Lincoln Tan

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

Migrant vote an untapped poll winner

Getting newcomers to take part could make a big difference to the outcome, says professor

Chinese New Zealander Cindy Lu says she hasn't voted in the general elections because she doesn't know how to. Photo / Dean Purcell
Chinese New Zealander Cindy Lu says she hasn't voted in the general elections because she doesn't know how to. Photo / Dean Purcell

The migrant vote could "swing the political ballot" as the number of overseas-born New Zealanders reach over a million, a diversity expert says.

With the general election five months away, the most recent Herald-DigiPoll survey showed National could govern alone with 50.8 per cent of the party vote, while Labour was polling just under 30 per cent and Greens 13.1 per cent.

But Edwina Pio, professor of diversity at Auckland university of Technology, believes the September 20 poll could hinge on persuading migrant communities to vote.

A Statistics New Zealand survey found that 60 per cent of recent migrants did not vote in the last election. In Auckland, about 40 per cent of the population are migrants and nearly one in four are Asian.

Professor Pio said political parties did not appear willing and lacked strategies to target Asians.

"While various political parties actively seek to progress trade in the billion dollar market potential in Asian countries, there is an opaqueness of strategies for inclusivity of migrants and also a subtext of 'we like their food but we don't like them'," Professor Pio said.

She said many Asians, who bemoan governmental processes in their home country, did not feel a compelling need to vote here - despite New Zealand being one of the few countries that allowed non-citizen permanent residents to vote.

"Many migrants believe it is better to stay in the shadow of public processes in the uninformed belief that interacting with governmental officials may jeopardies their official papers towards citizenship," she said.

"Asians may also not vote as they may not be comfortable with the voting papers and loss of face may prevent them from seeking help in this regard."

Professor Pio said political parties who follow through with "genuine strategies" to target the migrant vote "could swing the political ballot if enough migrants are convinced that their vote could make a difference in who governs them".

Although Britain still remained the most common overseas country of birth for migrants at the 2013 Census, China is now second and India has replaced Australia as the third most common. The Asian ethnic group population almost doubled in over 12 years, with 471,708 people identified with at least one Asian ethnicity.

Indians were the fastest growing, increasing 50 per cent since 2006, compared with 16.2 per cent for the Chinese, which remained the largest Asian ethnic group in 2013.

According to the New Zealand General Social Survey, for New Zealand European/Pakeha, the non-voting rate was 17 per cent, for Maori it was 27 per cent and Pasifika was close to 18 per cent. More than a third, or 35 per cent of Asians said they did not vote, and they were second only to youth in non-participation.

Sun Jiarui, a Chinese community leader and columnist for local Chinese newspaper the Mandarin Pages, said communities themselves were not doing enough to get members involved. "There are many large events organised by [ethnic groups] ... but strangely enough, I have not seen or heard any community leader or Chinese politician make use of such public platform to promote, encourage or inspire their community to participate in the democratic process," Mr Sun said.

"An unfortunate situation with our fellow Chinese is many are willing to donate tens of thousands of dollars but choose not to cast their votes come election day."

Lack of knowledge proves barrier to voting

In the seven years that she's lived in New Zealand, Chinese immigrant Cindy Lu, 31, has never voted because she feels she doesn't know enough about the political parties.

"I don't know how to find out more about the different parties and which one is good for me, and I also don't know how to vote," said the 31-year-old marketing consultant, who was originally from Shanghai.

In 2011, neither she nor her husband, who are both permanent residents, voted, because they did not understand the voting processes.

"We have not found out much since then, so we are still not sure if we will vote this year," Ms Lu said.

A significant shift in the country's population, as revealed by the 2013 Census, will likely see political parties battle it out for the migrant vote.

National Party campaign chairman Steven Joyce said he considered the migrant vote very important to the party. He said the party's ethnic MPs were working extremely hard in the various Asian communities where they hail from, and were being supported by other ministers.

Labour's associate spokesman for ethnic affairs, Rajen Prasad, said: "We are particularly focusing on enrolled voters who did not vote in the last election, including the ethnic communities."

This week the Act Party named former MP Kenneth Wang, who first entered Parliament in 2004 to replace Donna Awatere Huata, as its deputy leader in a bid for the Asian vote.

Green MP Jan Logie said her party will be engaging with ethnic councils to get its message across to the ethnic communities.

NZ First said it did not have plans to specifically target migrant voters. "NZ First does not believe in any form of separatism and we do not target voters by ethnicity," party spokeswoman Judith Hughey said.

- NZ Herald

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