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Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges. Photo: Facebook
Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges. Photo: Facebook

PoliticsOctober 18, 2018

Ross and Bridges just told us what NZ political leaders really think about Asian MPs

Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges. Photo: Facebook
Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges. Photo: Facebook

The casual ethnic calculations of National leader Simon Bridges and the rebel MP Jami-Lee Ross are just the latest example of the marginalisation of Kiwi Asian voices in our politics, writes Sudhvir Singh

One of the many spectacular revelations from the National Party saga this week is the shameful and tokenistic way Jami-Lee Ross and Simon Bridges apparently regard potential Asian-New Zealander members of parliament. In the secret recording released yesterday by Ross, the men are heard discussing simplistic quotas geared towards donations not merit. In doing so, they’re driving division among all of us.

In recent years we have seen improvements in the levels of Māori and women representation in parliament, even if there is much more to do, particularly to translate that into improved societal outcomes. Meanwhile, Kiwi Asians remain largely on the outside of our politics. The six MPs of Asian-New Zealand origin are seen to “tick off” incredibly diverse groups as homogenous entities, and then tend to parade themselves on narrow engagement within these communities – at the expense of broader and higher-level responsibilities.

The casual ethnic calculations of Bridges and Ross are the latest iteration of the historical marginalisation of Kiwi Asian voices in our politics. Being born here and growing up in the era of North & South’s “Asian Angst” , the Asian vote being treated as “money bags”, reinforced how Kiwi Asian perspectives were considered outside the norms of our society. This nauseating feeling of “otherness” returned upon listening to Bridges and Ross commodify the value of an Indian versus a Chinese. Our first Asian-New Zealander MP, Pansy Wong, remains the only Kiwi Asian to have become a Minister, in a country where over 12% of the population (and growing) identify with these ethnic groups. But beyond making those of us with Asian roots feel out of place, why is this a problem?

It’s problematic because it represents a missed opportunity to include more diverse and innovative voices in policy making. Spending time in Scandinavia recently has taught me what New Zealand can learn from strong government platforms, but also how much of a social and cultural advantage New Zealand has over competing economies by as a society being more diverse and outward looking. For years we thought we were on the edge of the planet, but we are actually well positioned in the Asia-Pacific engine room of the new global economy. Not having a range of Kiwi Asians – with their insights, ideas and connections from the region blended with New Zealand identity – well represented in our politics means we aren’t capitalising on our advantage.

It’s also problematic because, without representation, the disconnection of a substantial proportion of our population from our broader society is reinforced. From working in our health system, it’s clear that Asian whanau are not well served by the system and lack advocates for engagement. For example, in the already fragile space of mental health, a study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal last year concluded “mental health problems of ethnic minorities, especially Pacific and Asian peoples, are more likely to be ‘missed’, while those of Europeans are more likely to be ‘hit’.” Such unequal outcomes, blended with the negative and simplistic rhetoric around Kiwi Asians such as exposed in this Bridges-Ross call, can breed an identity of “otherness” that is hard to shake off and can reinforce division. We should learn from how divisive rhetoric in Europe has actually made integration harder, and not fall for the same trap.

Perhaps of most concern, it’s problematic because the political engagement we do have with Kiwi-Asian communities is laced with mutual financial interest from often recently arrived and wealthy immigrants, often with strong connections to politics in their home countries, as the current saga exposes. Our parties choose to chase donations whilst in turn providing opportunities for outside influence. Those being solicited for “easy” money may have significant vested interests that they would like addressed in our policymaking. These interests may not only be from corporate and financial perspectives but may also extend to influencing policy relevant to foreign interests. Given the tensions in current geopolitical affairs, it would be beneficial to have more robust engagement with an entire community grounded in New Zealand, rather than a small selection of wealthy potential donors.

The dismissive tone between Bridges and Ross about Chinese, Filipino and Indian MPs is the latest example of the tokenistic approach New Zealand politics has to Asian New Zealanders. Through this, we miss out on opportunities for more diverse input into our politics, build barriers to integration, and paradoxically, expose ourselves to the potential for foreign influence over our lawmaking. It’s time for all sides of politics, and key community leaders, to stop reducing Asian New Zealander engagement in our politics to a token exercise of fundraising and instead seize the opportunity for a more mature and comprehensive engagement with these communities. It is time for our politics to reflect all of New Zealand, celebrating our rich diversity and all we have in common.

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