Democracy took centuries to build, but it’s being dismantled with frightening speed.
The latest step in the demolition job was Wellington City Council’s decision this week to give full voting rights on council committees to two unelected iwi representatives. They will each be paid a yearly fee of $111,225, the same amount as elected councillors, despite having undefined responsibilities and lines of accountability that could only be described as highly opaque.
A triumphant council statement said the 11-3 vote was greeted with waiata, hongi, hugs and kisses. Cr Jill Day, one of two legitimately elected part-Maori councillors, said: “This is just a small step, but we need to make a start.”
Just a start – really? It’s anyone’s guess where Day envisages it leading to, but anything’s possible once you sever the vital, direct connection between voters and those purporting to represent them.
The council’s decision alters the basis of local government so profoundly that the word democracy, which hinges on people electing their representatives, will no longer apply. Once you start dismantling the checks and balances that ensure councillors are elected by popular vote under a transparent process, and can be tossed out if they don’t measure up to the people’s expectations, the line has been crossed between democracy and some other form of government for which we haven’t got a name.
How will the iwi representatives be chosen, and by whom? We don’t know.
Who will they be accountable to? That, too, is unclear. But we can make a safe guess that it won’t be to the wider public or the ratepayers who will fund their salaries, and who pay to keep the city functioning (after a fashion). The iwi representatives will owe their loyalty to the runanga, tribal leaders or hui that choose them. Whatever this is, it’s not democracy.
Naturally, the council’s vote was greeted effusively by iwi representatives, whose comments neatly avoided inconvenient issues of democratic principle. John Coffey, chairman of the embattled and strife-torn Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust, gushed that iwi and the council shared similar goals. “What you want as a council for the people of Wellington is what we want too,” he told councillors. “You will not succeed without us, and we will not succeed with you. It’s as simple as that.” Er, meaning what, exactly?
Better still was the stirring oration from the chief executive of Ngati Toa Rangatira, a man with the proud Maori name of Helmut Modlik: “I’m feeling very grateful that I’m living now, and that we’re at a point in history where there is a degree of honesty about the past ... it is a tragic story for my people in a lot of respects,” said Modlik. “But that’s the past, and a line’s been drawn. And I’m grateful to live today and to be a witness to what I expect to be an increasingly emergent determination by New Zealanders to do better for our children and our mokopuna than was done in the past.”
So … bad things have happened to Maori, which is unquestionably true, and the only way to remedy these grievances is by subverting and even destroying the fair and equitable form of government we know as democracy? I think that’s what he was saying, but who can tell?
Still to come, of course, is the introduction of Maori wards – a change facilitated under urgency with virtually no warning by a dishonest government, and one premised on the palpable falsehood that the only way Maori can get elected to councils is through the creation of a voting system that treats them as different, with special needs.
This ignores the fact that city and district councils throughout New Zealand, including Wellington, have had many Maori councillors – and mayors too (Ron Mark and Georgina Beyer in Carterton, Mike Tana in Porirua and Derek Fox in Wairoa are four who come to mind from relatively recent history) – who were elected by popular vote. So much for the lie that a racist system is loaded against Maori candidates, and that they can succeed only through preferential treatment. So much, too, for the condescending view – a view apparently held, remarkably, by most Maori leaders – that Maori candidates aren’t capable of being elected on their own merits
Of course, whether Wellington voters will want Day and Paul back next year, after the current council’s embarrassingly shambolic performance, is another matter. Speaking of which, I wouldn’t give Mayor Andy Foster much for his chances in the 2022 local government elections. Foster long ago proved himself ineffectual and now he’s been exposed as spineless too. He was one of six councillors who voted only a few weeks ago against the appointment of iwi representatives, saying then that he wanted to ask for public feedback. But at Wednesday’s meeting he performed an about-face of breathtaking brazenness, saying councillors needed to have faith that the community would support their decision. “While this is not something that has been consulted on, I think we should give this a go.”