Tag Archives: culture

US Democracy 2016


Over the last 21 years that I’ve lived in New Zealand I’m always asked my opinion about the current US election.  I try to explain how vast the US is, by land mass and population. The range of ethnic and religious groups living in different geographies of topography and climate with their unique beliefs and customs creates huge challenges when assembling an inclusive central government. The best US government will be one that celebrates that diversity as the main principle of a strong democracy.  That principle has been lacking in US politics for decades.

I know I’m an idealist but I’d like to think I’m also realistic when looking at issues.  One of the reasons I became a social studies teacher is because I believe so passionately in informed choice for those of us lucky enough to live in democracies.  But in 2016 I am struggling to find realistic optimism in the current US elections.

In New Zealand we have a system of democracy called MMP which stands for Mixed Member Proportional.  On Election Day we have two votes, one for a Member of Parliament (MP) to represent our district, and one for a party that we support to lead the government. For example:  I may vote for a Maori Party candidate here in Northland because s/he best represents our area but my party vote may be for the larger and older Labour Party to lead the government.  It’s a very effective way of balancing local choice with national interests.


Most democracies practice what is called First Past the Post (FPP), essentially whoever gains the most votes leads the government.  Time and history have proven that this leads to a predominantly two party system.  You need numbers to win and smaller parties won’t be able to have a say unless they’re a part of a larger machine.

What’s wrong with this?

For me, the biggest concern is that each of the two major parties have a broad range of values and beliefs in their party members.  A liberal party can have members with extreme Green leanings and a conservative party can have members with extreme religious beliefs. I may support either parties for their more centrist policies but I have to accept their more extreme members as part of the deal.

With MMP coalitions are formed where the larger parties have to negotiate with smaller parties to form the government.  Political negotiations are more transparent and I can see quite clearly what the ruling party is willing to compromise on, or not.  I can vote for a major party if I’m happy with everything they represent or I can vote for a smaller party in the hopes they become part of a coalition with the ruling party.

A few elections ago I was concerned about indigenous Maori rights being compromised. The Maori party had not yet been part of any coalition and the current co-leaders were people I respected.  It was the perfect time to see how they would act as part of the government so I cast my party vote for them.  I have been more than happy with their measured and proactive work as part of the last two governments.

It is not a perfect system.  There are parties with only 1 or a small handful of members who become part of the coalition and behave as though they represent more than a single digit percentage of the general electorate.   Their power expands or contracts depending on the leading party.

Imagine if New Zealand’s system were applied to the current US election.

Instead of Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz having to give way to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, each would represent parties with clear agendas who would have to negotiate to share power through a coalition.  The American public would be able to vote for the party who fully represented their values.  A government would be formed where those parties would have to learn to work together to represent the broad–and diverse–beliefs  of a country noted for its diversity.

In 2016 I see a country I love at its most divided.  Family and friends talk of voting against a candidate rather than for one.  Racism, bigotry, sexism and mono-culture are embraced and exalted.  And the only way to be considered for the Presidency is through entrenched connections and deep financial pockets.

I wish you all the best.




Helene Wong is a writer, actor, director and film critic who was born in New Zealand from Chinese immigrant parents.  Her recent book, “Being Chinese:  A New Zealander’s Story” made her a natural choice to present the Michael King Memorial Lecture at the Auckland Writer’s Festival.  She discussed the dichotomy of being both part of this place but also set apart.

New Zealand is considered a multi-cultural society whose core identity is a bi-cultural mix of Maori and Pakeha (British, Irish and Scottish colonial ancestry).  Our location in the South Pacific accounts for the large numbers of Pacific Island, Indian, Indonesian, SE Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrant populations. Colonial ties also explain the large numbers of immigrants from the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa,

The core of Helene Wong’s talk focused on how we look on the outside as opposed to who we are on the inside.  As a Chinese woman she has dealt regularly with other people’s stereotypes.  She played a funny but cringe-worthy film clip on the experiences of three actresses applying for t.v. roles.  Each was from a different Asian country but all were seen simply as “Asian” and expected to either know martial arts or to react unemotionally (‘Asian’?!) in stressful situations.

Helene’s parents set aside their Chinese heritage in order to ensure their children grew up identifying as Kiwis.  They succeeded in their goal but only to a certain point.  There was no getting around the fact that they still looked Chinese on the outside even if they felt like Kiwis on the inside.  It was only as an adult that she began to reconnect with her Chinese heritage.   She shared a moving story of visiting her father’s birthplace in China where she was told, “This is your home,” by villagers.

Helene helped organise the ‘Banana’ Conference with other Chinese New Zealanders who were interested in reconnecting with their cultural heritage.  It was their humorous way of identifying the sense of being yellow on the outside and white on the inside.

She also discussed the rising levels of xenophobia not only in New Zealand but globally.  It is not a new phenomena.  Historically, large movements of immigrants have resulted from the need for cheap labour, wars, famine or simply to maintain stable population numbers as a balance to emigration.  While most people enjoy cultural diversity, there can be a fear of cultural invasion, otherwise referred to as ‘inv-Asian’.


The session resonated with me on many levels.  I immigrated to Zealand almost 22 years ago.  I look Pakeha but as soon as I speak my accent gives me away as American.  My friends and colleagues tend to overlook or downplay this fact.  I’ve lost track of the number of conversations about the US or Americans that have been halted mid-sentence with the comment, “But we don’t mean you, you’re not really American.”

It is a challenge facing millions of people today.  As an immigrant, how do you retain those parts of your past that reflect your values today?  Each year, my family hosts a Thanksgiving party that has grown in excess of 100 family members and friends.  They have fully embraced this holiday that values the universal theme of giving thanks for all that we have in our lives.  I cook American recipes handed down by family members, and at Christmas I am renowned for my over the top tree and lights that are a little out of place in what is now a summer holiday.

I attend Waitangi and Anzac Day services, have learned to cook scones and pavlova, and understand and support our national rugby and cricket teams.  Every year we dress up for an afternoon tea to celebrate the Queen’s birthday.  Cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and other treats are washed down with cups of tea on the good china.   That is not a typical Kiwi tradition, but it is ours.

If it was a question of getting used to new foods, clothing and celebrations it would be simple. However, today immigration poses huge challenges.   How do you tackle the differences in values and morals of immigrant groups that might view women’s rights, sexual orientation or protecting the environment in significantly different ways to the culture where they settle?  This is of particular concern in practicing democracies where citizens elect their politicians.  It is sensible to question what impact voters with different values could have on government decision-making and legislation.

Helene Wong finished by challenging the audience to speak up rather than remain silent when witnessing the hate speech of xenophobia.   Kiwis are traditionally non-confrontational but she questioned, “Is this who we are?  Who we want to be?”  She pointed out the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. as symptomatic of the frustration and fear that can result from unchallenged bigotry. When there is no more room for discussion or differences of opinion democracy falters.

"We hate everyone!!!"
“We hate everyone!!!”