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Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.
Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.

OPINIONPoliticsOctober 16, 2023

For Pacific voters, there was no good option

Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.
Chris Hipkins on a walkabout at the Ōtara markets, August 2023.

When New Zealanders become disillusioned with one political party, they turn to another. Where will Labour’s Pacific voters turn?

By the time October 14 rolled around, thousands of voters were sick of Labour (and to a far lesser extent, National) and voted to show it. Those who felt Labour wasn’t progressive enough, particularly on climate and tax, shuffled left to the Greens. Those who felt more needed to be done to lessen inequities for Māori found a home with Te Pāti Māori. On the other side, National’s more conservative supporters stepped over to Act and NZ First.

As a result of all this movement, the electorate races on Saturday night were thrilling and impossible to predict. Auckland Labour strongholds like Mt Roskill and New Lynn flipped to National. Wellington Labour seats Rongotai and Wellington Central went the other way, to the Greens. In the Māori electorates, Te Pāti Māori upset three sitting Labour MPs and even National lost its stronghold seat of Tāmaki to Act. As was uttered ad nauseam on the night, there was a mood for change.

The only electorates that stayed solid red amid all of Labour’s turmoil were the Pacific electorates: Māngere, Mana, Manurewa and Panmure-Ōtāhuhu, and to a lesser extent, Kelston.

At first glance, it looks like Labour has kept its overwhelming Pacific support – support it’s had for generations. But look closer and it becomes clear that rather than losing votes in those electorates to the opposition this year, Labour is losing Pacific votes to… no one.

Turnout was down everywhere, but particularly in strong Pacific electorates (Image: Tina Tiller)

The turnout

Turnout overall is down this year from 2020 (78.4% expected, against a record high of 82.2%). But turnout was particularly bad in the strong Pacific electorates.

Take Māngere, which dropped from a total of 32,000 votes cast in 2020 to 19,000 this year, before special votes. Māngere had one of, if not the, biggest winning margins for Labour in 2020, with 77.4% of the party vote.

In 2023, the party vote totals for National (3,500) and the Greens (1,500) in Māngere are consistent with previous elections, but Labour’s has plummeted from 24,000 in 2020 to 12,000 on Saturday. In other words, every lost vote in Māngere this election was a Labour vote.

In Panmure-Ōtāhuhu, it’s an eerily similar story. Jenny Salesa held the seat for Labour after a landslide win in 2020. She won by a large margin again this year, even with Fa’anānā Efeso Collins running as the Green candidate, but Labour’s party vote plummeted almost identically to Māngere.

With turnout down about 12,000 and National and Green holding their (small) party vote share steady, Labour’s party vote in Panmure-Ōtāhuhu dropped from 23,000 to just under 11,000.

Jacinda Ardern with the ie tōga, part of the ifoga process, during the dawn raids apology ceremony in 2021. (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

The Labour withdrawal

There are a number of factors that could explain the Pacific community’s withdrawal from Labour. One would be the fact that despite plenty of niceties and good intentions, Pacific women still sit stubbornly at the bottom end of the ethnic pay gap. One would be the three years of Covid restrictions when huge portions of South Auckland toiled as “essential workers” in low wage jobs on the frontlines (border security, supermarket workers etc), bore the brunt of early outbreaks, then rallied exceptionally hard to vaccinate their at-times reticent fanau in order to protect the wider community – all for nothing to change for low-income workers once normality resumed.

Or perhaps it would be the dawn raids apology in 2021, so meticulously orchestrated and so graciously received by Pacific elders, only for there to be no tangible action, and a return to those very dawn raid tactics shortly after.

It’s evident that many Pacific voters who had previously and consistently voted Labour were disillusioned enough this year to not vote for them again, even if that meant not voting at all.

The Pacific void

Why not just vote for another party? Well, there’s not much to choose from. Courting the Pacific vote isn’t a case of dressing up your Palagi approach in some colourful clothing, saying talofa and calling it a day. At the very least, having Pacific MPs helps.

After the 2020 election, Labour – thanks to its huge caucus – had a record 12 Pacific MPs. The Greens had one, while National and Act had none.

Pacific Peoples Minister Aupito William Sio in 2019. (Photo: Supplied)

But it’s not just about representation. Many Pacific communities have deep religious foundations. Economically there may be alignment with Labour or the Greens, but socially, National would be the party for many Pacific voters. It’s what made Aupito William Sio such an important MP both for the Pacific community and for New Zealand. Sio represented his electorate to the letter when it came to conscience votes in the house. He voted as his constituents requested, so he voted against gay marriage in 2013 (despite it being his fellow Labour MP’s bill) and against the end of life choice bill in 2020.

He spoke at the time about how he was voting simply as the voice of his electorate, which I (and not many other queer people) respect. He also spoke about how it was his job to offer different perspectives to his community and encourage more understanding within very religious cultures. In 2020 he voted in favour of decriminalising abortion and in his valedictory speech this year, spoke passionately about how important it was for young Pacific people to feel safe and proud expressing their gender and sexuality.

Sio was an MP in Māngere for 15 years. These are not short-term commitments to growth and relationship-building. Jenny Salesa, Barbara Edmonds and Carmel Sepuloni (who all retained their seats) have been working to build these same connections but they are personal connections more than party ones. It would take a dedicated effort from Labour to keep Pacific MPs in caucus, even in opposition – a number of Pacific MPs are out of parliament after Saturday’s result due to their list placing. It would also require an awareness that no vote is a given, especially when you neglect or undermine a community over and over.

The Pacific political future

The low turnout is a worry, but luckily for Labour there is little competition for the Pacific vote elsewhere. National elected its first Pacific female MP, Agnes Loheni, in 2019 but are looking unlikely to have any in government. Angee Nicholas is young and may yet upset Phil Twyford in Te Atatū, so she would be the lone representative. She spoke to Pacific Media Network about how National wouldn’t offer policies specifically for the Pacific community and that that was a good thing.

Act has promised to abolish the Ministry for Pacific Peoples so that’s all that needs to be said about their interest in the Pacific vote.

Then there’s the Greens. With the Pacific population the fastest-growing in New Zealand and more than half of that population under 25, the Greens are in prime position to welcome Pacific voters with open arms and present their climate and wealth inequality policies. There would inevitably be hurdles for the more conservative Pacific voters to shift allegiance to a minor, progressive party, but stranger things have happened. Collins is in on the list this term, alongside Teanau Tuiono, and will have time to connect more with his electorate ahead of what will surely be a big electorate seat campaign in 2026. With a larger but still deeply engaged team, the Greens and the Pacific voters of tomorrow just might work, if they could only convince them to enrol.

Three years ago, no one would have imagined the Pacific vote ever leaving Labour, but the sheer lack of votes at all from those electorates this election suggests that enduring bond is waning and no one else is filling the gap. Sometimes a vote for change looks like not voting at all.

Update: This piece was updated on October 17 to reflect that National may in fact have no Pacific MPs in government, not two as previously stated.

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