Representing Pacific communities

I recently read an article by Anae Arthur Anae, National’s first Pacific Island MP. While it was written about 8 years ago, many of his points strike a chord when thinking about political representation of ethnic communities now.

  • He talks about his surprise, as National’s candidate for Auckland Central in 1993, that Pacific people in the seat voted along class and historic lines, rather than for a Pacific Island candidate.
  • As a list MP from 1996-1999 he struggled with the challenges of representing the PI community – geographically spread the length of the county, linguistically and culturally diverse.
  • His attempts to build cross-party forums with other PI MPs
  • The challenge to get Pacific issues understood and prioritised within a party focussed on the “economic situation”
  • The PI communities’ disappointment when National dropped him from 19 to 25 of the list “to make sure that the new intake was representative”

Anae tried to represent every Pacific Islander, whether they voted National or not, whether they were Samoan or not, even if they only thing they shared with him was Pacific heritage. At the same time he represented every National voter, everyone who shared his moral views, not to mention everyone in his neighbourhood.

We ask so much of our MPs, we ask them to represent every single one of us, to empathise with us, to understand us, to know where we come from, to be like us.

We also ask a lot of our ethnic communities, we ask them to speak with a single voice, have a homogenous world view, and choose a single representative. The Pakeha community is not homogenous, we are full of dissent, disagreement and diversity. We are represented by many people with differing views and voting histories. Why should we expect the PI community to be any different?

Perhaps the answer is that we are all multi-faceted and we are each represented by a number of different MPs, as a Karori-ite I have Grant Robertson, but as a disabled person a different MP represents my voice better, as a woman maybe some different people again, as a Pakeha there are a whole bunch of people like me in Parliament, and so on.

Maybe that is how we need to see the PI electorate: multi-faceted individuals, families and communities represented by a wide range of MPs.

And Pacific MPs? They represent one facet of a number of PI voters, they represent another facet from a different (and probably overlapping) group, and so on. They don’t speak for all Pacific people all of the time, sometimes they speak for another group, sometimes they speak for themselves. By the same token, Pakeha MPs carry the responsibility of representing some of the aspirations or challenges of Pacific people.

I will leave the final words to Anae

I have learned that despite being a Pacific person and having the desire, energy and vision to effect change for Pacific peoples, this cannot be acheived alone.

Taken from Tangata o te Moana Nui: The evolving identities of Pacific Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand

2 thoughts on “Representing Pacific communities

  1. I agree with everything you say here Anita. That’s why I get very uncomfortable when a political party says “Look, we have a PI candidate! That means you can tick the box that says ‘represents PIs’. And look here, an Asian one…” (which of course overlooks the fact that “Asian” covers a multitude of cultures and races).

    If parties were truly concerned with being representative they would take every opportunity to consult with, listen to, and implement the wishes of the electorate throughout their term. But of course they spend a great deal of their time and our money avoiding precisely that while maintaining a pretence of “consultation”.

    The parties are understandably terrified of this – they pursue government to gain themselves three years of rule by virtual fiat. When I was Director of the NZ Electronic Electoral Trial in 1999 all the parties then in Parliament gave cautious support to the idea of a trial of e-voting. That was until I was naive enough to publicly point out that such technology, if robust and accurate enough to run elections, would permit low-cost, easily accessible referenda and move NZ closer to the direct democracy model of, say Switzerland. Support vanished overnight.

    But a move toward a more direct form of democracy (however it’s achieved) would relieve someone like Anae of the impossible burden of supposedly representing every person of similar ethnicity – a expectation which is surely a recipe for failure – as well as other advantages, many obvious, some not so, too numerous to enumerate here.

  2. Rex,

    Yes yes yes yes yes! And yes you should write that list of advantages! :)

    But, and with this sentence I possible disagree with myself. While the get a PI MP, tick that box approach to inclusion is completely bogus, so is ignoring sectors of the population.

    When a party’s caucus is not roughly in proportion with the population it tells us something. When a large caucus is only 25% women, or has no PI MPs, or contains only wealthy people, or no parents, or all Christians, or only environmentalists, it tells us something about that party and which parts of NZ they choose to represent. That’s not good or bad, it’s simply tells us something about the party.

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