Published on Stuff
Next week’s election will be Louis Bretaña’s first time going to the polls as a New Zealand citizen.
The aspiring artist followed his partner here from the Philippines in 2011; one of a wave of recent Asian migrants that has become an immigration flashpoint in this year’s campaign.
“It’s so much easier to vote here,” he says, stirring a cup of coffee at a popular hipster cafe on Auckland’s Karangahape Rd. “It’s a lot less cumbersome compared to the Philippines.”
For Bretaña, being an Asian migrant is “very much the central point” in deciding who to vote for. Even though he’s now a citizen, he wonders whether he’ll ever be fully accepted.
“I may call New Zealand home, but there is still that part of me that feels somewhat an outsider,” he says.
“I feel I will always be viewed as ‘the migrant’, and considered less important.”
Bretaña’s frustrations are a reflection of how many Asian voters feel. Some are politically engaged, but remain unconvinced about whether parties have their best interests at heart.
”Primarily we see a bunch of white people discussing white concerns in the news,” says Bretaña.
When Asians do make the news, it’s usually because they’re being blamed for something, such as Labour’s ill-advised attempts to draw conclusions about Auckland house sales based on Chinese-sounding surnames.
HAVING A VOICE
Bretaña says seeing Asian MPs in parliament is a strong incentive to vote.
“Filipinos consult each other a lot, and it’s a motivation for us if we see a Filipino candidate within a party because we have faith in each other,” he says.
Victoria University political lecturer Fiona Barker has researched Asian voting habits and says it’s important to have proper representation.
“Ethnic politicians bring new voices into parliamentary debate, and they can be real policy advocates,” she says. “They can give communities a sense of belonging in the system, which is a very powerful effect.”
It’s not easy though. Asian candidates who make it as far as parliament face intense expectations, and find themselves caught between the demands of their party and community.
Auckland-based lawyer Mai Chen founded the NZ Asian Leaders Network and says ethnic MPs risked falling under a “cloud of suspected incompetency” where “you’re only there because you’re ethnic.”
“Nobody wants to be there for that reason,” she says, during an afternoon meeting in her high-rise Auckland boardroom.
The outgoing parliament has six Asians among 121 MPs; that’s five per cent of the parliament, much lower than the country’s overall Asian population of 12 per cent.
Among them is Jian Yang, who found himself at the centre of a political firestorm this week when it emerged he had trained Chinese spies before moving to New Zealand.
The Asian MPs all score poorly in the much-vaunted Trans Tasman rankings, which can be a sore point.
“We are looked on as has-beens, good-for-nothing kind of people,” says Korean-born National list MP Melissa Lee, as she takes a break from door-knocking in the Auckland suburb of Sandringham.
“I don’t know if they ever actually see the amount of work that we actually do.
“I could just be a list MP for Mt Albert, but I’ve chosen to represent my people, and the ethnic communities, because I know what it’s like to be an ethnic person in New Zealand.
“I get calls from all over the country, and I say ‘go to your local MP’, and they say ‘no, no, I want to talk to you’.”
Barker says the work of ethnic MPs can be “quite invisible” to mainstream politics, meaning “they don’t necessarily get credit for the extra layer of work they do in their communities”.
Lee entered Parliament in 2008, having previously campaigned for Chinese-born Pansy Wong, who became New Zealand’s first Asian MP in 1996.
Former Act MP Kenneth Wang followed in 2004 as the country’s second Chinese-born parliamentarian, filling the seat vacated by Donna Awatere. He credits Act’s overtures to the Chinese community with its success in the 2002 election.
“We were the first to fight for the Chinese or Asian vote, so we suddenly cut some fresh air,” he says. “There was an expectation that the party would represent their voice.”
Since then, Wang adds, other parties have made inroads, and the Asian vote has become more diverse. Wang quit the party list this year in part because he believes Act has abandoned its outreach to Asian communities.
A DORMANT POLITICAL FORCE
Wang believes Asian voters remain a “neglected group”.
“They’ve been ignored and marginalised, and they’re a group that’s invisible,” he says. “It’s a big dormant political force.”
However, Kiwis of Asian descent could play an important role in New Zealand’s political system. They now account for almost 12 per cent of the population, and ethnic candidates are out on the campaign trail in increasing numbers.
Yet engagement remains an issue. Asians have the lowest electoral turnout of any voting group in New Zealand, according to data from the NZ General Social Survey.
Mai Chen says many migrants are more worried about surviving than casting their ballot.
“We often find it takes until the fourth election cycle for immigrants to vote,” she says. “I think about my own family when we came to New Zealand from Taiwan – voting? It was the furthest thing from our minds.”
Chen also chairs the Superdiversity Centre, which published a report with the support of the NZ Law Foundation on how electoral law impacts ethnic communities.
Language barriers are a problem. Voting papers are in English, and while there is provision for translators at polling booths, that almost never happens.
At the 2013 census, there were 87,000 people in New Zealand who spoke no English – potential voters who risk being excluded from the political system.
“We need to acknowledge that New Zealand is a super-diverse society, and we do have people who speak other languages,” says Chen.
Reaching those non-English-speaking voters has become a battleground in its own right.
“People prefer ethnic media,” Chen adds. “It’s not necessarily that they can’t speak English, but they like to hear media in their own languages, so we need to take that into account.”
Chen says it’s also important new migrants are educated in how the New Zealand Parliament functions, as many come from countries with very different systems of government.
ETHNIC MEDIA BATTLEGROUND
Chinese-born Raymond Huo is Labour’s only Asian MP in the outgoing parliament and agrees ethnic media play a crucial role. But he says information is reaching voters that has been badly translated or is just plain wrong.
Huo points to a recent online survey suggesting Chinese voters overwhelmingly back National, which was then picked up by mainstream media.
“These polls are not from a good source, and they’re not scientifically driven,” he says.
“There’s a risk that leading questions are perceived as a voting guide rather than collecting opinion.”
National-supporting Chinese voters have swung into overdrive on social media platforms such as WeChat, with one article warning users “racial discrimination has become worse and worse”.
“Are you Chinese? Your vote determines the fate of our race in this country,” the article states.
Last month, deep-pocketed Chinese business leaders vied for attention at a National Party fundraising dinner hosted at the Pullman Hotel in Auckland.
Huo himself is no stranger to controversy involving Asian voters. As Labour’s only Chinese MP, he bore the brunt of justifying why his party had decided to target Chinese-sounding surnames.
“I had round after round of debates, discussions, and public meetings with Chinese voters,” he says. “The method was unfortunate, and I think we could have done better, but it was well-intentioned.”
A POLITICAL FOOTBALL
Wang adds Asians have been treated as a “political football” that gets kicked around every election.
“We’ve been treated as an economic unit rather than an identity,” he says. “We look different, we sound different, and we eat different food.
“We’ve all come to this country for a better life, and we don’t want to be treated as second-class citizens.”
Bretaña says it’s “disheartening to hear MPs making suggestive racial statements” when there’s already a struggle for acceptance.
Back in the Philippines, he worked in the advertising industry, but now has a job in retail customer service.
“I used to be in a position of privilege, and now I have no choice but to work blue-collar jobs because that’s the only thing people here would give me,” he says, although he adds that New Zealand is still a “very nice place” to live.
Chen describes how racism angers some Asian migrants.
“The people who are the most upset and agitated are the ones who say to me ‘my kids are educated in the best schools, they speak good English, they were born in New Zealand, and they’re still discriminated against because of their surname and the way they look’,” she says. “They can’t get job interviews or jobs because of the colour of their skin.
“These people are really angry, and that makes me feel very sad.”
‘ASIANS ARE HANDICAPPED’
Roshan Nauhria was so fed up by the way Asians were ignored that he started his own political party.
The Auckland businessman made his fortune after migrating from India in the 1970s. In the past, he’s donated to Kiwi Indian MPs but gave that up a while ago.
“Their hands are tied,” he says, as he describes his disappointment at how little they have achieved for the Indian community.
“Asians are handicapped by the current system.”
Nauhria’s solution was to create the NZ People’s Party, with a list comprised entirely of ethnic candidates.
He runs the party from offices next to the Bharatiya Mandir Hindu temple in Sandringham. Over a cup of tea laced with ginger, Nauhria explains how Asians should follow the model established by the Maori Party.
“They only have two MPs, but they have achieved a lot,” he says. “So it’s better to be in government with your own party than as part of National or Labour.”
The People’s Party does not register support in mainstream political polls but has made waves in the Indian community with proposals such as amending the Crimes Act to allow self-defence for retail operators.
It’s a popular pledge – dairy robberies and beatings have left many in the community on edge, and law and order is a key concern for many Asian voters.
Nauhria accuses the government of “scaremongering” by blaming Asians for the country’s woes and says he’ll keep fighting until he makes it to Parliament.
Bretaña hadn’t heard of the People’s Party but agrees there’s potential to awaken the dormant political force within Asian communities.
“No particular party has given us a voice, or the relevance that we need,” he says.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if someone was able to get the backing of a solid bloc if they said the right things at the right time.
“I’m not saying they should put their entire campaigns around us, but they should at least consider us as relevant.”