Mai Chen

Public and employment law specialist Mai Chen on current events

Mai Chen: Election year could do with the goodwill of Mandela

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Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP
Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP

In the context of Nelson Mandela's death, I wonder how election year might treat the race issue.

It usually gets a run. This is likely given the ethnicity statistics recently released from our latest census. If New Zealand was a village of 100 people, 30 are born overseas, mainly from Asia, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the rest of Europe, Pacific Islands, the Middle East and Africa, Australia and North America. 70 people are European with 14 being Maori, 11 Asian and 7 Pasifika.

The trend is away from a white majority. New Zealand will thus have increasing opportunities to practise what Nelson Mandela preached: not domination by whites or blacks, all living in harmony with equal opportunities.

Our Treasury's 'Living Standards Framework' stresses the importance of social capital to improving living standards for New Zealanders, and defines social capital as "the degree of trust in a society and the ability of people to work together for common purposes".

Trust is strengthened when communities have shared values, low levels of social dysfunction and confidence in public institutions. Social capital also includes proper protection of rights and freedoms like the rights of minorities to language and culture and the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race.

One glance at our own demographic and economic data shows that something is perpetuating an underclass in New Zealand with a strong correlation to ethnicity. It's not as blatant as in 1980s South Africa, it's not enshrined in our laws or formally enforced by our police. Unjust laws and biased policing are in many ways easier to oppose than the more insidious barriers of race discrimination, but they are just as important to tackle. Talking the talk at Mandela's funeral is fine; walking the walk back home is what matters.

So as Parliament adjourned this Wednesday, and MPs and political party leaders pack up for the summer break, what lies ahead?

Today is the last day for postal ballots for the Citizens Initiated Referendum on asset sales. Preliminary results will be known later tonight, and an official result will be announced next Tuesday. As with all the recent citizens-initiated referenda, there will be divergent views on the result and its significance. But what is beyond dispute is that the horse has already bolted, with the Government's asset sale programme well under way, and the current Government has no intention of changing its policy, regardless of the referendum result. If you want to influence what Governments do after being elected, get in front of them now and influence the manifesto promises they campaign on. Parties are elected to implement a mandate, and it is too late after they are elected to try and persuade them to renege on those promises.

The PM has said he will announce the election date early, as he did before the 2011 elections, so no doubt he will be thinking over Christmas about that and possibly reshuffling Cabinet early next year.

The Government will want to get a lot of important legislation through Parliament as early as possible next year. In election year there is always a familiar chilling effect that kicks in around mid-year, and even before then for anything contentious. If laws need urgent fixes it's imperative to be near the front of the queue.

Finally, a recent report by Transparency International acknowledged the high overall standard of transparency in New Zealand and the low rates of corruption compared to many other advanced nations, but pointed the finger at several flaws, including the funding of political candidates as a major area of concern. This issue will come to the fore early next year, when Epsom MP John Banks will be tried for knowingly filing a false declaration under the Local Electoral Act. Although this relates to local authority elections, the Electoral Act which governs the general election is even more complicated, with rules on spending limits for parties and candidates, donation limits, broadcasting limits, regulated periods (likely to kick in on August 27) and electoral returns. Helpfully, we have the Electoral Commission for guidance. It is never business as usual in election year.

Mai Chen is a partner in Chen Palmer lawyers and adjunct professor at Auckland University's business school.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald co nz Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper

- NZ Herald

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