Do ethnic minorities need their own political parties and separate electoral seats?

There is a significant underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in New Zealand politics - especially at the local level. The 2016 council election campaigns are a good reminder of this. For a very good example, see Jonathan Carson's Do our councils have a diversity issue? This looks at the Nelson-Tasman region and finds that of the 54 current candidates for office, "All but two identify primarily as Pakeha/New Zealand European (96.3 per cent)". And this is despite the city council promoting "Nelson as New Zealand's third most ethnically-diverse region per capita."

One of the exceptions to the trend is profiled in another article by Jonathan Carson - see: Cindy Batt: A Maori woman in a Pakeha man's world she believes the council needs "a Maori voice at the table". Batt is reported as believing "there was 'institutional racism' at play within local government in New Zealand." She therefore puts forward her own pitch for election: "As both a member of the Maori community and a descendant of the original settler whanau I feel I have a manakitanga (duty of care) obligation to ensure all communities are given an opportunity to contribute to the governance of our city".

Increasing Maori input into local government

Various mechanisms are sometimes proposed to increase ethnic minority representation in local government - particularly for Maori. There is currently some support for creating dedicated Maori wards for the Auckland supercity authority, including from mayoral candidate Phil Goff, who said he will push for these if elected - see Claire Trevett's PM: Phil Goff must get Aucklanders' support for Maori wards in Auckland.

Goff argues that such elected positions would be preferable to the current arrangement whereby Maori have input via the Maori statutory board, which is appointed by iwi. This arrangement was formulated under the oversight of Rodney Hide when he was Minister of Local Government, but drawing on this experience, Hide has spoken out this week with a warning against a focus on ethnic identity politics in local government - see: Somewhat over the rainbows.


Here's Hide's key point: "We almost had reserved council seats for Maori and as a consolation, the Maori Party pushed for a Maori Statutory Board. That left then Minister of Ethnic Affairs Pansy Wong aggrieved and so an Ethnic People's Advisory Panel was ordered. It had to be a panel not a board because ethnic groups were deemed less worthy than Maori because they came later and hadn't signed the Treaty. I kid you not. Of course, that was but the start. Once the council got going it felt Parliament hadn't gone far enough and, to achieve more diversity, established a Senior's Advisory Panel, a Pacific People's Advisory Panel, a Youth Advisory Panel, a Disability Advisory Panel and Rainbow Communities Advisory Panel. It would seem in the panel hierarchy the Rainbow Communities and Pacific People's are of lesser significance than Ethnic Peoples because they don't enjoy statutory protection. That's the nuttiness of dividing the body politic into groups of collective interest."

But even the current system isn't necessarily working well for Maori, as Michael Sergel reports in Auckland's future is being decided, but Maori aren't at the table.

Mihingarangi Forbes also has a very interesting and important story about the lack of urban Maori representation - see: Tamihere, Jackson not selected for Auckland Māori board. It seems that only local iwi leaders are able to select the representatives on the statutory board, despite most Maori in Auckland having little to do with these tribal authorities.

The National Urban Maori Authority is calling for a review of this arrangement, which it has labelled "apartheid". It says that two urban Maori leaders, John Tamihere and Willie Jackson, failed to gain appointment despite being supported by "over twenty urban Maori organisations". As a result of the iwi domination of the Auckland Maori governance, chief executive Lance Norman says 80 per cent of Maori are not represented, and because iwi representatives were only interested in advancing iwi issues, the "massive issues" of "homelessness, unemployment and education" were not being advanced in the city.

Maori wards in local government

The idea of extending the concept of the dedicated parliamentary Maori electorates to local authorities continues to be divisive, with many proposing it as an obvious solution, and others seeing it akin to "apartheid" or at least a degradation of the concept of democracy.

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research, headed by former Act MP Muriel Newman has been the strongest opponent of Maori wards, arguing against the concept, and also against the way their proponents seek to implement the seats - see, for example Newman's article, Undemocratic mayors.

Newman's organisation has also been attempting to get current candidates for office around the country to specify their stance "on non-elected iwi representatives having voting powers on councils", and this has generated some backlash - see Oliver Lewis' Marlborough iwi slam 'intolerant' email to gauge candidates' views on council iwi representatives.
For another example of opposition to a new mechanism for Maori being appointed to local authority committees, see Karl du Fresne's June column, Whatever this is, it's not democracy.

The biggest controversy over Maori wards came earlier this year when the outgoing mayor of New Plymouth spoke out about his unsuccessful campaign to implement a new Maori ward for his council. And for a useful overview of the debate on such wards see last year's RNZ article, Maori Wards - Partnership or Separatism?


If Maori wards are controversial, it's surprising that the new incarnation of Environment Canterbury (ECAN) - which Cantabrians can now vote for, for the first time in nine years - is not receiving more scrutiny. Since the Government's sacking of the board in 2010, a new representative structure has been established - with seven elected councilors, and six appointed commissioners, of which two will be decided by Ngai Tahu. See the news report on this from earlier in the year by Charlie Mitchell: Ngai Tahu guaranteed two seats on Canterbury regional council.

Since then there hasn't been much coverage of the issue. But certainly when the Maori appointment mechanism was proposed late last year there were voices of dissent - see: Call for Maori Party to back full ECan democracy. And it wasn't just the political right or conservatives opposing the Maori appointments - see No Right Turn's Ngai Tahu supports dictatorship in Canterbury.

The new People's Party

The launch of the People's Party, which is being characterised as an ethnic minority party reported to be particularly focused on Indian and Chinese immigrants, has raised many questions this week about ethnic representation in politics.

The best analysis has been Vernon Small's column, Winston Peters' target no National front party - but will it work? In this he examines the new party and evaluates its chances for success, which he says are "slim". Small concludes that a separate party is unwise in the agenda of advancing the interests of ethnic minorities: "It may be a long road littered with disappointments, but the safer and more effective way would be to seek greater representation within the existing major parties - and tag that with an expectation the MPs will be given prominent roles, not used as lobby fodder and to tap the lucrative immigrant donation dollar."

Small also looks at the political character of the new party, suggesting that it does not appear to be particularly "left or right" (by traditional definitions), but is more focused on social issues: "Its objectives show a heavy emphasis on law and order, including "tough law against crimes such as drug offending, domestic violence and exploitation of students, burglary, robbery, assault, manslaughter, elder abuse and extortion". as well as a stress on rehabilitation. It includes a call for immigration rules and policies to allow "international students, migrants and refugees to settle sooner". The other three flagship objectives are non-aligned calls to improve the economy, education and health."

There's a mixture of encouragement and discouragement from newspaper editorials, which stress the right of the new party to participate, but also emphasise how unlikely it is they will succeed. The Dominion Post points out that ethnicity-based parties find it difficult to meet MMP's 5% threshold - consequently, they have trouble getting off the ground: "The first MMP election in 1996 featured an Ethnic Minority Party, which won a mere 2,500 votes - or 0.12 per cent of the total. In 2011, the New Citizen Party, which promised a focus on law and order and representation for Chinese New Zealanders, disappeared within a few months" - see: New party welcome to try for Parliament, but the task will be difficult.

Similarly, the New Zealand Herald editorial says: An Asian political party would be welcome if migrants feel they need it. But It warns although there are plenty of potential Asian voters, they're already inclined towards National: "the National Party, for one, will be bidding keenly for their votes. Asians, particularly Indians, are a striking presence at National Party gatherings these days."

See also Anand Hira's opinion piece, All NZers have the right to be represented. He explains that the party is not simply the "Indian Party" but says in its constitution that it aims "To be the voice for Multicultural New Zealand".

And New Zealand First blogger Curwen Ares Rolinson also makes some interesting observations in On The 'New Zealand People's Party' - Misconceptions And Projections.
National and ethnic minorities

With the emergence of the People's Party, there has been a renewed focus on how well the existing parliamentary parties are doing in bringing ethnic minorities into power. According to Winston Peters, "ethnic groups were already well represented in Parliament and there was no need for a separate party" - see Claire Trevett's Political party for Indian & Asian migrants angers Winston Peters.

Certainly the National Party has the greatest number of Asian MPs - Parmjeet Parmar, Melissa Lee, Jian Yang, Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi. New Zealand First has one Asian MP, Mahesh Bindra. While Labour and the Greens have none.

John Key's keen orientation to the Asian community has also been reiterated by news that he wrote an open letter this week to immigrant communities to reassure them that the Government is dealing with law and order issues - see Jo Moir's John Key wrote to ethnic communities worried about their security.

Similarly, we learnt that Key had started using the social media app, WeChat - see Lincoln Tan's Prime Minister John Key opens WeChat account, to communicate with followers in Chinese. This seems like a smart move, given that one expert is quoted in this story saying that "nine in 10 Chinese here who has a smartphone would have a WeChat account."

Speculation is therefore mounting that National might have a chance of winning the likely Mt Roskill by-election, which can no longer be regarded as a safe Labour seat. According to Chris Trotter, there have been some major demographic changes which alter the political nature of the area: "Today, Mt Roskill's 25,000 Christians share their electorate with more than 3,000 Muslims and nearly 6,000 Hindus. This religious diversity reflects the fact that "Asians" comprise nearly 40 percent of the electorate. More than 45 percent of today's Mt Roskillites were born overseas" - see: Potentially A Game Changer: Some Further Thoughts On The People's Party.

According to Trotter, even the People's Party could have a chance of winning the seat. And he suggests that the Labour candidate's ethnicity could even be disadvantage: "this otherwise ideal candidate does have one important factor working against him - his ethnicity. Michael Wood is a Pakeha New Zealander."

Finally, for an interesting explanation what is going on in New Zealand's quintessential ethnic minority party - as well as Maoridom in general - see Maiki Sherman's Maori Politics now a Game of Thrones.