Dodging Labour's Indian mutiny
By Richard Harman (author)
Priyanca Radhakrishnan has suddenly lept into the top end of Labour’s list even though she has yet to become an MP.
To get an idea of how rapid and prominent her rise, she takes up position 11 which was occupied during the last election campaign by Andrew Little.
Radhakrishnan, who was born in India, brought up in Singapore and went to university in Palmerston North, is a well-known figure within the party as an articulate advocate for ethnic communities in Auckland and across the country
But at the same time as Labour is promoting its latest star there appears to be trouble within its ethnic base in Auckland.
Another prominent Indian community leader and former Labour candidate in Auckland, Sunny Kaushal, announced on Sunday that he was “withdrawing from the party”.
In a statement on his Facebook page on Sunday, Kaushal said: "Today, I have taken back my name from the Labour Party and withdrawn from all party commitments.
“Friends and supporters, the decision I have made is due to my recent stand on immigration and rising crime based on the suffering of our communities, and the ongoing hostilities and bullying from some of the Party Membership and Hierarchy that I have been subject to (some which have been public).
“For me my Community matters.”
Kaushal told POLITIK he didn’t want to say more than that because after nine years as a Labour activist and candidate he didn’t want to damage the party in an election year.
However, he did confirm that he had been seeking to go on the list.
The “Indian Weekender" reporting his decision said, "it is widely assumed that Mr Kaushal’s decision to withdraw from the Labour Party is linked with his position, or, exclusion from the Party list.”
Radhakrishnan didn’t want to comment on his move.
"You know how it is with list processes and life more broadly; there are always different aspects to it," she said.
Radhakrishnan's own list ranking, however, means that not only is she assured of entry into Parliament and given that she is Number 11, but she should also be assured of becoming a Minister if Labour forms the Government.
It has been obvious for some time that she has been highly regarded within the party.
She has been involved with Labour for 11 years and most recently has been working out of first Phil Goff’s electorate office and then Labour’s Auckland headquarters on liaising between the party and ethnic communities.
But she knows she can't be the one woman answer to all of Labour's ethnic challenges in Auckland.
“If you talk about the entire ethnic community they make up 15% of the population, so one person is never going to be able to represent all of them," she says.
“I have grown up in a multi-cultural society myself (Singapore) so I work quite effectively across different ethnic communities.
“I’ve been a member of the Labour party for 11 years because the values that I try and live my life by are Labour values as well and I don’t see a tension between me being able to be an effective advocate for different communities advocating for change and working through the Labour Party in a Labour Government to effect that change.”
She has to be careful that she is not seen as simply someone who ticks the ethnic box.
“When people first started suggesting I run for parliament I told anybody who would listen that I ddin’t want to be a token.
“I didn’t want to be that ethnic MP because you need to tick a box.
“I really fought against it but then someone said that if you were talking about needing a caucus that was representative of New Zealand, we do need diversity on there.
“And what's wrong with you being that voice.”
But being a voice for ethnic communities in the Labour caucus will not necessarily be a comfortable existence.
It is no secret around parliament that Labour’s Maori MPs often find their relationship with the rest of the caucus difficult.
And given Labour's two big issues as far as ethnic communities are concerned --- Phil Twyford’s Chinese names business and more recently, Andrew Little’s promise to cut immigration back by tens of thousands --- there are issues she will face from the day she walks into Parliament.
On Twyford, she’s diplomatic.
“I think we might have been able to frame it differently,” she says.
But the immigration issue is more complex.
“Immigration has always been a sensitive issue.
“The thing about increasing or slowing immigration at various points in time is not new.
“It’s been done by Governments in New Zealand in the past and across the world.
“At the end of the day, if we are looking at the New Zealand Government we are looking at what we are going to be doing to enhance the wellbeing of New Zealanders regardless of where they come from.”
But given that Labour is competing head to head with NZ First for some of the same votes, there is a danger it could be dragged into a race to the bottom on immigration with Winston Peters.
She doubts that that will happen.
“We are very clear on what we want to achieve, for various communities and for New Zealand more broadly.
“And that’s what we will do; it’s not about individual types of immigrants at all”
She says that by and large the issues within the migrant communities are the same as across the rest of Auckland – housing, access to healthcare and education.
“Anyone who migrates basically comes here because they want a better life for themselves and their families, so a good education is generally top of mind for migrants."
But there are also migrant specific issues, and the top of that list is safety.
Sunny Kaushal recently organised a march to protest the high levels of violence directed against migrant small shop owners.
“We’ve seen quite a lot in the media of late of sometimes very brutal attacks on dairy owners and we see that crime is a huge issue and it is absolutely something that we must address and will.”
She believes Labour can stand tall in ethnic communities because of initiatives like establishing the Office of Ethnic Affairs and the immigration settlement support programme.
But National is also eyeing the growing ethnic population in Auckland as a potential source of votes and in some senses is ahead of Labour with already two Indian, one Chinese and one Korean MP.
Labour’s list is still thin.
Radhakrishnan and Raymond Huo in 11 and 12 both have winnable positions, but the next Asian candidate on the list after them is Philippino Romy Udanga in position 46.
There are another six Asian candidates below him, but they are unlikely to make Parliament.
And judging by Kaushal's withdrawal, there are tensions within the party over the list positions for Asian candidates.
Radhakrishnan, however, is confident she can shoulder the burden.