Opinion & Analysis

NZ-Asian political representation in MMP history

New Zealand’s MMP electoral system is 25 years old this year. Kate McMillan takes a look back at the effect MMP has had on levels of Asian political representation in New Zealand, the characteristics of New Zealand’s Asian MPs to date, and how the parliamentary representation of New Zealand’s Asian communities might change in the next few years.

ANALYSIS: This year marks 25 years since New Zealand held its first election under the Mixed Member Proportional electoral system (MMP). Not coincidentally, it is also 25 years since the first New Zealand Chinese MP, Hon Pansy Wong, was elected to Parliament.

Indeed, Ms Wong, who served as a National Party MP between 1996-2011, was New Zealand’s first MP from any of the diverse national and ethnic groups that make up the ‘Asian’ population of New Zealand. Another 17 MPs identifying with an Asian ethnicity have since entered parliament.

Pansy Wong, New Zealand's first MP of Asian ethnicity.

When the Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended in 1986 that New Zealand adopt MMP, one reason they did so was their belief that democracies should allow the interests of previously under-represented groups such as women and ethnic minorities to be heard and seen in parliament.  MMP, they thought, would help increase female and ethnic representation, and make parties, candidates and MPs more responsive to minorities’ interests.  

Experiences over the past 25 years have proved the Royal Commission correct. The number of women and ethnic minority MPs, including those from Asian communities, has increased steadily since MMP’s introduction.

At the last election, an almost equal number of women and men were elected (48 percent and 52 percent respectively), and the proportion of MPs identifying as Pasifika (9.1 percent) or Māori (19 percent) was greater than those groups’ proportion of the total population (8.1 percent and 16.5 percent respectively).

Asian New Zealanders, however, remain under-represented on a per-capita basis. Only 6 percent of current parliamentarians identify as Asian, compared with 15.1 percent of the total New Zealand population.

Demographic factors help explain some of the gap between Asian representation and that of New Zealand’s other major ethnic groups.

MPs following the 2020 elections. Since MMP was introduced, representation of ethnic minorities has increased.

The relatively recent arrival of many Asian New Zealanders has likely had significant effects on these communities’ electoral turnout: it is common for immigrants to take a few years to settle in to a country before engaging with its electoral system. In 2018 over half of Asian New Zealanders had been in the country for less than ten years, and available data suggests voter turnout among some Asian communities in New Zealand is significantly lower than that among other ethnic groups. Low rates of voting, in turn, might affect political parties’ willingness to supply minority candidates for winnable seats or places on party lists.

In addition, generational, ethnic and national origin differences within and between various Asian communities means they are unlikely to vote as a bloc, reducing political parties’ certainty that if they stood an Asian candidate he or she would attract widespread support among Asian voters.

Some of these demographic factors are reflected in the characteristics of New Zealand’s  Asian MPs. In 2018, 77 percent of Asian New Zealanders were born overseas;  all but one (current Labour MP Ayesha Verrall) of the 18 Asian MPs elected since 1996 have also been immigrants.

Labour MP Ayesha Verrall

Asian MPs’ countries of origin or ancestry – China, India, Korea (via Singapore), Iran, the Maldives, Pakistan, Fiji, Indonesia (via the Netherlands), Sri Lanka and the Philippines – reflect the diversity of recent Asian immigration, but the majority have come from China (5) or India (6), the two largest source countries of New Zealand’s Asian migrants. And, although Asian MPs have been concentrated in the Labour (9) and National (6) caucuses, New Zealand First, ACT and the Green Party have each also included an Asian caucus member during the MMP era. To date there is no discernable electoral alignment between particular parties and whole Asian communities.

Patterns of representation among New Zealand’s Asian communities are, however, likely to change in the coming decades.

Early signs of such changes were evident in 2020 when Indian-born Labour candidate Guarav Sharma won Hamilton West and Sri Lankan-born Labour candidate  Vanushi Walters won Upper Harbour; the first Asian MPs to win electorate seats since Pansy Wong won Botany in 2008.

This suggests a process of ‘normalisation’ of Asian representation is occurring, similar to that which saw increases in female and Pasifika representation under MMP occur initially primarily through the party lists, but over time, as the presence of women and Pasifika in parliament became accepted, through electorates.

The next few years will also see a greater proportion of the Asian population resident here for more than ten years, alongside a growth in the New Zealand-born Asian populations. Both factors are likely to increase rates of voting among Asian New Zealanders and thus the clout of the Asian electorate.

As New Zealand's population grows, voting rates of Asian New Zealanders are likely to increase.

The number of New Zealand-born Asian candidates winning seats in Parliament will also increase, another early sign of which was seen with Ayesha Verrall’s election in 2020. 

Further factors influencing Asian representation may arise from any changes that come out of the review of electoral law announced by the Government last week.

A change away from MMP is not on the table, but party funding rules and a reduction in the party vote threshold all are; any tightening of the first may reduce the electoral strength of the Asian electorate, while the latter has some small potential to increase it.

We are also yet to see what levels of migration will look like following the Government’s immigration policy reset. If the pre-Covid pattern of high rates of temporary migration from Asia returns, Asian under-representation is likely to endure as the population will  continue to include a large proportion of recent immigrants, and in contrast to the experiences of earlier generations of migrants, many will not be on resident visas, and will thus be ineligible to vote.

Dr Kate McMillan is an Associate Professor in Comparative Politics and the Head of Programme for Political Science and International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington.

- Asia Media Centre