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Walking the Representation Tightrope: Party Demands, Community Expectations and Immigrant-Origin Politicians’ Representation Goals

Parliaments
Political Parties
Representation
Identity
Immigration
Fiona Barker
Victoria University of Wellington
Fiona Barker
Victoria University of Wellington

Abstract

This paper addresses recent research examining electoral and partisan links among immigrant-origin politicians, ethnic communities, and political parties/caucuses, and investigating links between descriptive and substantive representation in advanced democracies. Whereas recent research measures substantive representation via voting records, committee membership, and parliamentary questions, I examine immigrant-origin politicians’ own understandings of their role and strategies for navigating possible tensions between their own career objectives and political party or ethnic community expectations about the representation they provide. Drawing on over 25 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with immigrant-origin politicians and party representatives in Belgium and New Zealand, and analysis of parliamentary and media interventions, the paper finds that electoral system—eg. demands of garnering personal votes (Belgium) and different imperatives of List or Electorate candidacy (NZ)—and political party attitudes to representation are central to shaping how politicians think about the kind of representation they provide. Moreover, I contend that to best understand representation we must include a temporal dimension—stages of the electoral cycle and phases of representatives’ political careers. Shaped by personal goals and party constraints, immigrant-origin representatives alter representation strategies over the course of their legislative career. Some distance themselves from identity issues when they enter politics, but return to them after establishing themselves as ‘normal’ parliamentarians. Others initially accept an identity-based role assigned by the party, but subsequently try moving beyond this by shifting policy focus or, in New Zealand, by moving from List to Electorate candidacy. Two features of the interview data make the longitudinal analysis possible. First, over half of the Belgian respondents were first interviewed in 2004, then re-interviewed in 2015, creating a longitudinal interview dataset. Second, interviews in New Zealand were conducted with current and former parliamentarians, spanning the 20 years since adoption of the MMP electoral system, and enabling reflections across representatives’ careers.