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Migrant Effect - The Changing Face of NZ Voters

Migrant Effect - The Changing Face of New Zealand Voters

by Kirsty Charles
Article courtesy of Merge Magazine

This year, as with every election year, migration is a hot issue amongst politicians vying for the public’s vote. Like a repetitive tune stuck on replay, at election time we hear racist jibes being thrown at migrants and ethnic groups that do not fit so-called ‘mainstream NZ’. The term ‘migrant’ is problematic. Some migrants are more visible because the way they dress, their language or the colour of their skin makes them stand out. Others, such as the majority that arrives from the United Kingdom every year are often not as visibly new to the country. They are all new New Zealanders, but the people on the receiving end of much of the racism are those that have come from countries considered culturally ‘different’ from New Zealand; especially non-English speaking countries. Discrimination against migrants is rife at election time among the more conservative political parties, while others attempt to woo migrant voters by making them feel included.

Anyone who has ever lived here knows New Zealand is a migrant nation. Our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, reflects a cooperative agreement between two cultures. With a history that dates back to the arrival of the Mâori, who were followed by Pakeha and other groups, we have long considered ourselves a bicultural nation. As we advance into the 21st Century however, the move away from biculturalism becomes more apparent as we increasingly become a multicultural rather than bicultural society.

New Zealand’s population statistics from the last census paint a diverse and multicultural picture. Statistics New Zealand reveals that between 1991 and 2001 people identifying as European decreased from 83.2 percent to 80.0 percent, while those identifying as Mâori rose from 13.0 percent to 14.7 percent over the same period. The Pacific Peoples ethnic group now makes up 6.5 percent of the population, up from 5.0 percent in 1991. The Asian ethnic group now comprises 6.6 percent, up from 3.0 percent in 1991. People identifying as Asian now outnumber those identifying as Pacific Peoples, with a count of 237,459 for the former and 231,801 for the latter. Those classified in the 'Other' ethnic groups category, which includes Arabs, Iranians, Somalis and Latin Americans, rose from 0.2 percent of the total population in 1991 to 0.7 percent in 2001.

These numbers are set to increase dramatically in the next 15 years through immigration. In 2003, statistics showed 97,250 permanent and long-term migrants came to New Zealand, up 4,587 on the 2002 figure of 92,663. In 2004, 84,285 arrivals were recorded.

Auckland is by far the most cosmopolitan of our cities; in the Auckland region, one in three people were born overseas. The main country of overseas birthplace in 2001 was England, followed by Australia. The number of New Zealand residents who were born in Europe has declined over the last decade, but there have been large increases from Africa, the Middle East and Asia, particularly China.

So, in an environment of such cultural mingling, are migrant communities having their needs met and their issues heard? How much access do new New Zealanders such as migrants and refugees have to power? How much of our migrant population is politically active and votes? Why is there so much focus on the affairs of migrants during election time but at no other time of the year? And does the New Zealand system fairly represent refugee and migrant issues?

New Zealand public opinion seems to be divided between hostility and acceptance of migrants. But new people arriving into a country can enrich the host nation. There are jobs that migrants do that many New Zealanders cannot do, which enhances the economy. And by opening our doors to people from other parts of the world, we diversify and become culturally richer. It is because of this division in attitudes that the issue of migration arises so strongly at election time, particularly among political groups that use it as a key issue for their campaigning.

Dr. Love Chile, Visiting Professor at the Institute of Public Policy at AUT believes there are inconsistencies in government policy when it comes to migration. He says during non-election years issues of migration and migrants’ needs are ignored and the Government does not do enough to ensure the welfare of people coming into the country is looked after.

“Issues of effective settlement of migrants are not addressed by the Government and policy. Within New Zealand, people are not effectively informed about the needs of migrants in areas of cultural integration and things like that. There is a lack of public understanding about the need for migration.”

According to Dr Chile, the public does not understand the need to bring in overseas trained people to fill certain jobs. Migrants, he says, are seen to be in direct competition with locals for jobs, and this creates tension in the community. “I don’t think the New Zealand public is unconscious of New Zealand’s heritage as a migrant nation at all, it’s xenophobia, not lack of awareness. It’s fear. People are afraid that migrants will take their jobs.”

Xenophobia affects political participation because people feel alienated. Migrants feel let down when politicians such as Winston Peters encourage and exacerbate prejudice in society, and the Government does not respond appropriately. “He plays on the fears of the average person. They fear for their lives because we don’t know these people, they might be terrorists living next to us so we might get blown up tomorrow, who knows.”

Dr Chile says Peters plays on the emotions of people, especially of Mâori, saying there is a ‘flood’ of Asians and other migrants and that Mâori are going to be consigned as a minority in their own country. But, he says, Mâori are more than just another ethnic group, they are the ethnic group in New Zealand. Dr Chile believes the Government needs to work very closely with Mâori communities to cooperatively engage in creating an effective migration policy for New Zealand. If this was carried out by the Government, the response to migrants becoming influential would not be perceived as so threatening.

Dr Chile says if there are more efforts at the level of government policy to encourage integration, there will be more possibility of representative access to power because migrants and refugees will feel welcome in New Zealand. He says currently most migrant groups are organised around their countries of origin and this splits their votes and their leverage in terms of affecting policy.

Demographic shifts create new pressures on the Government because there are more different groups to be catered for. People from all over the globe are now living in New Zealand and influencing the physical and cultural makeup of this society.

Although New Zealand was one of the last countries to get rid of racially discriminating immigration policies, it is one of the few countries in the world that allows citizens and permanent residents to vote. David Parrish, Registrar of Electors in Tamaki, says many migrants are unsure of their rights in relation to the electoral role and the office has been sending recruitment agents, who speak a range of languages, into the community to explain the electoral system. The agents are from a variety of backgrounds and speak a range of languages. Jill Conway, Auckland Regional Manager of the Refugee and Migrant Centre says it is crucial to inform communities of new voters face to face.

“Education has to happen on an ethnicity basis by going to meetings and communities to provide more understanding of the process, that they’re an important part of it and [particularly for refugees] that it’s safe to do so,” she explains.

Parrish observes that many migrants are keen to vote but are unaware they have the right because of their citizenship status.

While most New Zealanders remain monolingual, the linguistic landscape of this country is changing dramatically. A diverse range of languages now needs to be considered in terms of educating and informing the public about significant issues.

It is in recognising this diversity that the Electoral Office provides multilingual services. The booklets and website for the Electoral Enrolment Office are available in twelve foreign languages, Mâori, and English. The office has made a concerted effort this year to encourage people, especially from smaller ethnic communities and people new to the New Zealand electoral system, to enrol to vote.

Murray Wicks, national manager of the Electoral Enrolment Office in Wellington adds that many new migrants have never voted before, especially women arriving from countries where voting is a male domain. He says the campaign has mainly targeted Asian migrants given the high number of Asian-born people arriving into the country.

There are many issues that new people to New Zealand face when it comes to political participation. Anjum Rahman, who is a Labour list MP and heavily involved in Islamic, women’s and ethnic community groups in her hometown Hamilton, says the main barriers for many people from minority ethnic groups are language and lack of knowledge about how the system here works. She says new New Zealanders may feel self-conscious about their accents or they may genuinely not understand the words, especially when dealing with complex language relating to policy issues. Another limitation is access to good lawyers and advisers to form powerful lobby groups.

“Ethnic minority communities tend to be financially stretched more than the mainstream population, especially because of the discrimination they face when trying to obtain paid employment. They also have the added cost of resettlement, and the fact that they are smaller in numbers,” she says.

This means government consultation becomes paramount in order for groups to be heard. Rahman believes contact between the Government and community groups is growing, but there is still a lot more to be done.

For refugees, issues of settlement are often compounded by the fact they are setting up a new life. Keryn McDermott, who used to run the education programme at Mangere’s Refugee Reception Centre says because refugees are part of a marginalised group, their energy has to go into making their new lives work, and this can be a slow process. “It’s dizzying enough to have freedom to speak, to worship who they want, and the new responsibilities and parameters can be hard to come to terms with,” she says.

According to McDermott, political participation depends on the strength of each community. Some have been here longer than others and can tell the new arrivals how things work. She also points out that there are many expectations that fall on someone who stands up for a group of people in the political realm, especially given that people from any given community will bring their political affiliations and opinions from home, and there are many divisions among them. She adds that attacks by politicians aimed at refugees and other ethnic groups can be highly offensive. McDermott believes it is the responsibility of New Zealand to support refugees and she cannot believe politicians get away with insulting them. “Their position is so tenuous and to then have the finger pointed at them and to be kicked when they’re down is unforgivable. They are here for humanitarian reasons,” she says.

Jill Conway, Auckland regional manager for the RMS Refugee Resettlement elaborates, saying there is an element of fear for some refugees because of their background before they reach New Zealand shores. “Some may have found it’s because of political involvement that they are refugees. Others come from rural areas and may have had no experience with politics at all.”

While migrants are not necessarily put off by the experience of political persecution like many refugees, they still have to contend with the newness of the New Zealand system and the discriminatory attitudes of many New Zealanders. People tend to forget that at some stage in the history of this country we were all migrants.

In recent years, there has been more of an effort by parties to include the migrant population, particularly the smaller ethnic communities, in the political process. Rahman notices there is more representation seen in party lists than before. She believes there is more recognition by many parties that ethnic minorities are a growing part of the population that need to be engaged in the political process and adequately represented in Parliament.

“The Labour Party, the National Party and the ACT Party each have an MP of Asian origin. However, there are nowhere near enough. I live in Hamilton, where is there is not one single Mâori, Pacific Island or Asian city councillor, and hasn’t been for as long as I can remember. Therefore, at a local level, ethnic minorities have no effective input into the decision-making process.”

Dr Chile says the majority of people he knows are in the larger political parties because of the personalities in them. Cultural diversity and empathetic politicians, he says, influence how people vote.

“I know that some of the minority parties such as the Progressives are very attractive to certain migrant groups, particularly because of the certain personalities. And if you look at their lists, the majority of them are migrants.

My experience is that Labour is the most attractive to migrants. Since the splintering of the left, most people have come back to the mainstream Labour Party, but I know the Greens attracted a good number of migrants,” he observes.

Walescka Pino-Ojeda, Senior Lecturer in Spanish at the University of Auckland, believes migrant groups will vote depending on what best reflects what they want to see happen in New Zealand, rather than voting on personalities. She believes that in this country people protect their quality of life and vote for the parties that best uphold that aim. She does not believe ethnic communities will necessarily vote for minority parties such as the Mâori Party just because they have ethnicity as the central theme.

“Mâori have to defend their own cause. I can’t understand their position or their agenda because it doesn’t reflect my reality or my culture.”

Dr Chile agrees, saying he does not know how well the Mâori Party will go with migrant communities. “As much as I have respect for people like Pita Sharples, who I can support any day because I genuinely believe in what he stands for and he is a genuine person, it would be difficult for me to convince my other colleagues and friends who are migrants to vote for the Mâori Party because, what stake do they have?” he asks.

He dreams of a day when migrant communities can come together and become a representational force in New Zealand politics. He believes some parties are making efforts to accommodate this but there is still a long way to go.


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