The social cleavage of ethnicity has not been strongly politicised in New Zealand, apart from a significant tendency in the past for Maori to vote for the Labour Party and now for the Maori Party. And although the ethnic cleavage has been heavily overshadowed by the economic left-right dimension, in recent years – especially since the introduction of MMP – a number of political analysts point to the growing in significance that it has in party competition. [Read more below]
The tendency for Maori to vote for the Labour Party was reflected in Labour holding all four Maori electorates between 1943 and 1993. It is also seen in Levine and Robinson’s 1975 voter survey which showed that 59% of Maori voted for Labour while only 20% voted for National (Levine and Robinson, 1976: p.137).
However, Labour’s grip on Maori loosened in the 1970s and especially after 1979 when Labour’s Minister of Maori Affairs, Matiu Rata, resigned and set up rival party Mana Motuhake. Maori electorate support for Labour had been dropping steadily – in 1984 it was 77.6%; in 1987 70.9%; 1990 65.4%; 1993 49.6%; 1996: 28.9%; but in 1999 it rose again to 48.9% (Sullivan and Vowles, 1998: p.173).
Taking into account those Maori not voting, by 1996 Labour received only about 20% of Maori support (Ganley, 1998: p.13). Significantly, throughout the 1990s Maori non-voting has actually been higher than the vote for any particularly party. By 2002 turnout in the Maori seats dropped to a remarkably low 54.4% (Collins, 2002). Between 1990 and 1999 non-voting amongst Maori was 41.5%, 37.4%, 27.3% and 34.3% respectively (Sullivan and Vowles, 1998: p.173; Sullivan and Margaritis, 2002: p.67). This means that in the 1999 election, despite Labour winning all six Maori electorates, only about 32% of those on the Maori electoral roll chose Labour. (Note, however, that turnout is defined here as a percentage of those on the electoral roll – as opposed to elsewhere in this thesis where it is defined as a percentage of eligible voters. In fact Maori non-voting would have been below 50% if examining participation out of those Maori eligible to enrol to instead of out of those who did in fact enrol).
Driving a wedge between Labour and Maori was the emergence of the nationalist New Zealand First in the early-1990s. In 1993, Tau Henare captured Northern Maori for New Zealand First, and three years later all five Maori seats went to New Zealand First. Labour won the seats back in 1999. But even after New Zealand First lost its ‘tight five’ Maori electorate MPs, the party has continued to be popular with Maori. In 2002 the party won 15% of the party vote in the Maori electorates (second to Labour). Then, of course, in 2005 the newly-launced Maori Party captured four of the seven Maori electorates.
The traditional link between Maori voters and Labour is partly related to the association between the Ratana church and the party. This tie goes back to 1935 when Labour leader Michael Joseph Savage struck an alliance with Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana and his church. But Labour’s link with Maori is also related to the fact that the vast majority of Maori inhabit lower socio-economic positions in society. In this sense this apparent ethnic cleavage has been strongly class-related. The tradition of voting Labour was established due to the simple logic of voting for a party that purportedly represented the interests of the poor. Mitchell has also explained the social influences on New Zealand politics in the 1960s, saying, ‘Ethnic factors are largely absent. Though new migrants and Maoris are both more strongly Labour than the rest of the community, this is in the main a reflection of their social position’ (1969: p.30; see also: Sullivan and Margaritis (2002: p.66).
Likewise, Pacific Island New Zealanders have been overwhelmingly working class and have also voted disproportionately in favour of Labour. However, now that this voting habit has been established, Maori and Pacific Island support for Labour is no longer simply due to this class background, but has become strongly reflective of a sense of ethnic loyalty. Mulgan (1997a), points out, ‘Maori and Pacific Islanders support for Labour is not just a consequence of the fact that they are disproportionately members of the lower socio-economic groups. Even when class factors are held constant, a Maori or Pacific Islander has been more likely to vote Labour than has been a Pakeha in the same class position’ (Mulgan, 1997a: p.275). However, Sullivan and Margaritis’ analysis of NZES data for the 1999 election show that, ‘Maori Labour party voters did not come from any one obvious social or economic group’ (2002: p.77; see also: Vowles and Aimer, 1993: pp.34-39).
Recent changes in the class-ethnicity structure of society – and in particular the emergence of a significant Maori middle class – mean that although Maori continue to be found mostly in the working class that still vote for Labour, there has also been a growing Maori middle class that vote for other parties on the right. This is reflected in recent parliaments by a number of Maori representing parties on the right such as National (Georgina Te Huhu), Act (Donna Awatere-Huata), and New Zealand First (Tau Henare, Rana Waitai, Tuku Morgan, Tuariki John Delamere, Tu Wylie, Winston Peters, Jim Peters, Ron Mark). The Green Party also performed very well in the Maori electorates in 2002 (winning 10% of the party vote there), mainly by winning the support of middle class Maori. According to the research of Sullivan and Margaritis based on NZES data, the Greens found Maori support amongst those ‘more likely to be in comfortable economic circumstances, living in households with incomes between $30,000 and $70,000’ (Sullivan and Margaritis, 2002: p.79).
Asian voters have never played a significant role in New Zealand politics, yet now comprise 7% of the population. Asian-New Zealand voters are said to be significantly attached to the right of the political spectrum, and Gustafson claims that in 1996 ‘over 90% of Chinese voters supported National’ (Gustafson, 1997c: p.145). In a Herald-DigiPoll with a high margin of error for Asian voting, National was actually ‘third among Chinese voters with 23.1%, despite having the only Chinese MP, Pansy Wong. Labour and Act each won 38.5% of Chinese voters in the poll’ (Collins, 2002).
In 1996 the National Party delivered the first ever Asian-New Zealand MP to Parliament, Pansy Wong. In 2002, a second Asian-New Zealander, Ashraf Choudhary was elected, this time for Labour.
Generally the elite of the political parties has become somewhat more ethnically diverse. Across most of the parties there has been an increase in the proportion of Maori election candidates, which is mainly due to the operation of the party lists. Since the introduction of MMP, the number of Maori MPs has also increased from 6 in 1993 to 19 in 2002, and then to 21 in 2005. After the 2002 election, New Zealand First had the highest proportion of Maori MPs: 6 out of 13, Labour 10 of 52, Greens 1 of 9, Act 1 of 9, National 1 of 27 and both the United Future and Progressive Coalition had no Maori MPs. Similarly, there are now also more candidates of Pacific Islands and Asian origins – although successful candidates from these groups are underrepresented in Parliament.
Although the ethnic cleavage has been heavily overshadowed by the economic left-right dimension, in recent years – especially since the introduction of MMP – a number of political analysts suggested that because the Maori-Pakeha ethnic cleavage has been growing in significance it would lead to the establishment of a viable ethnic-based party (See: Miller, 1997a; and Nagel, 1994b). Until the launch of the Maori Party in 2004, all the ethnic-based parties that attempted to get elected to Parliament under their own name have failed. These include Maori-based parties like Mana Motuhake (established 1980), Mana Maori (registered 1996), Mana Wahine Te Ira Tangata (established 1998), Piri Wiri Tua, Te Tawharau (registered 1999), and Mauri Pacific (registered 1999). As Sullivan and Margaritis point out, ‘Mauri Pacific professed to represent peoples of the Pacific, but was essentially viewed as a Maori party’ (2002: p.75).
Other successful minor parties have attempted to compete on ethnic cleavage, such as New Zealand First. United New Zealand also actively pursued the votes of ethnic minorities in 1999 after merging with the Ethnic Minority Party, and becoming ‘sufficiently convinced of possible strong support for the party in these ethnic communities’ (Stonyer, 2000: p.62). The United Party chose a high number of candidates from ethnic minorities to stand for it in 1999 – their 23 candidates were made up of ten different nationalities (ibid).
[To be updated and expanded upon – any feedback or additional information is welcomed]