Friday, November 6, 2015

On Ron Mark, Melissa Lee, and Public Holidays in Korea

Every so often, I log on to facebook and find myself deluged with an impressive fusillade of comment-tags and blinking chat-windows, almost invariably drawing my attention to some remark - whether innocent, insipid or asinine - which a member of my Caucus has uttered and that's doing the rounds in the media at present.

Yesterday afternoon was no exception, and I wasn't exactly thrilled to find myself summonsed across social media to defend, equivocate, or just straight-up explain what Ron Mark may or may not have been thinking when he suggested that National MP Melissa Lee might like to "go back to Korea" if she had serious and ongoing issue with the provision of public holiday entitlements to Kiwi workers here in New Zealand.

For the record, I don't think it was a great choice of words - and if they'd been blurted out at random, they'd certainly be deserving of at least some of the opprobium presently being heaped in their direction.

But they weren't. It may have escaped the notice of some of those persons angrily baying for Ron Mark's blood or resignation over this, but they were part of a sustained and direct response to comments made by Melissa Lee earlier on in the Parliamentary debate about getting rid of a statutory national holiday.

During Lee's speech, she drew upon her experiences "as a migrant" to try and highlight how 'backward' she felt New Zealand has been perceived as being for protecting the right of Kiwi workers to adequate time off - and thus, by extension, legislating to protect and enshrine certain national holidays.

She made an implicit comparison between the way we do things here, and the way other countries (presumably the one she had been living in prior to her migration to New Zealand) regulate their own workers' entitlements. In her eyes, New Zealand did not come off particularly favourably.

This comparison, then, was what Ron Mark sought to address - and, by citing a list of Korean national holidays, attempt to turn on its head.

Mark's point, as set out in the rest of his speech after the singular soundbite which the media's decided to remove from context and hone in on, was that the country Lee had come to us from does things very much in line with the Kiwi way in this instance. It therefore made little sense for Lee to suggest her experiences "as a migrant" were a legitimate basis upon which to attack New Zealand's statutory holidays, if the country which she'd emigrated from wasn't all that different from us in this regard in the first place.

The "go back to Korea" comment thus wasn't an out-of-the-blue imperative. It was a one-line set-up for the somewhat lengthy explication of counter-point which then ensued - and which I'm entirely unsurprised to note has been blithely ignored by a predatory media in pursuit of an incendiary soundbite.

Now for the record, I wouldn't have spoken as Ron Mark did. I can see how such a statement could easily be misconstrued and has the real potential to make members of migrant communities who *have* chosen to make New Zealand their home - and work for the betterment thereof - feel unwelcome.

I also disagree with some comments I've seen on social media from people suggesting that migrants don't have a right to complain about conditions here and ought to instead abide by the principle "if you don't like it here, then go home". The reasons for this ought to be self-evident - freedom of speech within reason is one of our cornerstone Kiwi values. But to take one example which came up in conversation recently, we'd hardly likely condemn a Scandinavian member of the public or Parliament for getting up and pointing out that New Zealand's paid parental leave legislation, say, lags behind that of their home country. Instead, if New Zealand First's voting record on the matter is anything to go by, we'd consider it a strong spur to action to attempt to raise our standards to meet theirs.

But there's also been something of a flexible approach to National's sudden outrage on this sort of issue historically - I don't seem to remember any such outcry nor headline-hoisting going on when National Party MP Maggie Barry hollered at Russell Norman in Parliament that he ought to "go back to Australia".

What's the difference between that case and Ron Mark's speech? The fact that in Mark's case, it wasn't a vicious and vituperative interjection, but rather a comment made as part of a broader and reasoned rhetorical counter-thrust backed up with a few facts and evidence?

In any case, while I might disagree with the wording used in the bridging phrase, I can nevertheless easily see why Ron would have cited a list of comparable conditions (in this case, Korean national holidays) designed to demonstrate that Lee's "as a migrant" assertions about New Zealand's status relative to other countries were spurious. 
The "go back to Korea" line was a poor choice of set-up for this, and there are certainly other ways Ron could have lead into talking about that part of Lee's speech ... but I make no apology for New Zealand First harbouring legitimate concerns as to how this legislation might affect and undermine the rights and protections of the ordinary Kiwi worker. 

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