Cross-Examination: Where Are New Zealand’s Asian Representatives?
Cross-Examination is a blog series about current legal issues in New Zealand produced by EJP Communications volunteers.
By now, I suspect most Asian New Zealanders should be able to tell when an election year is upon us thanks to that familiar, soothing sound of Winston’s dog whistle every three years. Every election year we’re reminded that it seems like there’s nothing quite like whipping up a nationalistic fervour to improve your electoral chances. But it’s 2014 now – things have changed since the last time Winston Peters rode “Yellow Panic” to 10.38 per cent of the vote in 2002, right? According to the 2013 Census, 12 per cent of New Zealand’s total population are of Asian descent (and rising rapidly – Asians are projected to overtake Maori as the second largest demographic within two decades). In the city centres it’s even more pronounced, with almost 1 in 4 people living in the Auckland region identifying with an Asian ethnic group. Where I grew up, in Botany in East Auckland, a whopping 38.8 per cent of the population are Asian and at my alma mater, Botany Downs Secondary College, Asian students outnumber European/Pakeha students by over a hundred.
With the Asian demographic growing at such a rapid rate, shouldn’t we now see a corresponding increase in influence politically, economically, and socially? While a purely representative legislature or judiciary may be wishful thinking, it is still a little jarring to see the level of underrepresentation of minority voices in Parliament and on the Bench. Currently there are a grand total of four Asian Members of Parliament – and all of them are low ranking backbenchers. The National Party carry three of the four Asian MPs (Melissa Lee, Kanwal Singh and Jian Yang), who are ranked from 34 to 36 on their party lists respectively. The sole other Asian MP is Labour’s Raymond Huo, ranked 21 on the Labour list. It’s definitely possible for non-Asian parliamentarians to be an effective advocate for Asian perspectives. But the low (token?) rankings given to Asian candidates are in my opinion perhaps indicative of a lack of regard for the importance of ensuring strong Asian voices in our political system. Whilst Maori and Pasifika issues are (quite rightly) represented by a Minister for Maori Affairs and a Minister for Pacific Affairs, there is no standalone government Ministry for Asian affairs. Rather, all Asian issues are shoehorned into the rather broad Ethnic Affairs portfolio. In the judiciary, the picture is even more lily white. At last count, just two of the 130 District Court judges in New Zealand were of Asian descent.
The reasons for the underrepresentation in parliament appears to be pretty clear cut – an appallingly low level of voter participation among Asian immigrants. According to a New Zealand General Social Survey, 35 per cent of Asians said they did not vote in the last General Elections – this is the highest level of non-participation among ethnic groups, and second only to youth in non-participation across all demographics. Studies abroad in regards to Asian American electoral non-participation suggest that language barriers and a lack of cultural assimilation or identification lead to a lack of participation in the political process. Language barriers make it difficult to understand how New Zealand’s MMP system works, and a lack of cultural acclimatisation often leads to a lack of interest in engaging with domestic politics. There may also be some chicken or the egg factors at play, as the lack of credible Asian candidates that Asian New Zealanders can be proud of does little to encourage Asian New Zealanders to vote. Who can forget Melissa Lee’s infamous gaffe during campaigning for the Mount Albert by-elections when she implied that it was desirable to keep South Aucklanders away from her electorate due to their supposed criminal proclivities? As a matter of fact, studies have shown that the presence of guaranteed Maori representatives in Parliament have led to changes in Maori attitude towards politics, with a greater belief in the efficacy of political engagement and a greater sense of empowerment. This has contributed to an increased rate of political participation for Maori. Similarly, the symbolic value of high ranking Asian Parliamentarians cannot be ignored when considering the effects of under representation.
Despite the under representation in the legislature and judiciary, at first glance Asian New Zealanders do not appear to be suffering from many outright injustices as a result. In fact Asian New Zealanders are under-represented in many crime statistics, and Asians make up only 3 per cent of the total prison population. According to a survey by the Ministry of Justice on trust and confidence in the justice system, Asian respondents showed a remarkably high level of trust in the justice system and a high level of understanding of judicial processes across a range of different areas. While Maori and Pasifika are over-represented in a number of health and crime statistics (and as such strong representation is necessary in order to address these issues in an equitable way), by comparison Asians really do by and large appear to be living up to the ‘model minority’ moniker.
However, that’s not to say Asian New Zealanders are without issues which need addressing. For example, it’s been well documented (both here and abroad) that Asian women are far less likely to go to the police or other authorities if they suffer domestic abuse. The factors contributing towards battered women’s syndrome generally are perhaps even more pronounced and exacerbated by language and cultural barriers which make it more difficult for migrant Asian women to seek help. Isolated from support systems and faced with dealing with police and the court system in their second language, many instances of abuse will go unreported. Also relevant is their immigration status – often the prospect of deportation can be an incentive not to ‘raise a fuss’ by seeking help when abused. This latter factor also comes into play in regards to employment disputes for immigrant workers, some of whom are paid well below the minimum wage. This reluctance to go to the authorities may suggest that abuse is in fact underreported in the Asian community.
There are also some worrying gaps in health policy which do not take into consideration cultural differences of Asian New Zealanders. A Human Rights Commission report on structural discrimination in New Zealand found that Asian New Zealanders are at greater risk of developing chronic disease, as the percentage of adult Asians who have a regular health provider are significantly lower than the rest of the population. Asian New Zealanders may also be more susceptible to mental health issues such as alcohol abuse and problem gambling, relative to the general population. Reported experiences of racial discrimination (such as unfair treatment by a health professional) were highest amongst Asians than any other ethnic group, and this along with the lack of culturally specific health provision is thought to have an effect on negative health outcomes.
These kinds of problems could indeed be addressed by a non-Asian voice in parliament, or by the hard working but ultimately low ranking Asian representatives currently in parliament. It is also certainly true that the culpability for lack of political engagement by the Asian community cuts both ways. But it is still troubling that more hasn’t been done by political parties, community organisations, or the government (i.e. the Electoral Commission) to get out the Asian vote and ensure that a large and rapidly growing demographic have the resources necessary to participate in the political process in this country. The Electoral Commission has in the past run workshops in Chinese and other Asian languages educating Asian New Zealanders about the New Zealand electoral process. Measures like these are certainly on the right track, and it would be great to see more of the same.
The judiciary is a slightly different matter due to the unique requirements of the position (i.e. you must have a law degree and experience in professional practice, whereas in theory anyone can put their hand up to be an MP). According to a report from the District Court, “the ambition of the Court is for a Bench which reflects our current society, as merit allows”. However “merit” is narrowly defined in scope, looking at academic aptitude and professional experience. Perhaps there is room for inclusion of other important traits in that definition, such as the ability to empathise with people from a broad variety of backgrounds, and explaining the law to the lay person of different backgrounds (or speaking another language) in an easy to understand manner. However, when looking at the degree of confidence Asian New Zealanders appear to have in the New Zealand legal system, this doesn’t appear to be as pressing an issue.
Given that immigrants must satisfy certain standards of good health and socio-economic status in order to be allowed residency, it’s not surprising that Asian New Zealanders are facing relatively few social and economic problems. However, it’s important not to get a false sense of security and neglect the demographic altogether. In fact, studies have shown an alarming trend of negative health for Asians born in New Zealand, compared to their immigrant parents. This ‘immigrant effect’ of good health is not guaranteed to go on forever. Second and third generation descendants of Asian immigrants are slipping in a number of health statistics due to (either real or perceived) institutional racism and political neglect, and these are the kinds of issues which need to be addressed by effective representation.
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 Statistics New Zealand “2013 Census QuickStats about culture and identity” <http://www.stats.govt.nz/Census/2013-census/profile-and-summary-reports/quickstats-culture-identity/asian.aspx>.
 Stuff.co.nz “School Report: Botany Downs Secondary College” <http://schoolreport.stuff.co.nz/2013/ncea_school.html?school=6930>.
 Ministry of Justice The District Courts of New Zealand <http://www.courtsofnz.govt.nz/district/district/role/District_Courts_of_NZ_web.pdf> at 10.
 Paul Spoonley “Chasing migrant votes would be good for democracy” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, 3 April 2014).
 Jun Xu “Why do minorities participate less? The effects of immigration, education, and electoral process on Asian American voter registration and turnout” (2004) 34 Social Science Research at 683-687.
 NZPA “Manukau mayor accepts Lee’s apology for ‘regrettable’ remarks” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, 14 May 2009).
 Susan A. Banducci, Todd Donovan and Jeffrey A. Karp “Minority Representation, Empowerment, and Participation” (2004) 66(2) Journal of Politics at 549-553.
 Statistics New Zealand “New Zealand’s prison population” <http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/snapshots-of-nz/yearbook/society/crime/corrections.aspx>.
 Ministry of Justice “Trust and confidence questions” <http://www.justice.govt.nz/publications/global-publications/p/public-perceptions-of-crime-survey-report/trust-and-confidence-questions>.
 Christine K Ho “An Analysis of Domestic Violence in Asian American Communities: A Multicultural Approach to Counseling” (1990) 9(1-2) Women & Therapy at 144-145.
 Samson Tse “Family Violence in Asian Communities, Combining Research and Community Development” (2007) 31 Social Policy Journal of New Zealand.
 Isaac Davidson “Labour and Greens pull support for law change” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, 20 May 2014) <http://www.nzherald.co.nz/politics/news/article.cfm?c_id=280&objectid=11257862>.
 Kumanan Rasanathan, Shanthi Ameratunga and Samson Tse “Asian health in New Zealand—progress and challenges” (2006) 199(1244) Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association at 2.
 Human Rights Commission “A fair go for all? Addressing Structural Discrimination in Public Services” (2012) A discussion paper by the Human Rights Commission at 18-19.
 Catriona MacLennan “Greater diversity needed in judiciary” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, 17 April 2013).
 Rasanthan, above n 13.