Does the new Parliament look like us?

10:05 am on 23 October 2020

By Paul Spoonley* for the Asia Media Centre

Analysis - There are still votes to be counted. In fact, there are rather a lot of votes still outstanding so there might still be some adjustments to who is in or out. But one thing is certain: Parliament will be much more representative than it has been in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Grant Robertson delivers Budget 2020. Generic Parliament pic

Inside the House at Parliament. Photo: Pool / STUFF LTD

However, Parliament still does not fully represent the New Zealand population.

In terms of the current ethnic distribution of the population, the figures are interesting. Māori constitute 16.5 percent of the total population but look likely to make up 20 percent of MPs in the House (it was 23 percent in 2017).

There have been a number of high profile Māori departures, most noticeably with NZ First not getting back and therefore no more Winston Peters, Shane Jones or Ron Mark. But the Māori Party looks to be back and there are a number of new Māori members. Both ACT and the Greens have three Māori each and Labour has 15 - while National has just two.

The next largest ethnic block in New Zealand are Asians at 15.1 percent of New Zealand's population. Again, there have been a number of departures of Asian MPs, most noticeably with retirements (Huo, Jiang) and some not getting re-elected (Bakshi).

Some are returning; Melissa Lee (Korean) for National and Priyanca Radhakrishnan (Indian) for Labour. The latter will be joined by Ayesha Verrall (Maldives), Naisi Chen (Chinese), Vanushi Walters (Sri Lankan) and Gaurav Sharma (Indian). This means that only 5 percent of MPs are Asian and therefore almost 10 percent below the proportion of the population.

Of course, the designation Asian is far too broad and really quite unhelpful in terms of the mix of the various Asian communities in 2020. In this regard, Chinese constitute 4.9 percent of all New Zealanders and Indians (4.7 percent). Both are under-represented in the new Parliament.

Professor Paul Spoonley says it's impossible to measure the full scale of hate speech.

Professor Paul Spoonley Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Report card: could do better.

In relation to Pasifika, the picture is much more positive. The five existing Pasifika MPs from Labour (all of them ministers in the previous government) will be joined by four new Labour colleagues and one new Green Pasifika MP. There are none in ACT or National. These nine MPs represent 8.3 percent of MPs compared to 8 percent of the population and up from 6 percent in the previous Parliament.

Then there is rather odd and varied category that is Middle East/Latin America/Africa (MELAA) group. This group makes up 1.5 percent of the population but 2.5 percent of Parliament with one refugee (Golriz Ghahraman, Greens) being joined by another, Ibrahim Omer (Labour, Eritrea) while there is the first Latin American MP, Ricardo March, also for the Greens.

On gender, the new Parliament does well with almost half of MPs being women, and the LGBQTI representation has made world-wide news with the claim that the New Zealand Parliament has now the largest Rainbow group of MPs globally, taking over from the UK Parliament.

So in terms of representation, the non-Pākehā representatives are edging towards parity with Māori, Pasifika or MELAA meeting or exceeding their proportion of the total population. But some questions still need to be asked about Asian representation, especially for the larger groups (Indian, Chinese), and of National, ACT and the Greens.

Labour, with 7.8 percent of its MPs from Asian backgrounds, still needs to do better. What is heartening is that the 40 new MPs, when considered as cohort, are very diverse.

Question time

There are some other questions to be asked about the election. One is whether there is an ethnic penalty in operation. If minority ethnic and immigrant candidates are selected for electorate seats, do members of other ethnic groups (as voters) not see them as strong candidates? This of course puts the pressure back on political parties to not only ensure that there are a range of candidates in terms of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation but to pick them for winnable seats and to back them fully.

Some of the ethnically diverse MPs to have a seat in Parliament are Melissa Lee for National and Priyanca Radhakrishnan and Ayesha Verrall for Labour.

Some of the ethnically diverse MPs to have a seat in Parliament are Melissa Lee for National and Priyanca Radhakrishnan and Ayesha Verrall for Labour. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

As New Zealand's diversity grows, then these questions become critical, especially as participation and representation in government becomes a key indicator of both inclusion and acceptance.

There are also questions to ask about how various minority ethnic and immigrant communities took part in the voting process. Did they enrol and did they exercise their right to vote? And another question is who they voted for.

The period from 2013 to 2020 has seen the largest net gains from migration in New Zealand's history, providing more than 300,000 new residents and citizens. I remain unconvinced that we know about the voting intentions of these new New Zealanders (prior to the election) or what they did in terms of actually voting.

There was a poll on the Chinese community by Trace Research but little else. And yet these immigrants or minority ethnic communities make up a substantial proportion of some electorates and might well have had a major say in deciding both electorate and party vote.

Another election is over and we can now pick over the bones and see what has happened. It was good to see that there was little of the 2017 attacks on immigration and immigrants (and certainly a far cry from the 1996 election campaign). It was encouraging to see immigrant used as statement of fact and not as an insult, as Afua Hirsch has lamented in the British context. And it is good to see more diversity. But Asian representation remains a challenge.

* Paul Spoonley is a sociology professor at Massey University.

- This story originally appeared on the Asia Media Centre website and was republished with permission.

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