(Thanks to the NZ Herald for allowing us to republish this article – link to original article can be found here).
Next month, 36-year-old Thla Par will vote for the very first time.
“I am so excited,” she said with a small smile.
The problem is, everything about the election is in a foreign language she struggles to understand. She has been learning English for a year and half, which – as anyone who has ever learned a second language would know – is a short time.
Thla Par fled forced labour under military rule in her home country Myanmar at the age of 21, an escape that saw her undertake a dangerous and difficult seven-day journey that involved hiding by day and travelling by car, boat, or on foot by night, eventually landing in Malaysia where she lived for 10 years before coming to New Zealand as a refugee in 2018.
“I cannot imagine voting in Myanmar,” she said with help from her English language tutor and this journalist, “It was corrupt. I didn’t feel like the poor mattered in an election, only the rich people’s vote mattered.”
Thla Par is one of New Zealand’s new immigrants who will be exercising their vote at next month’s general election despite facing significant barriers to information as English learners.
Since July this year, the Electoral Commission has been working with non-profit language centre English Language Partners NZ (ELPNZ) to help people like Thla Par understand New Zealand’s electoral system. The partnership created teaching and learning material that are used at the centre’s English classes for new migrants and former refugees, and available for public download.
“We explain the process in simple English tailored to the level of the learner, for example, what does government mean, what does party mean, what does voting mean? For higher level learners, questions like how do you engage as a voter?” said ELPNZ operations manager Birgit Grafarend-Watungwa.
One finding from a post-election survey by the Electoral Commission in 2017 found that voters of Asian ethnicity were more likely to ask someone they knew for additional voting information – 29 per cent versus 13 per cent for non-Asians.
“This tells us we need trusted and known people in these communities to deliver our messages,” said Jon Gabites, project leader of community engagement at the Electoral Commission.
Language learning provides a connection between government and communities that can be hard to reach.
“Often these are isolated communities, and our teachers are able to bridge that gap because they have that rapport with their students. We come from this angle of trust which is very important when it comes to engaging people about government, politics, and election, which can be fraught issues depending on where they come from,” said Grafarend-Watungwa.
The challenge is maintaining neutrality in teaching about elections.
“Often they come to us and say, who should I vote for?” said ELPNZ’s Auckland Central and West manager Murali Kumar, “So we have to be very careful, we can show you how it works, how to enrol, and how to vote, but who you vote for is your decision.”
Previous research shows migrants are more likely to vote the longer they live in New Zealand.
Not so for Thla Par, who is seizing on the opportunity even as she grapples with the complexity of democratic politics in a foreign language.
“Your vote is important, whether you are rich or poor,” she said, “When I heard my teacher say this, I felt so happy, so excited and I said to myself, yes I need to vote.”
Originally posted on the New Zealand Herald here.
Diversity reporter, NZ Herald
• Voting starts on Saturday October 3 and ends Saturday October 17. You can enrol online.