Analysis by Dr Bryce Edwards
Our House of Representatives has just become more diverse, and yet narrower at the same time. A record 40 new MPs have flooded into Parliament – with especially big intakes from the Labour and Act parties.
You can see some short profiles of the new MPs in Simon Collins’ article, Forty newcomers include our first African, Latin American and Sri Lankan MPs. Clearly, the intake has transformed the make-up of the Parliament, especially in terms of the varied identities and backgrounds of the new MPs. When looking at the overall makeup in terms of categories such as gender, ethnicity, age, and sexuality, the new Parliament is highly diverse.
Heightened concerns about the historic under-representation of certain groups has led to political parties and the public to elect some fresher faces. And yet, in some important ways the Parliament continues to become narrower – especially in terms of ideological views and socio-economics. It seems that the Parliament has become, on the one hand, more female, browner, and less straight; and on the other hand, more middle class and politically centrist.
Celebrating a modernised and diverse Parliament
For the best breakdown of the demographics of the new Parliament see David Farrar’s How does Parliament compare to the adult population. Farrar celebrates the fact that this parliament “is the most diverse one in history”, and emphasises that it’s “a good thing when Parliament looks like the people it represents.”
He compares the new Parliament with the overall adult population in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and sexuality, and comes up with some very interesting results. He challenges the conventional notion that minorities are still routinely under-represented: “People often assume that minority groups are automatically under-represented in Parliament. But in fact in New Zealand it is often the other way around.”
With regard to gender, he points out that women have gone from 41% of the Parliament to 48%, and this figure “is a higher proportion than any other country in the OECD. Sweden is at 47%.
In terms of ethnicity, Farrar says “Most over-represented are Pasifika who have 10% of MPs for 6% of adult pop and Maori who have 20% of MPs for 12% of adult population.” In contrast, “Asians are most under-represented with 5% of MPs for 15% of the adult population. Next are Europeans who are 65% of MPs and 67% of adults.”
In terms of sexual orientation, “11% of Parliament are ‘rainbow’ for 3.5% of the adult population”, while straight people are under-represented.
Parliament is no longer the province of the aged either, with those in their mid-40s being the most represented: “those in their 40’s have 38% of MPs for 18% of adult population”, while only 8% of the Parliament is in their 60s (compared to 22% of the population).
Sociologist Paul Spoonley has also looked at the figures, and draws attention to the fact that Māori representation has actually gone down, especially with the departure New Zealand First – see: Does the new Parliament look like us?. Similarly, he points to the departures of a number of Asian MPs, and says Chinese and Indian communities are now under-represented.
Spoonley suggests discrimination is still part of the democratic system, wondering “whether there is an ethnic penalty in operation. If minority ethnic and immigrant candidates are selected for electorate seats, do members of other ethnic groups (as voters) not see them as strong candidates?”
Of course, different political parties have contributed varying levels of diversity, and Spoonley has also been interviewed by the Herald’s Bernard Orsman who looks at these numbers, and concludes: Labour looks like contemporary New Zealand, National still male and pale.
The political left has contributed to greater diversity: “More than half of Labour’s 64 MPs are women, it has 15 Maori MPs, one in six MPs is Pasifika and it has a good mix of other ethnicities. The Greens’ caucus of 10 includes three Maori MPs, seven women, Iranian refugee Golriz Ghahraman and Latin American Ricardo Menendez.”
The political right has lost much of its diversity – especially due to National’s plummeting party vote: “National has just two Maori MPs – Simon Bridges and Shane Reti – in a caucus of 35, one Asian MP in Melissa Lee and 11 women. Otherwise, it is mostly made up of European males…. Act’s 10-strong caucus has three Maori MPs – David Seymour, Nicole McKee and Karen Chhour – and four women – Brooke van Velden, McKee, Chhour and Toni Severin.”
The increased number of “rainbow” MPs has been the most celebrated aspect of the diverse new Parliament, going from 7 to 11 “openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of the 120 members” – see Nikki Preston’s New Zealand overtakes the UK’s title for the gayest Parliament. At 9% of the Parliament, this is a world record, “bypassing the UK which holds the current title of the gayest Parliament with a 7 per cent representation.” But again, this demographic is skewed between parties: “About 40 per cent of the Green Party MPs are from the rainbow community”, while “Neither Act or National Party currently have any openly gay MPs in their parties.”
Highlighting a shortcoming in the new diverse Parliament, Henrietta Bollinger has written on the Spinoff website: “While I celebrate one element of my identity – my queer identity – so openly represented at the highest level of politics, that achievement draws my attention to the glaring absences in our supposedly representative democracy. Most obviously, it is my lack of representation as a disabled person” – see: All these new queer MPs are fantastic news. But where are their disabled peers?.
The new Parliament is also distinguished by a large number of immigrant MPs. The five new politicians are covered in Justin Latif’s Arrival of parliament’s new migrant MPs sparks rejoicing, and backlash. In this, there’s a particular focus on Green MP Ricardo Menendez-March, who had tweeted about his opposition to swearing allegiance to the Queen, and responded to hostile criticisms saying “I guess it is a sign that we have systemic racism and systemic homophobia that when someone like myself, who’s a queer Latino, tries to have a nuanced conversation [about constitutional reform], people immediately to shut me down.”
The Pacifica caucus in Parliament is now a record 11, which involves ten from Labour and one from the Greens (National lost two Pacifica MPs). This is leading to very high expectations that these MPs and the Labour Government will deliver real reforms for those suffering at the bottom of the heap – see Torika Tokalau’s Expectations high after record number of Pasifika MPs elected into Parliament.
In this article, Pacific health expert Dr Collin Tukuitonga points to what areas need to be addressed for these voters: “inequalities in health, education, affordable housing, safe and warm homes and employment.” AUT lecturer Richard Pamatatau seems pessimistic about their abilities to achieve this, saying “I’d argue it’s going to be harder for them to have a voice when there are others with more voice.”
Pacifica journalist Teuila Fuatai has argued “For Pasifika, Labour’s willingness to embrace bold change in the next three years is particularly critical” and in this regard, looking back “it’s been a pretty disappointing three years” – see: After a disappointing 3 years, it’s delivery time (paywalled). She points for the need for change in benefit rates, tax, and housing affordability.
Writer Emmaline Pickering-Martin says she is “cautiously optimistic” that the Pacifica MPs will be able to help deliver such things, but strong pressure has to be applied so that the new MPs don’t cop out with lines like “I’m new, it’s not my place yet” – see: No time to be humble. More generally, she asks “How do we ensure this increased representation will translate to real and meaningful change for our Pacific communities?”
Less social class and occupational diversity
As usual there has been little focus on the overall socio-economic, class or occupational backgrounds of the new Parliament.
Although the research is not out yet, the professionalisation of politics appears to have continued, with more MPs coming out of professional occupational backgrounds and reduced representation from lower socio-economic or working class backgrounds.
There appears to have been a significant increase in politicians from law backgrounds. This is best discussed by RNZ’s Craig Stephen, who has found that “The Labour Party has the most legal professionals in its new caucus, 14, followed by National (four), and the Greens (two)” – see: Parliament still packed with lawyers – but is that a bad thing?. He says “No other profession comes close to supplying so many politicians.”
There is a good discussion of the merits of lawyers as politicians, with University of Auckland legal academic Tim Kuhner noting “that sometimes lawyers-turned-MPs can fail to grasp the historical, sociological, psychological, and other dimensions of policy issues, and instead focus purely on legal means to problem-solve.”
The rise of professionals and more middle class politicians in 2020 is possibly not very surprising given the absence of working class politics during the election campaign. Leftwing commentator Josie Pagani wrote about this at the time, saying “Working class voices are missing in our election. This is an election contested between an educated class more willing to compromise on tax than 100 per cent renewables, against the property-owning classes not willing to redistribute at all – ‘The haves versus the have yachts'” – see: Contest is between the haves and the have-yachts (paywalled).
Another leftwing commentator, blogger Steven Cowan has also decried the fact that the more liberal diversity of the new Parliament isn’t so much to celebrate when politicians themselves are increasingly more middle of the road – see: Centrist central. He argues, “Despite the political establishment’s celebration of Parliament’s dizzying diversity, the politics remains much the same. Despite its increase in numbers you can still not point to a single Labour MP who could be described as a socialist or even left wing.”
And in reaction to other leftwing commentators who have celebrated the increased gender equality at the top of society, Cowan says: “So if Carmel Sepuloni remains as Minister of Social Development beneficiaries will be able to celebrate that they are being denied an increase in their tiny benefits by a woman. Won’t that be great?”
Arguably, the ideological space in the new Parliament has also narrowed considerably. This is partly related to a moribund party system. Former MP Peter Dunne argues today that the incumbent parties are essentially increasing the barriers in a myriad of ways to prevent new political parties from forming and having any chance of breaking into Parliament – see: The steep and narrow path to Parliament.
This is his conclusion: “It ties the system up very neatly in favour of the parties currently in Parliament, and means that, even for a party like New Zealand First, the prospects for newcomers seeking to join the club or old hands trying to return are grim. Overall, it is very difficult to see how any of these developments accords with the Royal Commission’s ambitions to provide for good government, wider representation of minority and special groups, viable political parties and the effective representation of constituents.”
Dunne also argued yesterday that Parliament is missing a key ideological voice – that of traditional liberals. He says all the existing political parties cherry-pick some liberal values but can’t be relied upon to consistently project a principled liberal stance on any issue – see: Where have the liberals gone?.
Finally, Ibrahim Omer is a new MP with a totally different background to most MPs – he worked as an interpreter in United Nations-run refugee camps, then came to New Zealand, where he has worked as a cleaner and then a union organiser for low-paid workers – see a profile on him by Mandy Te: Incoming Labour list MP Ibrahim Omer says it’s a privilege to be first the African MP.