Wellington, August 25,2023
Diversity was the theme of the evening as four party candidates standing from Central Wellington presented their credentials before a gathering at the Garden Room of St Peter’s Church in downtown Wellington on Thursday.
Organised by Ekta NZ, a non-profit community organisation, the Meet the Candidates programme aimed to bring migrant, ethnic and faith communities together to engage with candidates from Central Wellington in the lead-up to the general election on October 14. The event drew a mixed crowd cutting across communities.
The session kicked off with an opening statement by each candidate followed by a question-and-answer round and closing speeches. The floor was open to questions from the audience.
The Green Party
Wellington City Councillor and Green Party candidate Tamatha Paul, in her opening remarks, described Wellington as “one of the most diverse cities in Aotearoa,” and said her party recognised the “inherent mana and dignity that everybody has.”
The Labour Party
Up next, Ibrahim Omer of the Labour Party recapped his journey to New Zealand as a refugee from Eritrea in 2008. A List MP from Wellington for the last three years, Omer said his mission was to travel around the country and organise the ethnic communities, to listen to their concerns and “bridge the gap between the wider ethnic communities and the Labour Party and government.” He lamented that New Zealand had walked away from its core values. He said the Labour government had achieved a lot in the last six years, especially by bringing in the Fair Pay Agreement.
The National Party
Scott Sheeran of the National Party said his party can provide better public services and opportunities, as well as outcomes that “reflect the full range of people in our communities.” He acknowledged that he was a “a new face,” but as someone who had lived in four different continents, he had “something to bring.” Sheeran said he loved and embraced diversity.
The Opportunities Party (TOP)
Mexican-born Natalia Albert of The Opportunities Party (TOP) said her party was not bound by “ideological beliefs of left and right” but offered a fresh voice and new ideas. She stressed New Zealand society was “multicultural and bicultural,” but with “pervasive systemic discrimination.” She staked her claim to “in-depth, three years’ research around how to diversify the public service.”
Q & A
The candidates drew lots to pick a “pre-advised” question premised on the recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the 15 March 2019 mosque attacks in Christchurch.
Responding to a query on the prioritisation of ethnicity in healthcare services, the Green Party’s Paul said the debate around that question was divisive because it missed the “tens of thousands of Maori and Pacific children who are hospitalised with preventable illnesses from living in unhealthy housing.” She also referenced the racism inherent in the healthcare system. “The Green Party believes that we should make no apologies for prioritising those who’ve been failed by particular systems,” she declared.
Paul said the Green Party had a plan to implement a wealth tax and to look at the “unfair tax system that we have in this country and to improve our health, education and transport systems.”
TOP’s Albert addressed an education-related question and stressed her party’s role was one of advocacy and holding the big parties accountable in their engagement with the migrant and ethnic communities. Her party would focus on the “invisible barriers” faced by these communities in the education sector.
On social cohesion, Labour’s Omer began by noting that the government had accepted all 44 recommendations of the Royal Commission of Inquiry in principle. He said 33 meetings were held across the country as part of the government’s work on social cohesion over the past three years. He referred to the ministerial advisory group created to advise the Cabinet on the social cohesion work that was underway. He cited the example of an Iranian-born taxi driver who had changed his name to find work. Omer pointed out that less than 5% of teachers were from an ethnic minority background, whereas students from ethnic communities accounted for 20%. Ethnic communities contributed substantially to the New Zealand economy, with the Indian community alone accounting for $67 billion, Omer noted.
But there were marginalised people within the ethnic communities too. “We have a long way to go but the work has started,” Omer observed, adding the Ministry of Ethnic Communities was leading that effort.
National’s Sheeran rounded off by saying the future of New Zealand lay in “how we embrace migrants and people of difference coming here.” They needed to be set up to succeed, not to fail, he remarked.
Taking a swipe at the Labour government, Sheeran said, “When we needed nurses in this country, what did we do? We didn’t let them in…. Eventually, the government did.” However, he referenced the fiasco over migrant workers let in under the Accredited Employer Visa Scheme that was currently playing out.
He closed with the warning that more people would leave New Zealand if Labour returned to power after the coming election.
Criticising the Labour government’s healthcare policy, Sheeran noted: “I do not accept, ever, that anyone will get healthcare based on his skin colour.” He acknowledged that health factors “do correlate with ethnicity, but those risk factors are why you get the healthcare.”
Questions from the floor centred on Council housing, Labour and National’s track record on diversity, a racial slur by radio host Mike Hosking and the boundaries of free speech, and divisive politics.
Te Paati Maori and the ACT Party were not represented on the occasion.
Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington