Do ethnic MPs genuinely represent their communities?

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Jami-Lee Ross

New Zealand’s MMP electoral system has resulted in greater representation with more women members of Parliament, more youthful MPs, and more MPs from ethnic minorities.

Both Labour and National boast an array of ethnic MPs from communities that, rightly, deserve representation in our Parliament.

I have been proud to serve alongside our Indian, Chinese, and Pacific MPs.

Are ethnic MPs effective?

Our Parliament also sees more New Zealanders of Maori descent serving, including MPs who grew up with a strong Maori worldview, as well as those like me who grew up as urban Maori less steeped in Maoritanga.

It is a popular and mainstream narrative to celebrate diversity, which I do.

What is less popular is to ask: Have ethnic communities gained genuine representation from ethnic MPs?

Or are ethnic communities seeing figureheads that are subservient to their political Party, at the expense of the community they claim to represent?

Our political parties in New Zealand are very powerful. They are sometimes described as cults of leadership.

The two main parties centre all their attention on the Party leaders, and they have a ferocious appetite for fundraising.

Harsh reality

It is a hard truth, but also reality, that too often MPs from ethnic minorities are treated with lip service on genuine issues, and instead directed toward fundraising activities to justify their seat in the Parliament.

I know this because I was a Party Whip and National Party Board Member.

National’s ethnic MPs were under enormous pressure from the Party hierarchy to ensure funds were flowing through.

Forming connections that win votes and raise money was more important than providing a genuine voice.

I almost cringe now when I think of the cynical approach the Parties take to ethnic representation.

When real issues arise in society that relate to the ethnic groups these ethnic MPs represent, they are usually not listened to by their colleagues or Party Leader.

Parent Visa example

A recent example of this is the changes to the financial requirements of Immigration New Zealand’s Parent Resident Visa.

The annual income a migrant to New Zealand would need to earn to bring one of their parents to this country has increased from $65,000 to $106,080, which is twice the median salary.

Should they wish to bring both parents here they would need to earn $159,120, which is three times the median salary.

I oppose these changes because they are unfairly restrictive and set too high a financial bar for new Kiwis to clear.

This change will likely have been enacted against protests from the current Government’s ethnic MPs.

Token representation

National’s ethnic MPs were just as toothless when National closed down the Parent Category in an election year knee-jerk reaction about three years ago.

That is just one example of token representation of ethnic minorities in New Zealand politics.

It is a step in the right direction for our Parliament to look more representative of society but it would be beneficial to our democracy, if, as a country, we learned to appreciate and value the way in which New Zealand is enriched by migration to these shores.

The vast majority of people who move here from overseas do so to seek a better life for themselves and their family.

They work hard, start businesses and possess a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and value high quality education in a way that raises the standard of our schools and universities.

They deserve genuine representation, and our democracy needs greater free thought and free speech to be demonstrated in Parliament.

Orchestrated show in Parliament

Far too often Parliament is a finely-orchestrated show where unity in public takes greater precedent than real voices being heard.

For the Parliament to be truly representative, and for political parties to take their ethnic MPs seriously, we need to make sure money in politics is not a contributing factor in whether or not those MPs’ voices are listened to by their colleagues.

On a personal note, I continue to express regret and to apologise for the contents of a conversation between National Party leader Simon Bridges and I where an impression was given that we placed greater value on an MP’s ability to raise money for the political Party than on their value as a voice for their community.

Change essential

That is the sort of major party approach to politics that I regret having taken in the past and it is not something I am proud of.

When you are so immersed in the culture of a political party, it is hard to see that you have been forced to put your own community second.

Such a way of thinking and working is surely not in the best interest of our democracy. We all must change.

Finally, congratulations to Indian Newslink and its Editor and General Manger Venkat Raman on the Newspaper’s 20th Anniversary.

To have produced a publication to such a high standard for two decades in a competitive media environment is a tremendous achievement.

Indian Newslink goes above and beyond to keep its readers informed and is an integral part of New Zealand’s ethnic news media.

And I hope all of Indian Newslink staff and readers have a safe and relaxing summer holiday and a happy New Year.

Jami-Lee Ross is an elected Member of Parliament from Botany in East Auckland. He represented National Party until September 2018 but now sits in Parliament as an Independent lawmaker.


The true concept of Ethnic communities representation

The concept of “representation” is quite broad and is used in many areas of public life. One of the most often cited definition of “representation” belongs to Ankersmit, according to whom “representation is a making present (again) of what is absent.

Or, more formally, A is a representation of B when it can take B’s place; hence, when it can as B’s substitute or as B’s replacement in its absence”.

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi addressing the First PIO Parliamentarian Conference, in New Delhi on January 09, 2018.

In general, representation should be understood as actions of a representative in the name and on behalf of those whom he (she) represents, while political representation refers here to the representation in legislatures.

There are different types of representation, thoroughly discussed in Pitkin’s book The Concept of Representation (1972). For describing rights of ethnic groups for representation, many authors use descriptive and substantive types.

Advantages for ethnic groups

Descriptive representation means that Parliament of a given country mirrors demographic structure of a state. In other words, political representation of ethnic groups in legislatures should be in direct proportion to the percentage of these groups in the overall composition of the country. On the one hand, descriptive representation has advantages for ethnic groups, as they may experience greater confidence in delegates who resemble them in different issues (E.g., ethnicity or gender); representatives of ethnic groups can serve as a model of their rights,’ protection for other ethnic minorities; and it leads to more justice and legitimacy of the political system.

On the other hand, the question of whether the Parliament should exactly mirror the society remains  controversial, being opposed by some authors (Melissa Williams, Iris Young, Jane Mansbridge, Will Kymlicka), as “this would lead to an unworkable proliferation of group representation and undermine the process of representative government.”

Substantive representation

Substantive representation means that representative acts on the behalf of and in the interest of the represented.

Substantive representation is obtained if the interests and needs that representatives fulfil reflect those that exist in a society. However, minorities can be underrepresented at the substantive level, if the dominant political culture interferes with the access of their interests and demands to the political agenda.

In general, there are both positive and negative aspects of these types of representation and highlight the best type, appropriate for each state is nearly impossible. As it was already noted every case has its own peculiarities that need to be taken into consideration. However, basic principles of political representation of ethnic groups serve as a base from which we can make a start.

The meaning of ethnic group

It should be noted from the beginning, what we mean by ethnic group.

First of all, opposed to Kymlicka, the article does not distinguish national minorities from ethnic groups or immigrants, considering their right for political representation as equal.

Secondly, ethnic groups are not differentiated by national, regional or global context.

In particular, for instance, recognising that Russians in Russia are in some ways different from Russians in Kazakhstan, they are both understood as members of one ethnic group.

Finally, ethnic group is understood here as a group sharing common culture, national origin, language.

The above is an extract of a Paper titled, ‘Contemporary Principles of Political Representation of Ethnic Groups’ by M B Zhanarstanova and E L Nechayeva at the Third  Global Conference on Business, Economics, Management and Tourism, held from November 26 to November 28 in Rome, Italy.

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India’s Prime Minister spoke about democratic representation at the First Conference of Parliamentarians of People of Indian Origin on January 9, 2018 in Delhi (PIB Picture)

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