A panel discussion hosted by the Indian Weekender has delved into one of the pressing issues facing ethnic minority migrant communities in this country of tokenism versus real engagement in the political process. 

The main guest at the panel discussion was a distinguished academician and the leading authority on immigration, race relation, social cohesion and multiculturalism - Prof Paul Spoonley of Massey University - who had a scathing opinion that the political parties in the country had not done enough canvassing of the minority communities including ethnic migrant minority communities. 

"Are our political parties formulating policies that are reflecting the aspirations of minority communities? 

"Are political parties and the party leadership, particularly from the majority community,  engaging directly with the issues of importance to the minority community," asked Prof Spoonley. 

"What we are seeing currently is that ethnic MPs who are in the party on the basis of their ethnicity are expected to represent the entire Kiwi-Indian community within the political party and the government decision making processes often get overwhelmed and lose focus on real issues that matter to the community," Prof Spoonley said. 

Making it absolutely clear that his views were not in any way a judgement of any of the existing three Kiwi-Indian MPs, Prof Spoonley said that the current system in place within political parties was not suited for a deeper and intense political engagement with ethnic migrant communities. 

However, Prof Spoonley was cautious to not castigate the current MMP system that sends List MPs in the parliament, which has historically seen a substantial increase in the number of ethnic or Asian MPs in the parliament and believed that the system was best suited to get minority views and representation in the parliament. 

"It is just that the parties need to do more to engage with ethnic communities, cultivating and grooming emerging leaders and sensitising the party and their supporters about issues that matter to those communities if any meaningful progress was to be made," Prof Spoonley said. 

Echoing Prof Spoonley's views were other co-panellist Auckland based Prashant Belwalkar - president Marathi Association and Christ Church-based Sandeep Sharma, who both concurred that by all means, the current political engagement with ethnic communities was superficial and tokenism. 

"One of the problems is that when you are a list MP, then you are at the mercy of the political party to represent the party's value rather than constituents' values."

"There can be personalities that can overcome that kind of challenge but the current crop of MPs is not able to represent the community's aspirations," Mr Belwalkar said. 

Expressing concern on under-representation of issues that matter to the Kiwi-Indian community Mr Belwalkar further said, "why are the issues of small businesses and the broader business community, international education and immigration pertaining exclusively to our Kiwi-Indian community are not raised in the parliament." 

Sandeep Sharma shared another impediment that restricted a deeper and meaningful political engagement that most of the initial conversations with political representatives of all stripes were not followed up with a clear plan and purpose, thus making it a case of "being heard, but yet not delivered."

Prof Spoonley also raised questions about why political parties were not placing good quality deserving ethnic minority candidates higher up in the list and also giving strong winnable electorate seats to such candidates to make the political engagement more meaningful. 

Prashant Belwalkar also held the ethnic communities responsible to some extent for becoming complacent and getting satisfied too easily with their current co-ethnic MPs and not demanding meaningful progress on issues that matter to the broader community. 

There was a unanimity that there was an urgent need to enhance both the number and the quality of representation of ethnic migrant communities in the parliament.