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

NZ politics odd to migrants

Language barrier and 'confusing' MMP factors in low voting rate among newer arrivals.

Christina Oh is keen to vote but has trouble following New Zealand politics because of her limited English. Photo / Natalie Slade
Christina Oh is keen to vote but has trouble following New Zealand politics because of her limited English. Photo / Natalie Slade

Korean mother Christina Oh, 39, is thrilled at the prospect of being able to vote in this year's general election after she got her New Zealand permanent resident visa just before Christmas.

But the former art teacher, who has been living in Auckland since 2009, says language has made it a struggle for her to follow politics here.

"I find it hard to understand what is being reported in the local newspapers or TV because I am still not very good in English," said Mrs Oh, who is still more comfortable speaking Korean.

"I am excited that I can now vote and I understand it is important to vote, but I just don't know how I can find out more about politics here so I can make the right vote."

Another migrant, Sue Park, 45, also from Korea, said she did not vote in 2011 because she did not "know enough" about the political parties.

"I only know the Conservative Party is good for Christians, Green Party good for environment, Labour Party good for the poor and National Party good for business," Mrs Park said.

She finds the MMP system confusing and does not understand why voters have two votes.

"I am not sure, because I like the environment but also like a party that is good for business, so I should give one vote to the Green Party and another to National?"

A Statistics New Zealand survey found low voting rates among recent migrants with about 60 per cent saying they did not vote in the last election.

Findings from the New Zealand General Social Survey however found long-term migrants had "very similar voting behaviour" to those born in New Zealand.

More than one in five said they didn't vote in the 2008 and 2011 elections because they "didn't get round to doing it, forgot or weren't interested", and a further 7 per cent said they felt their vote wouldn't make a difference. "Declining voter engagement in our Parliamentary democracy is a problem that affects all of us and it will take a national effort to turn this worrying trend around," said Chief Electoral Officer Robert Peden.

Henderson-Massey Local Board member Peter Chan says a pan-Asian organisation is being set up with the aim of getting migrants "to be more involved in the democratic process".

The Auckland Asian Association, which will officially kick off on March 1, has set a goal of getting more migrants to the polls this year.

Mr Chan said holding public meetings and debates to discuss political issues affecting migrants will be one way the association can generate interest among Asian voters. "We want them to know that diversity should be our strength, and if we come together we have the numbers ... and political parties will be forced to take us seriously," he said.

Minister for Ethnic Affairs Judith Collins said it was essential that migrants' contributions were strong in the political decision-making process. "As Minister for Ethnic Affairs, this is one of my priorities," she said.

Labour Chinese MP Raymond Huo said Asian New Zealanders represented a significant percentage of the total voting population. However, he said many new migrants were struggling to find jobs and faced settlement issues which discouraged them from participating in politics.


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