Chinese and Indian communities are not just angry over the phone call in which the leader of the National Party and a colleague dispassionately weighed up the relative “value” of MPs, they are frustrated over their lack of political representation in Parliament, writes Thomas Coughlan.

The issue of how ethnic communities are represented in our Parliament has been thrust into the spotlight after the release of the recorded phone call in which disgraced MP Jami-Lee Ross and National leader Simon Bridges compared how “valuable” Chinese and Indian MPs were to the party.

It has sparked questions over whether Chinese and Indian MPs are more representative of powerful business interests than the concerns of their communities, and whether ethnic communities are getting true representation from list MPs in Parliament.

“We’re not just walking moneybags”

Sandeep Singh, editor of The Indian Weekender told Newsroom the Indian community was incredibly disappointed by the comments.

“The brazenness with which two politicians at such a high level, even if within their private conversation, they are saying ‘two Chinese MPs are better than two Indian MPs’. It belittles the whole Indian diaspora,” he said. 

Manying Ip, a Professor at Auckland University’s School of South Asian Studies, said the tone of the conversation was “disturbing and disgusting”. 

Ip said the comments showed how little progress had been made in the representations of MPs from ethnic minority communities. 

“Ethnic communities are not buying into it — we can see what is being done,” Ip said. 

MMP — a leg up? 

Both Singh and Ip questioned the role of MMP in boosting minority representation in Parliament. 

Ip said it had unquestionably boosted the representation of ethnic minorities in New Zealand politics, as they were were unlikely to be able to win an electorate seat on their own.

 “MMP has given some hope to ethnic minorities because otherwise how do we get a constituent seat?”

But boosting minority representation on party lists has also had the effect of pigeonholing MPs, she said. And list MPs loyalties lay with their party first and constituencies second, making them less likely to speak out on issues their communities wanted raised — including those that might be awkward for the party. 

“List MPs will never feel they have the backing of a constituent seat because they’re not elected on their own right,” she said. 

Singh agreed.    

“It’s a problem with the MMP system.”

“List MPs are always seen as political appointees who have political risk to stand up for the community,” he said. 

“They don’t have to survive on the political capital of their ethnic communities.”

Singh noted that the National Party’s two Indian MPs Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi and Parmjeet Parmar had not responded strongly to the comments from Ross and Bridges, perhaps reveaing loyalty to party above their communities. 

Both Singh and Ip said minority MPs needed to be trusted with safe, winnable electorate seats.

Diversity in Parliament not translating into diversity of opinion

Singh said the Indian community, like many ethnic communities, tended to vote with the governing party.

“They used to be National, but the community is getting slightly more aligned with Labour now, which is a shame — it should be more issues based,” he said.

“They need to align themselves with someone in power so that their needs and aspirations can be well represented and supported by the government,” he said. 

Independent China Researcher Daisy Lee said this was of particular concern to the Chinese diaspora. Candidates favoured as list MPs tended to be business people with strong connections to the Chinese Communist Party or CCP, she said.

“I feel most Chinese don’t think Chinese business donors represent them,” she said. 

The scandal involving National MP Jian Yang, who Newsroom revealed as being close to the Chinese Communist Party, angered many Chinese voters. Many Chinese New Zealanders had emigrated to escape the CCP and it was disturbing to see it gain influence in New Zealand, Lee said.

List MPs represent everyone

National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi told Newsroom being a list MP allowed him to represent Indian communities across the country, rather than just one electorate. 

“My way of working isn’t just in Manukau East, I represent the community all over New Zealand,” Bakshi said. 

He said he planned to celebrate Diwali in Ashburton, rather than Manukau East, the electorate seat he contests.

Parmjeet Dhatt, Vice-President of the Indonats, National’s Indian community group, said the group had “no issues” with the tape of the phone call, adding the group’s concerns were mainly with Ross’ disloyalty.

“People do a lot of things behind closed doors,” he said.  

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