs the risk of a backlash from party faithful who have been defined by identity politics for the past two decades.
A typical response came from an official from Mr Little’s old union, the EPMU.
Stephanie Rodgers is the union’s Communications officer and one of the moderators of the left wing blog, “The Standard”.
She said Labour was using racist data in a way guaranteed to stir up a debate about race.”
And she singled out Mr Twyford because he went to the New Zealand Herald – “a paper notorious for beating up race issues”.
“Phil Twyford has been in Parliament far too long to pretend he didn’t know exactly what message this story sends,” she said.
“Trying to salvage Labour’s credibility with long-winded explanations about how this isn’t really about judging people based on their surnames is a fool’s errand.”
And on the right, Phil Quin, one of the founders of the Progress Think Tank called the research “ham-fisted, embarrassingly amateurish and staggeringly racist.”
“I joined the Labour Party in large part due to its principled stand against Apartheid,” he said.
“Racial profiling of any kind was anathema to me thirty years ago, and remains so today.”
But Mr. Little stood by the decision to release the data which was extrapolated from leaked sales returns from an Auckland real estate agency.
“We knew there would be a likelihood in some quarters to accuse us of racism,” he said.
“The whole point of the exercise is to demonstrate the point we’ve been making for long time which is the influence and impact of non-resident foreign buyers in the Auckland housing market.
“Because we are focusing on just the Chinese then it’s likely we are going to be accused of racism even though some of the people shut out of the market are resident Chinese ethnics in Auckland.”
Labour’s data consultant, Rob Salmond, has spent much of the weekend defending his research methods on the data.
A University of Auckland statistician, Professor Thomas Lumley said Labour had needed to distinguish between what the data measured and “and what you wanted to measure.”
“Using ‘Chinese’ as a surrogate for ‘foreign’ will capture many New Zealanders and miss out on many foreigners,” he said
“The misclassifications aren’t just unavoidable bad luck, either.
“If you have a measure of ‘foreign real estate ownership’ that includes my next-door neighbours and excludes James Cameron (the British film director who has bought extensive farmland in the Wairarapa), you’re doing it wrong, and in a way that has a long and reprehensible political history.”
But Mr. Little said the data showed that 40% of more than 1100 homes over a three month period were of Chinese ethnicity when the Chinese ethnic population of Auckland was nine per cent.
“There is a huge gap there and you cannot say that nine per cent of the population are responsible for 40% of the housed purchases.”
As well as the attacks coming from within the party, Mr. Little has to clear up a faux pas by his Housing spokesman.
Mr. Twyford told Lisa Owen on TV3’s “The Nation” that Labour would ban foreign buyers.
But Mr. Little said Labour’s policy was to allow foreign buyers to purchase only new properties — a similar situation to that in New South Wales.
Ironically Labour’s decision to release the data comes as the Government, which has long resisted differentiating foreign buyers, is progressing its Taxation (Land Information and offshore persons Information) Bill through the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee.
That Bill will require that from 1 October, all offshore investors and New Zealand residents buying or selling property which is not their main home must provide a New Zealand IRD number as part of the land registration process.
The sudden decision just before the Budget to implement this measure came after a long period of the Government denying that such a move was needed.
They were supported by Treasury who in February claimed that only three per cent of the New Zealand housing stock was under foreign ownership.
But in a briefing paper to Finance Minister Bill English a few weeks ago addressing the question as to whether foreign buyers were causing house price inflation they said:
“The evidence we have at the moment is limited, but does not suggest a particular problem with foreign ownership of housing. “
In other words, they’d been guessing all along.
What all this shows is that on such a hot topic as foreigners buying house, what is needed is official dispassionate data. Otherwise things could get ugly.