How can political parties woo the largely untargeted, 300,000 Asian New Zealand voters?
Chinese opera, like most performing arts, loses something without its staging, costume and cast. So it's no surprise that the lonely, unaccom-panied Chinese opera singer performing at the Chinese New Year celebrations in Parliament earlier this year was struggling to win over the politicians who had popped in for a quick chardonnay and spring roll.
It was obvious that they weren't enjoying it - but would saying so show them to be cultural ignoramuses? The safe choice, as always, was to clap and smile politely.
Such "cultural events" have become popular whistle-stops for political parties keen to woo the nearly 300,000 Asian New Zealanders of voting age. Not only is this a large group of voters, but it is largely untargeted, and often misunderstood.
What do they care about? According to research conducted by Shee-Jeong Park at Auckland University last year, the most important issues for Asian voters are the economy and law and order, but they vote in a similar pattern to the rest of the population, with a
preference for Labour (47 percent), followed by National (40 percent), and Act a distant third (six percent).
Steven Young, a prominent member of the Wellington Chinese community, explains the results: "First of all, if they come from China, they think the government party must be good, and the Opposition party must be criminals! The National philosophy has more appeal to the well-established Chinese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and so on. Labour's philosophy has more appeal to the mainland Chinese."
The Labour Party has traditionally been on good terms with New Zealand's oldest and, until recently, largest Asian community, the descendants of the Chinese goldminers who arrived in the 19th century. These "old Chinese" worked hard - but quietly - over the many decades to carve out a place for themselves in New Zealand, but are now struggling to cope with the new dynamics created by the arrival over the past two decades of Asian immigrants, who are mostly well-educated professionals and entrepreneurs.
This new generation of Chinese New Zealanders came to the fore in 1996, when National's Pansy Wong became "the first Asian member of Parliament". Labour redoubled its efforts to court the "ethnic communities", appointing a Minister of Ethnic Affairs in 1999, and giving a formal apology to the Chinese community over the Poll Tax imposed on the original Chinese migrants.
But although the Poll Tax apology was warmly greeted by the old generation, Wong was still the trump card for scoring votes with the new generation.
Labour tried to recruit its own "Asian MP", but struggled. Many in the old generation saw it as a token role that would make little real difference, while few in the new generation have had enough experience in New Zealand politics. In the end, Auckland businessman Steven Ching received the support of Chris Carter and found himself 42nd on the Labour list - the third highest non-sitting MP.
But Auckland University academic Man-ying Ip, warns against equating Asian MPs and candidates with community leaders, and is critical of political parties for using Asian candidates as "posterboys or postergirls" to get into the pockets of the Asian communities. "Some parties regard the Asian community as walking moneybags ... Honestly, I feel angry about some of [the candidates]. I think they do the community a great disservice."
Ching, for example, has been a very successful fund-raiser for Labour, as well as being a donor. This endeared him to the party hierarchy, but his list placement caused resentment among party members, who were less than impressed by his credentials as a
His selection turned sour when the Herald on Sunday reported in April that he failed to disclose a guilty plea for obstructing a fisheries officer in 2001, and alleged that he asked an acquaintance to lend him $50,000 after offering the acquaintance help to become a justice of the peace. Ching stood down from the party list pending an investigation into the claim. Last week, Labour's ruling council refused his plea for reinstatement. President Mike Williams said that nothing would change until police gave Ching the all-clear.
Ching's rise and rapid fall has been the cause of much chagrin within the Chinese community, but even before the scandals there was an obvious barrier to his becoming a parliamentary representative - he barely speaks English.
Language is a sensitive issue. People who don't speak fluent English need representation, too, maybe even more so, since they are less able to speak for themselves. But what good is a representative if they are unable to represent the views of their constituents?
Ching, when asked why he was standing for Labour, replies: "Basically, in New Zealand, there's always two different parties in Parliament. Either National Party or Labour Party. But, they have different policy. I think Labour Party is much better. They look after old people, poor people, rich people. Equal."
He didn't understand the meaning of the word "tokenism", but was able to explain Labour's strategy to get the Asian vote. "It's simple, because Labour, they select me as a candidate, that has already proved the Labour Party value the Asian community."
Act MP Kenneth Wang also speaks English as his second language, though his Act-speak is fluent: "From day one I landed in this country, I was attracted to Rogernomics"; "We hate crime. We're frustrated by police chasing traffic ..."
He also speaks with a heavy accent. "Of course that's a disadvantage," says Wang, "but I don't think that determines the ability to do the job, because I think that, fundamentally, people will look at who you are representing and the party you stand for." He cites Helen Clark, who scolded the Opposition for bullying George Hawkins over his speech impediment and wondered how Parliament would treat a hearing-impaired member.
But an accent is not as insignificant as it might seem. A National Party source says that it's unlikely that Pansy Wong will rise any further in the party because of concerns that her accent will alienate non-Asian voters. However, Wong is attempting to change their minds with her campaign for Auckland Central.
"I don't believe that ethnic minorities, once they acquire political nous and skill, should always be list MPs," she says. "We look different, maybe we speak English with an accent, but I would want to show people that, ultimately, the political party principle and value can be represented well by us."
The reason there aren't more Asian voices in public life, says Young, "is that people of my generation or a little younger don't even put themselves forward. The people born here have been traumatised so much that they don't want to put their head up. They've grown up when they had to keep ducking, or be invisible, so it needs another half generation for the people who don't feel [like] that to reach a certain age and maturity so they can express that."
Ip thinks that perhaps the Asian communities are not established enough to produce leaders. "In some ways, we can say the community - we ourselves - are responsible. We're not mature enough, we don't have enough people. Perhaps people who are really committed, really love the country, they may seek to serve in another way.
"Real political power does not fall from the sky. The Asian community's interest would be served only when the community is strong enough and cohesive enough. It is no good to have a token person put there for decoration, it's just misleading."
However, Ip is optimistic about the political future of the Asian communities: "She'll be right."