Paulo Garcia: NZ's First Filipino MP

Before his flight to Wellington, Paulo Garcia granted the Asia Media Centre a one-on-one interview at his residence at New Lynn, Auckland.

Both he and his wife, Malu, remained astonished by the election and the special votes results.

After the October 14 election day, Garcia led of 483 votes over his Labour rival, Deborah Russell. However, the Garcias opted for a subdued response rather than immediate celebration, choosing to wait until the special votes were fully tallied.

Garcia maintained a cautious stance, keeping his expectations in check until final results were confirmed.

“I’ve made it to a point where I detached myself from the outcome. I tried to do that in everything I do. So, you do the best you can because you can’t control the uncontrollable. So, don’t stress about the things you can’t control,” he said.

He then added, “And manage your heart. You don’t expose your heart to too much damage particularly in politics. You want to take care of your heart. That means managing your expectations. So, we were well-managed when we came to these two points [the election day and the special votes counting].”

Amidst the suspense of the final vote count, Garcia, along with his fellow National Party MPs, has proactively embarked on their responsibilities by participating in the caucus even though his name has frequently been discussed among journalists and political analysts, especially when conversations turn to MPs whose parliamentary positions are deemed vulnerable.

The West Auckland electorate, which he represents, was often predicted to continue its tradition of favouring its incumbent Labour representative.

“I think, it’s notable that media commentators on the day of the specials were mostly saying that New Lynn would probably go back into Labour as it has always done, and the special votes have always been an addition to what Labour had earn through on election day. But this time, it completely didn’t do that,” Garcia remarked.

The tide completely turned on the afternoon of November 3rd.

By 3:30 PM, Garcia had achieved a significant lead in New Lynn, surpassing his contender, Russell, by around 600 votes, which widened his lead to over 1,000 votes.

Garcia’s unexpected triumph in securing the New Lynn seat is a significant milestone, particularly noteworthy given his background as an Asian immigrant, achieving a success he once thought was beyond reach.

He said, “It became a surprise to us that we won. We did the work, but we don’t expect the result favouring us. It was really beyond amazing because we didn’t expect to pull that much out of it - for us, for our team.”

“So, we had people crying on that night [of the preliminary count] because they were confirmed in their personal commitment to do the tasks that they needed to do, and they were confirmed again when the specials [votes] were counted.”

Garcia's overwhelmed reaction to his victory recalls his previous national election experience as well as a brief stint in New Zealand politics.

Paulo Garcia, MP for New Lynn. Photo. c/o Carla Teng, AMC.

2017 vs 2023 Election

In the electoral battle of 2017, Paulo Garcia took up the mantle for the National Party in the New Lynn constituency, securing the 50th spot on the party's list. Although a valiant effort, he garnered 38.66% of the votes, trailing behind Deborah Russell, and did not secure a parliamentary seat due to his position on the National's list.

By February 2018, Garcia, along with other prospective National candidates, was in attendance at the National's parliamentary caucus. This session was designed to facilitate a smoother induction into the parliamentary ranks should opportunities arise within the term.

Garcia's political journey took a significant turn in 2019 following the departure of National MP Nuk Korako. This exit paved the way for Garcia's entrance into Parliament. Officially admitted on May 16, 2019, Garcia etched his name in the annals of history as the first Member of Parliament in New Zealand of Filipino heritage.

In a moment that marked a significant first in the nation's parliamentary history, Paulo Garcia stood before his peers in Parliament and delivered his maiden speech in a blend of three languages: Filipino, Te Reo Maori, and English.

Such linguistic choice was a powerful affirmation of his unique Kiwi-Noy identity, a term that represents his proud fusion of Kiwi and Filipino (Pinoy) heritage. His words resonated through the halls of New Zealand's iconic Beehive, emphasising the diversity and multiculturalism that characterise modern Aotearoa.

But Garcia's speech was more than a cultural showcase; it was a statement of personal faith and conviction.

In a clear and resonant voice, he also brought his Catholic faith to the forefront, infusing his address with the principles and values that he holds dear.

As a Catholic, he stood not just for his ethnic roots but also for a faith-based perspective that he carries into his service in Parliament.

He then declared, “Hindi lamang sa mga nursing homes at ospital, sa mga dairy farms at construction sites, sa IT, engineering at hospitality. At ngayon, pati na rin sa larangan ng pambabatas. Pagkalooban ninyo po kami ng puso, isip at katawan na matatag upang maisatupad naming ang inyong layunin para sa amin sa bansang New Zealand.”

(“We thank our loving God that he has given his children the opportunity to serve New Zealand not just in nursing homes and hospitals, in dairy farms and construction sites, in IT and engineering and hospitality but also now in the New Zealand Parliament.”)

Paulo Garcia's maiden speech at the Parliament in 2019. Photo: New Zealand Parliament.

During his tenure in 2020, he briefly held the position of deputy chairperson for the Parliamentary Committee that oversees Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade. In addition, he contributed to the National Party's efforts as an associate spokesperson on foreign affairs and justice.

In a strategic move ahead of the 2020 general elections, the National Party's board appointed Garcia as a list-only candidate. However, the National Party's performance did not measure up to expectations in the general polls, resulting in Garcia's loss of his parliamentary seat.

After two unsuccessful campaigns and a brief tenure in office, Paulo Garcia might have been expected to step back from the political fray.

Yet, when the National Party called on him once more to carry their banner into New Lynn electoral contest, Garcia rose to the occasion, scripting another chapter in the nation's political narrative.

Garcia reflected on the evolving dynamics within his party and the country: "We were riding on New Zealanders yearning for transformation. Our collective approach was fueled by heightened passion, and our commitment was deepened by the desire for progress. This was a stark contrast to our stance back in 2017."

He elaborated on the change in the political climate since the days when the National Party held governance, "Back in 2017, our stance was one of defence, safeguarding the governing party. So, it was a different sort of a sentiment and emotion.”

“But the recent campaign carried a different emotional weight—there was a palpable drive to strive harder, to put in the 'hard yards.' This fervour was mirrored by our teams, who approached their tasks with undeniable enthusiasm,” Garcia added.

Paving the way for the new generation of Asian immigrants

Born in the Philippines and a graduate of the University of the Philippines, Garcia also studied in the University of Auckland and in Academy of American and International Law in Texas.

He practiced commercial law for 10 years in Manila, focusing on foreign and multinational companies operating the country, before moving to New Zealand, where he practiced immigration law and investor migration for 14 years.

After working for McLeod & Associates and Corban Revell Lawyers, Garcia later founded his own law firm, Garcia Law, in Auckland.

He was also appointed as an honorary consul of the Philippines in Auckland in 2012, and was also involved in establishing the New Zealand Philippines Business Council. 

Just like many immigrants, Garcia’s journey in New Zealand was not easy. He had his fair share of hatred, being “slandered“ and “ostracised. “

Nevertheless, now that he is returning to the Parliament, he brings with him not only his legal expertise but a mission to empower immigrants, particularly the Filipino community in New Zealand, to engage more fully in the nation’s political and social life.

He firmly believes that Aotearoa's multiculturalism creates opportunities for people from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, so it's critical to take advantage of the opportunity for representation.

He noted, “whether Filipino, Indian, Chinese, or New Zealander, aspire to serve and get out of yourselves. We want to light the fire of this desire to serve.”

“I think that’s what we need to learn a lot about as immigrants because we are so inward-looking because we just migrated. We faced many challenges. We are operationally challenged because of all the hard things that we must deal with that we forget about service to others.”

“But once you start serving other people, you get to realised that importance of having a community. You will relate more to other people and realised you are not alone.”

Paulo Garcia wrapping up some paperwork in his law office before heading to Wellington. Photo: c/o Carla Teng, AMC.

Based on the 2018 census, New Zealand has over 700,000 Asian immigrants, with over 72,000 of them being Filipinos.

Garcia is considered as a trailblazer in the Filipino community, paving the way for the next generation of Kiwi-Filipinos to pursue their dreams of serving their adopted country and taking on more leadership roles to represent their group.

He articulated, “I hope we’ll see that there are opportunities to break the glass ceiling – to break the things that hold us back… I hope that there will be a long line of Filipino members of the Parliament. New Zealanders of Filipino descent Members of Parliament over time."

"I don’t think it’s a dream to imagine that there might be a New Zealand of Filipino descent who could aspire to be Prime Minister in the future, and what we’ve done in this cycle, hopefully, could be one of the stepping stones for that."

Garcia is grateful to New Lynn and the Filipino community in New Zealand for their support throughout the campaign. Over the next three years, he will be advocating for policies that empower families and ensure that the voices and stories of immigrants are heard.

Accompanying Paulo Garcia to the halls of the 54th New Zealand Parliament are seven MPs of Asian heritage:

  • Carlos Cheung
  • Melissa Lee
  • Ayesha Verrall
  • Priyanca Radhakrishnan
  • Parmjeet Parmar
  • Golriz Ghahraman
  • Lan Pham

Trace director and polling expert, Dr. Andrew Zhu, believed that the inclusion of Kiwis with Asian descent speaks volumes on the growing Asian demographic in Aotearoa that could no longer be ignored.

In a text message statement, Zhu said, “As the demographics of the population evolve, Asian voters are gaining substantial influence over election outcomes. With the expanding of the Asian voter base, their inclination towards conservative ideologies is becoming increasingly evident.”

“It is crucial for any political party to recognise that holding prejudiced views towards Asians, referred to as Asiaphobia, would result in significant consequences in the General Election. Conversely, parties that embrace and respect the Asian community would likely garner support from this influential voter group," he continued. 

Paulo Garcia's re-election as a Member of Parliament marks a defining moment for diversity in New Zealand's government. Rising from immigrant lawyer to lawmaker, his story is a beacon for Asian immigrants in the country, signifying a shift toward inclusivity in leadership. His success, along with other MPs of Asian descent, signals New Zealand's embrace of a more varied and representative future in politics.

-Asia Media Centre