New Zealand has a proud record when it comes to political representation. We were among the first in the world to extend the vote to all adult women, and we have long had Maori representation in Parliament.
Since the change to MMP, we have had MPs of Chinese and Pacific Island ethnic origin, and Muslim MPs. We’ve also had openly gay MPs, something that would have been unthinkable under the old first past the post system.
I think it was more unthinkable in the 1970s and 1980s, than due to MMP. I recall Georgina Beyer got elected MP for Wairarapa.
It is vitally important that these diverse voices are heard in parliament. We may not need parliaments that exactly mirror the population. But parliaments need to be sensitive to the needs of the people they govern, in order to make effective laws and policies. Diverse participation in parliament, what political philosopher Anne Phillips calls a politics of presence, makes government better.
A classic example of how the politics of presence could help government occurred during Helen Clark’s Labour government. Miss Clark and her ministers noticed that a large number of women in their thirties and forties weren’t in paid work, an untapped resource in the economy. They reasoned that the problem was a lack of childcare. Miss Clark proposed that schools should look at providing dawn to dusk childcare, so that mothers could take up paid employment.
Parents were annoyed. What they actually wanted was flexible and part time work, so that they could take up some paid employment, and look after their children themselves. At the time, Miss Clark had many highly capable advisers, but very few of them were parents. Had some parents been present, they might have been able to tell her that the lack of flexible work was the more significant barrier.
A good example of the value of diversity. I do not support quotas, or tokenism, but do think diversity is a good thing which should be encouraged. Just as I don’t want a Parliament with 120 thirty year old MPs, neither do I want one with no MPs aged under 50.
But the politics of presence is resented by some people. They criticise identity politics, and grumble that life is getting harder for straight white men. These days, in order to get ahead, a straight white man has to compete with all the minorities who get a helping hand. It’s common to hear complaints about positive discrimination, and feminism being to blame for men and boys not doing so well any more.
One can support diversity but also think you can take identity politics too far.
Because the number of seats in Parliament is limited, if more of those seats are held by women and Maori, and people from other minority groups, then fewer are held by straight white men. Now they know they will only hold 60 per cent or so of the seats. They really have lost power.
Actually straight white men are now a minority in Parliament according to a tally I have just done – being 58 of 121 MPs. So we are now a minority 🙂
Of course straight white men comprise only 33% of the population, so being 48% of Parliament is not doing too badly. What is interesting is the diversity on each factor.
Men do make up 67% of Parliament, and are only 50% of the population.
However on ethnicity, Maori are actually over-represented being 17% of Parliament, and around 12% of the adult population.
And on sexuality, 94% of Parliament is straight, which is probably a bit lower than the adult population which is 95% to 97% straight according to most research.
So in NZ it is gender which is the area of least diversity, not so much race or sexual orientation.
But only in comparison to the amount of power they previously held. Most seats in Parliament, most positions on boards, most high ranking civil service positions, and most highly paid jobs continue to be held by straight white men. They have lost some power. But they remain the only group not under-represented in the corridors of power. Those corridors of power will work better the more open they become to diverse representation, and to a politics of presence.
Again this is not quite accurate. Straight white men are over-represented. But so are are Maori men who make up 11% of Parliament and 6% of the adult population.
Maori women are approx proportional being 7% of Parliament and 6% of the adult population.
European women make up 24% of Parliament, and 35% of the population, so is is not all minorities that are under-represented, but European women and Asians. Asians are in fact the most under-represented group in Parliament at just 3%.
3% of Parliament is gay and 2% lesbian, which is slightly in excess of their assumed prevalence in the overall population.
Now as I said, while I support diversity I don’t think the aim is to get a Parliament that is perfectly proportional in every demographic. I think it is about being broadly representative. And we are in terms of Caucasian, Maori, Pacific and gay MPs. We’re not doing so well with female and Asian MPs.