(First published in The Dominion Post and on Stuff.co.nz, July 11.)
Sigh. Here we go again.
According to a TVNZ news report, Northland Maori are lobbying for greater representation in local government. Despite having one of the highest Maori populations in the country, Northland iwi leaders say the lack of Maori representation on district councils means Maori are not being heard.
Ngati Hine kaumatua Pita Tipene laments that local government legislation and processes are “shutting out our people”. Not for the first time, compulsory Maori seats have been touted as one possible answer. But the solution to the lack of Maori representation is achingly obvious.
According to TVNZ, Maori make up an estimated 50 per cent of the Northland population. It follows that if Maori candidates put themselves forward for election and persuade other Maori people to support them, Maori councillors will be elected. Weight of numbers will ensure that.
If Maori engaged more actively in local government both as voters and candidates, 50 percent of Northland council seats could be occupied by Maori – possibly more, since non-Maori voters are likely to support good Maori candidates, just as they have done elsewhere in New Zealand.
That 50 percent figure gives Northland Maori the potential to become highly influential and possibly even dominant in local government. The remedy is in their hands if only they choose to seize it. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?
In the indelicate but admirably blunt language of Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis in 2016, Northland Maori need to get off their arses and vote. But some Maori leaders prefer to take a short cut to power.
We keep hearing that Maori are disempowered. They are “disengaged”, to use a fashionable term – too disengaged, evidently, to use the democratic rights open to every citizen.
The only possible solution, we're frequently told, is to create special mechanisms which would guarantee them a place at council tables, such as the creation of special Maori wards or the establishment of voting rights for unelected Maori representatives – as was disgracefully provided in law for Auckland City and adopted by the district council in my home town of Masterton, among other places.
What we’re really talking about here is power through the back door. The advocates of guaranteed Maori representation want to bypass the democratic hurdles that other candidates for public office must leap over.
The debate then becomes a philosophical one about whether Maori are so disadvantaged and demoralised that they must be given political rights not available to others.
The powerful counter-argument is that to grant special rights to any segment of the population, whether on the basis of race or any other factor, is a potentially lethal compromise of democratic principles, which hold that no group of voters should wield more power than others.
Ordinary New Zealanders obviously recognise this hazard, even if their elected leaders don’t. Every time well-intentioned but wrong-headed councils have pushed for the creation of Maori wards, they have been emphatically defeated in referendums.
We’re told this is because we’re a racist society bent on preventing Maori from acquiring power.
But hang on a minute. The evidence shows that where strong Maori candidates put themselves forward for office, Pakeha as well as Maori voters will support them. Does that sound racist?
In the last local government elections three years ago, Porirua elected its first Maori mayor, Mike Tana, who beat a favoured Pakeha rival. Wellington acquired a Maori deputy mayor, Paul Eagle – now the Labour MP for Rongotai – and a new Maori councillor, Jill Day, who has since taken over the deputy mayoralty. Eagle, incidentally, had increased his majority in three consecutive council elections.
In those same 2016 elections, South Wairarapa voters elected three Maori to their district council. Napier gained a Maori councillor, Api Tapine, and Wiremu Te Awe Awe was elected to the Horizons Regional Council. All this happened without the benefit of separate Maori wards or other forms of special treatment.
No doubt there were other examples that I’m not aware of. I could also point out that two previous mayors of Carterton, Georgina Beyer and Ron Mark, are Maori, and that former rugby league star Howie Tamati served on the New Plymouth District Council for 15 years (yet contradictorily insisted in 2015 that New Plymouth Maori needed their own ward).
All of these people were elected by Pakeha voters. Racist? I don’t think so. The record shows that non-Maori voters will back good Maori candidates. But of course such candidates have to put themselves forward first, rather than wringing their hands in anguish over supposed Maori disempowerment.
Oh, and did I mention that there are 29 Maori MPs in the current Parliament, including 23 elected by voters on the general roll. Racist? Really??