Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On The 'New Zealand People's Party' - Misconceptions And Projections

Earlier this week a number of media outlets started running stories about something called the "New Zealand People's Party" - a new electoral vehicle apparently set up by members of the Indian and Chinese communities in a bid to ensure better representation for those communities' interests in our politics.

The launch in and of itself was not necessarily significant. Every electoral cycle, a bold group of political newcomers gather the gumption to put their money and mana where their collective mouth is, and attempt to set up a successful political party in an attempt to break into Parliament. They rarely experience significant success, and almost inevitably flame-out shortly after their first General Election. I should know - I was part of one once, back in 2008.

But what interested me about the New Zealand People's Party in its first week of above-ground, public existence is twofold. First up, the widespread inaccuracies in reporting on the Party (particularly in its context in NZ politics); and second, the potential implications which it might have in the Mt Roskill By-Election contest presumably coming up later this year. Unless the NZPP have some truly gifted people running their media outreach, that last factor's presumably why they've netted such initial newscycle attention. That, and a heaping helping of opprobium from inveterate immigration-skeptic Winston Peters.

We'll start with the inaccuracies.

Newshub framed the NZPP as being "New Zealand's first political party dedicated to immigrants".

This is obviously and demonstrably false. There have been a litany of previous attempts at catering to the electoral territory Newshub thinks the NZPP is aiming at, including the "Ethnic Minority Party" and "Asia Pacific United Party" from the 1996 Election (which scored 0.12% and 0.02% of the vote respectively, before both eventually folding into what would become United Future - a party which itself seems to be kept running merely by cannibalizing the carrion wreckage of others); the New Zealand Pacific Party set up by disgraced ex-Labour MP Taito Philip Field in 2008 (and which went from arguable representation in Parliament once Field was cast out of Labour through to a below-marginal 0.37% of the vote the same year); and the New Citizens Party founded in 2010 (which garnered some notoriety for holding its first official meeting in Beijing, before eventually folding into the Conservative Party for the 2011 Election).

Now, perhaps the seriously insignificant electoral results of almost all of these parties may go some ways towards explaining why none of them are overtly remembered today. But the fact remains that media claims that what the NZPP is attempting is somehow entirely novel, are provably fallacious.

Moving on to the next curmudgeonly claimant, Winston Peters is predictably annoyed about migrant communities attempting to secure their own political representation rather than going through more established (indigenous) electoral vehicles. Is he right to be up in arms about this? Reasonable minds may differ. But I did note with interest that Winston had categorized the NZPP as an "ethnic-based" organization - and then went on to state that such a thing (an ethnic-based party, presumably) would be "extraordinary" in Asia.

Pleading "equivalency" is a standard rhetorical trope in the Winston Peters Political Speechmaking Toolbox, and you will habitually see him trot it out whenever he takes a possibly controversial position on immigration-related issues. It usually goes something like "no country in Asia would tolerate what we've allowed to happen here with immigration". And he's quite often right.

But not in this instance. I did a short sit-down research session this afternoon, and was able to turn up numerous instances of what you might term "ethnic-based parties" occupying elected office in countries across Asia.

The best example of this is unquestionably UMNO (the United Malays National Organization), which in addition to being an explicitly ethnic-Malay party, has also provided all six of Malaysia's post-independence Prime Ministers. Other parties from Malaysia which would fit the bill include electoral organizations dedicated to the representation of Indian, Chinese, and Bumiputera peoples. And while Malaysia may be something of an extreme example, it's not too hard to find other instances of ethnic parties vying (often quite successfully) for election in other Asian polities. Taiwan has a (successfully elected) 'First Nations' party dedicated to the representation of its indigenous people. Nepal has a 'Mongol Party' set up to provide a counterweight to the 'Aryan' population of much of the rest of Nepal for more 'Asiatic' denizens of same. Japan has an admittedly electorally unsuccessful Ainu Party dedicated towards the representation of that eponymous ethnic group.

Now to be fair to Winston, there are a number of Asian polities which seem to lack substantive 'ethnic-based' political parties. Perhaps it is because they are more ethnically homogenous than countries like New Zealand or Malaysia. Maybe it's because - like the People's Republic of China - some of them are functionally either One Party States or particularly repressive by Western standards. (although it's worth noting that a number of the smaller political parties which are allowed to exist within the People's Republic of China are actually comprised of migrants or migrant communities - albeit, again to be fair, of Chinese flavourings such as the Diaspora or Taiwanese expats)

You could also look further afield to the United Kingdom and note the number of arguably ethnically based organizations in operation there. The Scottish National Party, for instance, or Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein.

It would be interesting to speculate as to why some states with which we share either a modicum of geographic or historical coterminity with appear to have 'ethnic-based' parties, while others do not - but that is sadly beyond the scope and realms of this piece.

In the mean-time, suffice to say that a comparison between the decidedly multi-ethnic state of New Zealand with some of the more ethnically monolithic countries of Asia ... is perhaps somewhat misleading.

Although lest anyone accuse Winston of an especial case of 'Xenophobia' or racism in this instance, it is worth pointing out that this opposition to 'ethnically-based' politics is something which he equally applies to his *own* people as well.

Still, the overt characterization of the NZPP as an 'ethnic' organization is additionally troubling to me. Except in the mind of the most ardent and blinkered orientalist, it would be extraordinarily difficult to regard Chinese and Indians as belonging to a single and unitary ethnic group. I would also be inordinately surprised to find out that their Party Constitution enshrined any especial barriers to entry or membership for persons who either weren't migrants (which would de facto rule out members of the Indian etc. communities who were born here in New Zealand), or who weren't from the communities who have provided the initial impetus for the NZPP's setup. Even the Maori Party has recognized that it is difficult if not impossible to maintain a viable political vehicle while barring persons not of its initial targeted group. And while the NZPP presumably does intend to target its own 'home' territory of ethnic communities rather vigorously, simply campaigning to a community does not necessarily make one's party an exclusive preserve for same - otherwise the ACT Party with its Chinese-language billboards would be in the same boat.

Which means, when all taken together, that as soon as we stop simply deriding these newcomers as merely an "ethnically-based party", we suddenly find ourselves confronted with legitimate and interesting questions as to what they actually represent and how they intend to reach out to the electorate in order to construct a support-base. This also feeds into later questions as to what their (arguable) electoral impact (or otherwise) might conceivably be.

The main piece of information that we have to go on thus far is that the NZPP intends to put a heavy focus upon law and order policy. This is eminently unsurprising. Many of the small shops which have been targeted in the recent cigarette-driven crime-wave of robberies and standovers have been Indian or Chinese-owned. These shopkeepers have for a long time been fundamentally fed up by alleged intransigence from both police and politicians in actually tackling the issue head-on. Some of these aggrieved citizens have taken the law into their own hands as a protective measure; while others, evidently, have attempted to pursue the alternative root of taking the lawMAKING into their own hands instead.

Considering many of the extant-political parties (and National in particular) are perceived as letting these people down, it is not hard to understand why sitting on the sidelines and supporting other vehicles has now been deemed to be an inadequate non-solution by some in these communities. And can we really fault citizens for wishing to get directly involved in the political process when those who are already ensconced within it appear to be doing such a sub-standard job.

In any case, and turning our attention more directly (if tangentially) to the Mt. Roskill By-Election, some have said that the likely impact of the NZPP will be to take votes off National.

The logic customarily advanced for these claims appears to be that i) it'll draw Chinese support away from the National Party while also serving to somewhat stymie ongoing National efforts to build linkages with the Indian Communities; while ii) the 'class interest' of 'small businessmen' (which appears to be something that the NZPP wants to fairly directly represent) may also be redirected away from National to a better representative.

But I'm not so sure. Migrant communities have often appeared to be at least as responsive to personal linkages and community embedding as they are overt propaganda or political communication campaigns. National has certainly done an improving job of building both with migrant communities (as we can see from the increased number of Indians and Chinese MPs in National's Caucus); but Labour has long held a considerable advantage in this area. In Mt. Roskill, it could certainly count against Labour - with its comparatively fresh-faced (although highly competent) new candidate - rather than against the relatively more established (Indian) National List MP who also calls the electorate home.

Further, it is questionable whether your average dairy, convenience shop or liquor store owner is actually a National voter - or even on an economic threshold comparable with what we customarily think of when we talk of 'small business owners'. They are what earlier Marxists would presumably refer to as the "Petite Bourgeois" - and thus, in many respects, will have much more in common with the middle-middle-class (or even less economically well off than that) voters whom Labour's done such a good job of representing previously (if not necessarily courting presently).

So all things considered, there are many questionable- and outright mis- conceptions floating around about the New Zealand People's Party. Some of these are the result of the evident paucity of information about them presently in circulation. Others are the direct consequence of various parties seeking to deliberately sensationalize and grand-stand about a potential future (minor) electoral player.

Will the NZPP have a substantial impact at next year's General Election? I would rather doubt it.

But might they have a substantive part to play in a by-election in Mt. Roskill? Here, the odds are stronger.

I highly rate Michael Wood's competency; but Roskill is no longer what you could call a 'safe' Labour seat. At the last Election, National actually beat Labour for Party Vote there by more than two thousand (Labour's share of the party vote sank by more than eight percent). Even a first-time candidate like National's Parmar was able to poll a not entirely unrespectable ten and a half thousand against a veteran MP like Phil Goff.

Phrased another way, the NZPP may yet add a tenuous tablespoon of political instability to the Mt Roskill campaign, provided it is actually able to get its act together and mount serious electoral efforts sufficient to bring in at least a few hundred votes behind whomever it chooses as its presumptive candidate.

Do I see the New Zealand People's Party as being a good idea? Questionable.

But I have something of a soft spot for small-but-insurgent start-up minor parties. So I'll certainly be watching their unfolding fortunes with a great deal and degree of interest.

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