Unhappy Indian voters eye shift to National

Over 300,000 migrants have arrived in New Zealand in the last decade and are now set to play a key role in the 2020 election. Voters in the Indian communities are particularly unhappy with the Labour-NZ First coalition’s migration rhetoric and policies. Dileepa Fonseka reports some regular Labour voters are set to jump to National.

Frustrations within the Indian community at coalition politics are causing a long tradition of support for the Labour party to wobble at a time when the migrant vote could be more important than ever. 

Over the weekend National Party leader Simon Bridges ruled out working with New Zealand First, a gambit deemed risky by some but which may prove less so when it comes to courting the ethnic Indian vote.

Paul Spoonley, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, said he believed the migrant vote in the 2020 election would be “very significant” for the major parties this election. 

“I think the immigrant and minority ethnic vote is going to be critical this election. What’s happened is between 2013 and 2018 we got our largest net gain of migrants ever: 260,000.”

That number were people who had settled long-term in New Zealand as permanent residents so would have voting rights at the current election. Indians and Chinese were the largest ethnic groups within those arrivals, Spoonley said. 

“I’m not sure I could anticipate which way those communities are going to vote, but there are going to be issues which define their support and one of them will be: ‘what are the policies of the major parties when it comes to immigration policy as it impacts on me’.”

Towards the end of last year an issue with visas for partners in arranged marriages prompted protests and also exposed disagreements within the coalition over immigration, and there are signs that anger may not have died away.

"Bleeding Indian votes"

Support for the Labour party within the Indian community stretches back to the days of David Lange who reopened New Zealand’s High Commission in India, previously closed by Sir Robert Muldoon, and advocated for a multicultural immigration policy. 

“Migrants have been blamed for the housing crisis in Auckland, migrants have been blamed for the traffic congestion in Auckland, but what I always say is migrants are not turning up unannounced.”

Auckland-based political commentator Shane Te Pou said those days were “long gone” and there was a feeling within party circles that it was now “bleeding Indian votes”. 

“The Indian activists in the Labour party, although they might think they have strong links into the Indian community, they really don’t.”

Some of those activists quit publicly last year, as reported by Radio New Zealand

They let their memberships lapse then posted about it on social media, adding to an eruption of outrage over the Government’s handling of migration issues. 

National Party leader Simon Bridges has ruled out going into coalition with NZ First. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

After protests, and an outcry from the Indian community, a fix to the partnership visa issue arrived late last year, but the anger on social media has continued and since broadened out to other migration-related issues, according to Anu Kaloti of the Migrant Workers Association. 

“Working class migrants have traditionally been Labour voters. I see this a lot on social media. Those people who you’d expect to be Labour voters are becoming more and more anti-Labour,” Kaloti said.

“I suspect that come next election a lot of the Labour voters and supporters may vote for National,” she said.

Migrants blamed for infrastructure under-building

Kaloti said there was a feeling that in recent years migrants had been unfairly blamed for infrastructure issues in New Zealand that were outside of their control.  

“Migrants have been blamed for the housing crisis in Auckland. Migrants have been blamed for the traffic congestion in Auckland, but what I always say is migrants are not turning up unannounced,” she said.

“Their visas are being approved by the system we have here. So that system should also be able to forecast that we’re going to have in the next two years, five years, ten years so then that forecast should be used to grow the infrastructure accordingly.”

New Zealand’s population has grown twice as fast as official forecasters have expected over the last decade and economists have said the Government and councils have systematically and massively under-invested in infrastructure over the last 30 years.

Given the timeframes for infrastructure planning and approved net migration of around 50,000 per year for the last six years, the Government should have been planning 20 years ago for a population of five million in 2020.  Instead, New Zealand’s demographers were not expecting the population to get to five million until around 2040 because they expected net migration to average around 10,000 per year.

Kaloti said it would be important to educate those voters about National’s track record on immigration too during the election campaigns, especially on migrant exploitation and restrictions placed on the ability of migrants to bring their parents to New Zealand. 

“In the last year or so Indians have been suffering a lot more at the hands of Immigration New Zealand than any other migrant community,” she said.

“People usually go along with whatever their community is feeling especially if people don’t have the time or the inclination to find out about party policies.”

“Long gone”

Te Pou said the Indian community’s votes started to drift away before insults and accusations flew over a change to the way Immigration New Zealand changed its approach to the way it granted visas to couples in arranged marriages.

He put at least part of drift down to the departure of Sunny Kaushal before the last election. Te Pou said Kaushal had once been a “key organiser” for the Labour party within the Indian community in Auckland. 

“In the big enclaves like Sandringham and Mount Roskill I think that they’ll still vote for Michael Woods [electorate MP] because they like him personally, but they might not party vote Labour,” Te Pou said.

Kaushal has since been a vocal spokesperson for businesses affected by City Rail Link-related works and for Dairy owners affected by violent crime.

He quit Labour in 2017 and switched his party affiliation to National after losing a selection contest for a Labour electorate seat. He cited bullying and dissatisfaction with the party’s immigration policies as his reasons for leaving at the time.

Kaushal told Newsroom he had continued to see a stream of people within the Indian community changing their party affiliation concerned at “anti-immigrant rhetoric” from Labour and over concerns with other issues like law and order.

“Phil Goff, Helen Clark and David Lange were in synchronisation with the community feeling and understanding, but then as the new thinking started, it has marginalised, it has sidelined the immigrant voters.”

“Working hard”

A spokesperson for the Labour Party campaign said the whole party was “working hard” to win the support of Indian voters. 

“Like any modern campaign, we will have specific outreach strategies for different communities.”

“Our MPs and Ministers hold regular forums and meetings in the community to hear about issues and work through solutions - for example a forum with the Fiji-Indian community leaders in Auckland just last week.”

“But more broadly, Kiwi Indians are also facing the same issues as the rest of the country - they want to see a strong economy, investment in infrastructure, good schools, mental health being taken seriously, affordable housing and protections for our environment.”

Paula Bennett, who is running National’s campaign, said many Indian voters felt “let down” recently by the coalition Government around key issues like law and order.

We do have a particular campaign which we would like to run around them [the Indian community] which would just mean getting in there, listening to their issues and making sure that we’re addressing them.”

“They now know that the only way they will get the kind of delivery that they want is by voting National and that there’s no game-playing with New Zealand First or any other party like that.”

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