Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Guest post: Perce Hàrpham on the Maori electorates

In the following article, retired businessman Perce Harpham makes the point that Maori electorates are no longer necessary to ensure Maori representation and provide a means by which voters of part-Maori ancestry can exercise disproportionate political power. This runs counter to the basic democratic principle that every person's vote should carry equal weight, regardless of race. Publication of his article on this blog doesn't imply endorsement of everything Perce says, but I agree with his essential proposition.

New Zealand is unique. It is the only country in the world which became a colony of another – not by conquest but by request of the inhabitants. Some wise chiefs saw that the introduction of muskets in 1805, unchecked, would lead to their obliteration because their custom (utu) required them to avenge every wrong done to their tribe (iwi) by another. So, in 1840, more than 500 chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi. This foundation document gave all the people of New Zealand equal rights as citizens under the sovereignty of the Queen. The melding of stone age wisdom and later “civilisation” was handled, for the most part, with mutual respect and dignity.

When the governor was replaced by an elected government, in conformance with British law, only property-owning males could vote. Maori had largely communal ownership so few could vote. The same was true of many of the settlers as most were simply servants and workers. However a wave of change was sweeping over Britain. Slavery had been abolished and the public were being given some voice in government. Fuelled by these British changes, four parliamentary seats were established exclusively for Maori in 1867. Strangely, and unfairly, the many landless settlers were not given representation.

The Maori seats were intended to last for only five years and in that time the law was changed to allow all males to vote. So the reasons for the Maori seats disappeared, but the seats did not. Instead more have been created so that there are now seven Maori seats. This has given Maori political power way beyond anything that could be achieved with financial donations. No amount of money to fund a political party in its electoral campaign can guarantee a single seat, but the Maori hierarchy can essentially dictate how those seats can be decided.

When the “First Past the Post” electoral system was replaced by the present “Mixed Member" system, the Commission of Inquiry which designed the latter proposed the abolition of the Maori seats, as MMP would allow minorities to obtain seats. But they were not abolished. Clearly neither of the major parties were prepared to risk losing the next election by taking that step.

Non-Maori cannot vote for the Maori seats but Maori can choose to go on the electoral roll for Maori seats and vote for them. They can also choose to be on the general roll and to vote for non-Maori seats. The Mongrel Mob have reportedly directed their members to go on the general roll and to vote in an electorate which is marginal for Labour. There is, of course, a requirement to have an address in that electorate but this is unlikely to be problem for Mongrel Mob members.

There are now 25 MPs who identify as Maori. So 18 have either been elected on the general roll or on a party list. The latter number, interestingly enough, is precisely the number required to represent the proportion of Maori in the population. Accordingly there is no justification for the Maori seats.

Many questionable ideas have resulted from the power of the block of Maori seats. Without that power would any sane politician believe that Queen Victoria went into partnership with 500 Maori chiefs on the other side of the world? Or that they would think that they were in partnership with one another?

To secure Maori votes, political parties have increasingly accepted claims that the problems disclosed by various statistics are the result of systemic bias against them and that the Treaty means different things from what it says.

My book, The Corruption of New Zealand, supports the well-reasoned view of the Auckland University professor of education, Elizabeth Rata, that the tribal vision is wrong and that the problems are a matter of class, not race. Thus, for example, the reason for 50% of the prison population being Maori is likely to be that 50% of the poor in New Zealand are Maori and the solution is to apply the explicit Treaty provision for all the people of New Zealand to be under the same laws. Changes for the benefit of all the poor are needed.

The Labour Government commissioned a report on the Maori vision for objectives in 2040. The report was kept secret until it was leaked. With great speed the Labour Government is now changing systems and laws in conformance with that vision. The Government has rejected the established system of “one law for all” to give overarching power to Maori through a tribal system with different laws for Maori. Jacinda Ardern as prime minister said only that there will be no separate Parliament. But the country is being separated on Tribal lines.

There is a pattern of events and vested interest moves that have corrupted our democracy and our history to promote a drift back to tribalism. The treaty was actually about the end of tribalism. It ended the warring of groups among the 500 iwi by unifying them and their constituents as equals with non-iwi under one rule. This is being turned on its head with a return to tribalism and a squeezing out of anyone not affiliated with one of the tribes.

If we do not rapidly undo much of what has been done, and is proposed, then our democracy will be crippled, or perish entirely, and our legal system will become largely impotent and inoperable. There is also a danger that we will develop racial intolerance at a level which we have never known.

As a nation we have been proud of laws which made no mention of ethnic divisions. But, suddenly, people of Maori descent are being given different legal rights from all other races.

Unless actions which have been taken, or are in progress, are reversed there is no point in worrying about ideas for reducing inequality and preserving our democracy. Instead we will have a tribally based legal system where power is held by unelected hereditary Maori leaders. A necessary first step to avert disaster is to abolish the Maori seats. 

As founder of the Progeni software company, Perce Harpham, now 91, was a pioneer of the New Zealand computer industry. He is a former Green Party candidate. His book is available here.


Peter said...

A well summarised and reasoned commentary, Perce. Bring it on I say, but I'll wager neither Labour nor National will willingly endorse it and I can see why you are a 'former member' of the Greens, who are about as entrenched in the current arrangements as Te Pati Maori. Realistically that leaves only ACT and NZ First to bring it about, and it’s likely only the former that will have the political clout to ensure it. Here’s hoping for a more democratic future.

Odysseus said...

The Maori seats are indeed an undemocratic anachronism but I don't see them being removed without a comprehensive reform of the electoral system which, in today's febrile environment, could well be a case of "be careful what you wish for". The problems we face now are the result of an intellectually and morally bankrupt political party which has proved susceptible to being easily dominated by a well organised, determined, and, you have to admit, very clever ethnic faction. Labour were thrust into office in 2017 against their expectations on the whim of a disgruntled, self-serving minor party politician. Their program consisted of bumper sticker slogans; their personnel had been selected for their race, gender or sexual orientation rather than any ability to deliver.They knew that had to retain the Maori seats to remain in power for the longer term which gave the Maori Caucus immense power, and they took full advantage of it. Labour's legislative program in its second term has been almost entirely for the benefit of tribalist interests, and the undoing of democracy based on equal suffrage. The only solution in the near term is the removal of Labour from office at the coming election by such a large margin that they remain in the wilderness for many years to come. This will give the country a chance to rebuild and to address the issues raised in this important article more soberly and at a steadier pace. Failing that I, like many others today, fear for this country's future.

Ele Ludemann said...

It is ridiculous to base electorates on the idea that any group thinks as one, that people in that group have the same needs and aspirations.

Former Māori Party leader Tariana Turia admitted that when she said that Māori seats don't give Māori people a voice.

That's backed up by the stats that show many Māori choose general electorates rather than Māori ones.

Most Māori electorates also give poorer representation for their constituents because they are so big - Te Tai Tonga covers the whole of the South Island, Stewart Island and part of the lower North Island.

Ele Ludemann