“Tears, anger and heartache followed tangata whenua out of the room as an historic opportunity became, in the eyes of some, cynical sidelining.”
That was the opening sentence on Stuff’s report of last week’s meeting at which Manawatu district councillors voted 6-4 against the creation of Maori wards.
Stuff reported that the council voted to defer a decision until 2024, “amid accusations [that] aspirations of re-election were put ahead of their convictions”.
Now there’s a textbook example of objective, coolly dispassionate 2021-style journalism for you.
The story was written under the byline of Sinead Gill. I don’t recognise the name, but let me guess: she’s young, idealistic, university-educated, and has been taught to believe, like many journalists of her generation, that her role is to function as an advocate for repressed minorities.
Gill clearly disapproved of the councillors who voted “no”, but like all journalists she enjoys the benefit of not being accountable to voters. This makes it easy to claim the moral high ground. Power without responsibility, to quote Stanley Baldwin’s famous utterance about the British press.
Stuff’s emotive story demonstrates what councillors who oppose the creation of Maori wards, for perfectly proper and legitimate reasons, are up against. In having the courage to act on their convictions, they risk denunciation from partisan news media.
But they have a responsibility to vote as they believe their constituents would want them to, and those councillors can fortify themselves with the knowledge that their decision was almost certainly in line with the majority view as reflected whenever the question of Maori wards has been put to a popular vote (that is to say, before the current government, in a flagrantly anti-democratic manoeuvre, abolished that option). In the Manawatu, 77 percent of respondents voted against Maori wards in a 2018 referendum.
Stuff’s account also shone a light on another, more visceral disincentive faced by councillors brave enough to consider voting “no”. The council chamber was reportedly crammed with “marae representatives, tamariki and mokopuna” who performed a haka ahead of the vote. It takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude to stand firm in the face of such a highly charged demonstration, as the organisers would have known. A haka may be friendly or unfriendly, but in this type of context its effect can be intimidating.
Stuff quoted Manawatu mayor Helen Worboys and her deputy, Michael Forde, as saying they personally favoured a Maori ward but were worried about the public reaction. “I favour equity over equality,” Forde was reported as saying, “but as an elected representative, I represent the community. I’d say the community isn’t ready for a Maori ward just yet.”
Other councillors voted “no” because they wanted more time to “educate” voters about Maori wards so that if one was adopted, it would be with majority support.
But here’s a better idea. The next local government elections will be held in October next year. What’s to stop Maori candidates from standing under the existing arrangements, in which case there can be no arguments about democratic legitimacy?
Barbara Cameron, whom Stuff describes as Maori, was on the Manawatu council for 15 years before stepping down in 2019. Clearly, then, voters will elect good Maori candidates, just as they have done many times in other parts of New Zealand. Cameron was quoted as being disappointed with the council’s decision, but her own example exposes the fallacy of the argument that Maori can succeed only via race-based wards.
Meanwhile, it’s reported that Kapiti District Council, on the advice of its iwi “partners”, unanimously agreed last week not to establish Maori wards – for now, at least.
On the face of it, this looks encouraging; but reading between the lines, I’d guess the local Kapiti iwi have made a shrewd strategic decision to take a different route – one that could ultimately secure them far more influence in local governance than could be achieved by a mere one or two seats at the council table.
Footnote: This is a slightly amended version of the original post.