Lincoln Tan is the New Zealand Herald’s diversity, ethnic affairs and immigration senior reporter.

Parties target migrants who could decide election

Their votes will be significant — if more of them go to the polling booths

Graphic / NZ Herald
Graphic / NZ Herald

Less than three weeks from the election, Labour leader David Cunliffe is out on a drizzly Sunday campaigning at Sikh temples in Auckland.

He was warmly received at the two South Auckland gurdwaras, but the handshakes and hugs will come to nothing if the past voting patterns of recent migrants are anything to go by.

Prime Minister John Key will be pitching for votes at the same gurdwaras next weekend, and Greens co-leader Metiria Turei is doing the same this Sunday.

Experts say the migrant vote could be significant - but the challenge for political parties is getting them to the polling stations.

The New Zealand General Social Survey found 59.4 per cent of new migrants did not vote in 2011.

Results for migrants who have been here for more than 10 years were just slightly worse than for New Zealand-born voters, with 18 per cent not voting compared with 16 per cent.

Professor Paul Spoonley, a Massey University sociologist, said political parties were now realising the significance of the Asian vote.

He said parties had been working hard to enrol them as voters and poll them.

Professor Spoonley said at least three Auckland local board areas had about 40 per cent of their population who identified as Asian.

"Given that their demographic profile tends to be prime working age, they are disproportionately in age groups that vote," he Spoonley said.

"They are demographically, and therefore politically, extremely influential."

Professor Spoonley said Act, with its Chinese-script billboards, had the most obvious public expression of an appeal to the Asian vote.

But both Labour and National were also working the immigrant communities in terms of profiling Asian candidates and having material in Chinese available, he said.

Figures from the 2013 Census revealed nearly a quarter of the NZ population were immigrants, and the Asian population had almost doubled since 2001.

In Auckland, about 40 per cent of the population are migrants and nearly one in four identified as Asian. This covers the broad Asian region.

Botany has the highest proportion of residents with Asian ethnicity at 39.4 per cent, and nearly 58 per cent of those living in Mt Roskill were migrants.

In April, Chinese businessman Kenneth Wang, a former list MP, was named deputy leader of the Act party.

Act leader Jamie Whyte said then that the party would be targeting the Asian vote, which was a key reason why Mr Wang was selected for such an important role.

Steven Young, president of the NZ Chinese Association, said that many in the community, however, perceived ethnic MPs as "largely ornamental".

"If they speak out at all it is to parrot the party line, but otherwise seem to fear making a case for their notional constituency," Mr Young said.

Edwina Pio, Professor of Diversity at Auckland University of Technology, said migrant votes "can be the tipping point" for the election.

NZ was one of very few countries where permanent residents could vote, regardless of whether they were citizens or not, she said. "Small minorities can make a difference in who ultimately wears the crown."

Professor Pio said to earn migrant voters' support, political parties needed to make issues important to these communities, such as unemployment and underemployment, mainstream.

"The migrant vote is not just something that needs a mere nod.

"Rather, politicians must now learn to at least doff their hats at the growing importance of migrants, many of whom hail from the emerging powerhouses that constitute the Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China] bloc."

Auckland Night Markets manager Paul de Jonge said there had been a noticeable increase in the number of politicians pitching for the ethnic vote at the four markets his company runs.

Mr de Jonge said about 80 per cent of market stall operators were Asian and about two thirds of those who went there were non-Europeans.

A Herald street poll of 40 Asian voters in Avondale, Albany and Botany - taken in mid-August - found strong support for the smaller parties among Asian voters.

Nearly one in five said they would vote for either Act (12.5 per cent) or Conservatives (7.5 per cent), with just three in 10 backing National.

The support for National was the same as the combined total for Labour (17.5 per cent) and the Greens (12.5 per cent).

Singaporean Chinese migrant Cynthia May, a non-voter in 2008 and a National Party volunteer last election, said she would be giving her party vote to the Conservatives.

"I don't agree with Labour's give, give, give policies ... at the same time I don't think National is doing enough to address issues that are important to ethnic communities and migrants," said the 43-year-old bookkeeper from Albany.

Ms May said having "tough on crime" man Garth McVicar standing under the Conservative banner in the Napier electorate was key to her decision to back the party.

- NZ Herald

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