Opinion & Analysis

Time for NZ political parties to take the migrant vote seriously

OPINION: Gains in electorates with large populations of migrants may have tipped the election in National’s favour, Charles Finny writes.

Skykiwi election coverage (Photo: Screengrab/Skykiwi)

Election coverage on Chinese news website Skykiwi.com. (Credit: Screengrab/Skykiwi)

Backdrop: My observations out west

For the last few general elections I have taken a few days off to visit different parts of New Zealand to try and understand the thinking outside the “Wellington beltway”. In 2010, I spent four days in West Auckland, an area I did not know at all well. What struck me most was how many recent migrants had settled there and how “Chinese” it had become. 

This was very different to the experience one gets when walking down Auckland's Queen Street, where most of the Asian faces are tourists or students. These West Auckland residents were ethnic Chinese who had put down permanent roots in New Zealand. I knew that 10 percent of Auckland’s population was “Chinese”; I had thought this population was concentrated in electorates such as Botany. But this was now a big factor in West Auckland politics also.

On the last day of the Westie experience, I was introduced to a National Party candidate, Dr Jian Yang. He was teaching in the political science department at the University of Auckland. We talked about his academic background, about what he had done in China before leaving for Australia (where he completed his PhD at ANU), about the China-New Zealand relationship and about the Chinese Embassy and Consulate network in New Zealand. 

It was clear Dr Yang was very well-connected to the leadership of the Chinese communities in New Zealand, as well as to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China and its Auckland Consulate. He also had significant connections in China, both to government figures, and to the business community. This was the first of many meetings I have had with Dr Yang. We have met in his context as a MP, as a member of select committees and at social functions. We have travelled together to China and elsewhere as part of official delegations. It is my understanding that Dr Yang has become one of National’s most successful fundraisers, in much the same way Raymond Huo is important for the Labour Party's fundraising efforts.

Fast forward: Outcome of 2017

I have, since Saturday night, been studying the outcome of the 2017 election, and the swings that occurred between the different parties and where there were unexpected outcomes.

The one that took me most by surprise was the strong pro-National Party swing that occurred in New Lynn, Manukau East, Māngere, Te Atatu, Kelston, Mt Roskill and Upper Harbour. It was mirrored in Botany and Pakuranga. I believe this was the Chinese (and in the south, the Indian community also) community sending an interesting message.

Labour also made proportional gains in Auckland electorates, but the reduction in the minor party votes was enough to create an overall swing to National in some electorates.

Election 2017: The campaign

Immigration, and the right to buy existing homes, were a prominent part of the election campaign.

A year or so earlier, there was a controversy over the extent to which demand from investors and migrants, particularly Chinese, was responsible for the housing shortage. National came out consistently on the side of the Chinese. This could have been a big factor in influencing this pro-National swing.

But it was a strange campaign period, with political players employing various strategies. Among the twists and turns, a rather strange and well-coordinated analysis/investigation was undertaken and then reported by Newsroom and the Financial Times about the past of Dr Yang. Subsequent coverage has led to calls for Dr Yang’s resignation.

Now, I have been involved in politics long enough to know that there are few stories of substance to emerge in the middle of an election campaign by coincidence (particularly ones that are so thoroughly researched). This was a story suggested by someone who had an agenda of some sort  and the timing was intentional.

"How long it will be before we start to see a stronger political voice from the larger ethnic communities develop outside of the current political party structure?"

This election – and the last one – saw the strategies pursued by political players having unintended consequences. Did the political hit on Dr Yang have the desired impact? Judging from the vote in West Auckland, I think not.

Putting motivation to one side, this incident has demonstrated clearly the potential power of recent migrants in New Zealand politics.

And I suggest that in the future, it will encourage even greater political focus on recent migrants. Some politicians might seek to be more cautious when trying to find a scapegoat for a political or economic policy failure. Maybe others will be more active in courting that vote. 

I am sure we will see more “Asians” in Parliament over time. But I wonder: How long it will be before we start to see a stronger political voice from the larger ethnic communities develop outside of the current political party structure? 

Two hundred thousand votes would make you the third-biggest party in Parliament, with around 12 seats. 

Under MMP, that is potentially enormous leverage.


Views expressed in this article are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre