Ethnic communities still under-represented Parliament

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Professor Paul Spoonley

Professor Paul Spoonley

Massey University, Albany, Auckland
October 24, 2020

                 53rd Parliament brings greater diversity (RNZ Photo by Te Aniwa Hurihanganui)

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.

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.

Maori constitute 16.5% of the total population but look likely to make up 20% of MPs in the House (it was 23% in 2017).

Those in and out

There have been a number of high-profile Maori departures, most noticeably with NZ First not getting back and therefore no more Winston Peters, Shane Jones or Ron Mark.

But the Maori Party looks to be back and there are a number of new Maori members.

Both ACT and the Greens have three Maori each and Labour has 15, while National has just two.

The next largest ethnic block in New Zealand are Asians at 15.1% of New Zealand’s population.

Again, there have been a number of departures of Asian MPs, most noticeably with retirements (Raymond Huo of Labour, Jian Jiang of National) and some not getting re-elected (Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi and Dr Parmjeet Parmar, both National).


                        Ethnically diverse MPs: Melissa Lee (National) Priyanca Radhakrishnan and

                         Ayesha Verrall for Labour. RNZ Photos by Dom Thomas & Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Returning and New MPs

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% of MPs are Asian and therefore almost 10% 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% of all New Zealanders and Indians (4.7%).

Both are under-represented in the new Parliament.

Pasifika 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 Pasifika members in ACT or National. These nine MPs represent 8.3% of MPs compared to 8% of the population and up from 6% in the previous Parliament.

Then there is rather odd and varied category that is Middle East/Latin America/Africa (MELAA) group, which makes up 1.5% of the population but 2.5% 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.

Largest Rainbow Group

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 Maori, 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% 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.

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 for who they voted.

Immigration gains

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 Sociology Professor at Massey University, Albany, Auckland Campus. The above story, which originally appeared on the Asia Media Centre website, has been published under a Special Agreement with

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