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April 28, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Victorian Theses

Helena Cook is a political science student, holding a BA (Hons) in political science from the Canterbury University, doing her Master’s thesis on political representation of Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. Her work is part of a wider field of minority involvement in politics, but is the first work that she is aware of dedicated solely to Pacific Islanders in New Zealand.

The first Pacific Island MP in New Zealand entered Parliament in 1993, and there have been five others since then (five Labour and one National). Due to the tiny sample size, she has made each a case study, and “has been lucky enough to get an in-depth interview with most of them,” with the sole exception of the beleaguered Taito Philip Field.

Her study has been divided into two parts: a review of the theoretical literature of minority representation, and a study of how the MPs themselves view “their political journeys.”

Cook explains that there are essentially two schools of thought on minority representation. “You’ve got people who think that minority representation … is a ‘good thing’, and that we should do more to help that come about” as there is evidence that “minority groups – women, ethnic minorities, disabled [people] – do face barriers to getting into Parliament… So you get people who say that we should undertake various methods of getting them more involved in politics, and getting them into Parliament.”

“And then you have a whole lot of other literature that says if we’re operating in advanced liberal democracies, everyone should have the same opportunities, and people shouldn’t be given special rights over others, so we don’t really need it, as everyone has the same chances to get elected.”

The first part of her thesis is effectively dedicated to addressing how to resolve the dichotomy of these two positions. She came to the conclusion that minorities (particularly ethnic minorities) do in fact face barriers to their entry into Parliament. For example, differences in education level often advantage the majority, or just different personal priorities may make politics seem less important. But she feels that a lot of the difficulties arise from the fact that the political structure in a nation is often designed for the dominant group, and other groups have difficulties ‘fitting in’ to the different cultural norms, rendering politics comparatively inaccessible.

Cook found the experience of interviewing the six individual Pacific Island MPs very interesting. She noted that they had often risen through the ranks of unions or had previous party involvement. She observed how they dealt with the problem of representing both their electorate and Pacific Islanders as a whole.

Cook concluded that minority representation is important to a functioning democracy, and that “it’s something that New Zealand as a multicultural society should be encouraging. I think it’s important that Parliament looks like society, and that it does have representatives of ethnic groups.”

She predicts (and hopes) that the 2008 election will see greater representation for Pacific Islanders in Parliament. She notes the Labour Party President Mike Williams recently talked about the importance of the Pacific vote, particularly for Labour, and thinks that the role of Pacific people in politics will become increasingly visible.

Cook presented some of her findings at the New Zealand Political Science Association conference last year, and at a conference in Vanuatu. Her work has been well received, but the opportunity to discuss her work has made her aware of the extent to which there is more to be done.

“I think people are interested in it, and … because there hasn’t been anything [published on this topic before], people are always interested to see what’s out there.”

“I hope that if someone looks at my thesis and says that ‘oh, that’s quite interesting’, maybe [they] could do something on from that.”

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  1. Hi there, I’m compiling information for our broadcast teams here at the radio stations, NiuFm Network and Radio 531pi and would like to talk to Helena about her research. Can someone please forward my contact details to her or send me her email and phone number. Thanks. My work number in Auckland (09) 361 6656 ext 220.

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