31 Jul 2017

National’s new party list promises more diversity, but is it enough?

4:40 pm on 31 July 2017

Striking a balance.


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Photo: VNP/Daniela Maoate-Cox

The National Party is boasting its latest rankings ahead of September’s election are its most diverse, but there’s a distinct lack of women at the top.

Two women make the list’s top 10, deputy leader Paula Bennett and Amy Adams, there are two Māori, Paula Bennett and Simon Bridges, and the average age is 53.

Party president, Peter Goodfellow, says the list strikes the right balance between recognising experience, diversity, and renewal. “This is National’s most diverse list ever.”

Prime Minister Bill English told RNZ this morning he's happy with the party’s gender balance, although he conceded he hasn’t "looked closely" at the top 10. “In the cabinet, the presence and influence of the women ministers is strong, persistent and persuasive.”

Associate Professor Jennifer Curtin of Auckland University says the importance of the top 10 isn’t so great.

“If you’re assessing whether or not we’ll have a balanced parliament, you really need to look at the lower list numbers. That’s where the party should be putting fresh faces from diverse backgrounds.”

What stands out most to Dr Curtin is the lack of women outside the top 30.

“There are only five women in the next 17 spots. Those are the positions that really matter and serve as a real opportunity. The highest ranked person who isn’t currently an MP is Nicola Willis at 48.”

Party president Peter Goodfellow’s assertion that the list is National’s most diverse ever is in some ways accurate.

If National maintains the support it had three years ago, its gender balance would improve to one third female to two thirds male, up from a 27 percent female caucus in 2014.

Prime Minister Bill English says he's happy with the gender balance of his caucus.

Prime Minister Bill English says he's happy with the gender balance of his caucus. Photo: RNZ/Brad White

However, its ethnic diversity wouldn't greatly improve. More than three quarters would be Pākehā, 12 percent Māori, eight percent Asian and three percent Pasifika.

Potential new MPs include Samoan list candidate Agnes Loheni, Māori woman Harete Hipango, who is standing in Whanganui, and Denise Lee, who replaces Sam Lotu-liga in Maungakiekie.

Banker Simeon Brown, 25, would be the only National MP under 30 should he claim the outgoing Maurice Williamson’s safe Pakuranga seat.

Elsewhere, Dr Curtin says it’s good to see candidates like Melissa Lee, Kanwaljit Bakshi and Jian Yang almost assured of keeping their place in parliament, but all three hold exactly the same list ranking as they did in 2014 (31, 32, 33 respectively).

“I suppose when you come from a relatively homogenous starting point, it’s not going to be difficult to say it’s the most diverse list ever,” she says.

“But if we imagine they’re winning close to 60 seats, we’re still looking at relatively low numbers in terms of ethnic diversity.”

Of the government’s current 20 cabinet ministers, seven are women. English calls it his “kitchen cabinet” and says the party doesn’t work in the hierarchical way his party’s list suggests.

He admits National has “some way to go” before achieving a 50/50 gender split. “Looking out to the future, we have ensured there are plenty of talented women coming through.”

In terms of cultural diversity, English says he’s proud of the government’s record. “[We] work with the Māori Party all the time, so Māori-related issues are always to the fore.”

Both Labour and the Greens have spoken out in favour of gender quotas. Labour has committed to a balanced caucus, while in 2015, the Green Party announced half its cabinet members in a potential future government would be women.

Labour has only three women in its top 10, Jacinda Ardern, Megan Woods and Carmel Sepuloni, but 15 in its top 30. Willow-Jean Prime is the highest ranked Māori at 16. Kiwi-Indian Priyanca Radhakrishnan is 11th and Raymond Huo from China is 12th.

The Greens have seven women in its top ten. The oldest Green candidate, Kennedy Graham, is 71, while the youngest, Chlöe Swarbrick, is 23. Both are likely to make it into parliament.

NZ First is yet to release its 2017 list. Of its 12 MPs, three are women.

Looking beyond a blue government and a fourth successive National election victory is difficult. The latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll has the party remaining steady at 47 percent, and Labour slumping to its lowest ever result of 24 percent.