Ma¯ ori wards
Late last year, five city councils in New Zealand voted unilaterally to establish Ma¯ori wards, seeking to give Ma¯ori automatic seats on council. In every case, local residents have collected sufficient signatures to force referenda aiming to overturn the council decisions.
The debate has become intense; this for many is a major constitutional issue. But what are we arguing about? Is it about racism, the role and authority of local councils, democracy, Ma¯ori affirmative action, curing Ma¯ori social problems, or what? Everyone in the argument probably has their own different ideas.
Biculturalism has been introduced by small steps over the years. This is the first time most citizens have ever been asked to vote on the issue. We might get a shock when we find out what New Zealanders actually think when they can express themselves without fear of attack.
One thing is certain, we have been plunged into a highly polarised debate. Many citizens believe it is the role of their local councils to provide water and sewerage services and make sure the lawns are mowed in our public parks. They do not believe it is the role of councils to get involved in complicated social issues and then send ratepayers the bill.
The ability for citizens to challenge the decision to create Ma¯ori wards by way of a referendum is currently at risk, with several recent undemocratic moves initiated in Parliament and by local government officials to remove the ability of citizens to even seek a referendum that can challenge a council’s decision on Ma¯ori wards.
The most recent attempt to abolish referenda on Ma¯ori wards was last year, by way of a parliamentary private member’s bill by Green MP Marama Davidson. The Greens and Labour back Davidson’s bill.
Understandably many citizens are now simmering-mad over what they see is as a sly attack on their constitutional and democratic rights.
Other people see this as an issue of much needed affirmative action to help Ma¯ ori, while others see it as too much affirmative action. Affirmative action means providing special privileges and financial support to Ma¯ori to compensate them for being disadvantaged.
Most New Zealanders agree that Ma¯ori were hard-done-by when Europeans arrived and colonised this country on their terms. Most agree that some recognition should be given to Ma¯ ori, and some compensation made.
Does the addition of automatic Ma¯ori seats in local government, combined with all the other Treaty of Waitangi benefits, cross a line that some citizens start to feel uncomfortable with? When does all the electoral intrigue trying to stifle the right to a public referendum begin to make people think their democratic rights are being undermined?
Few politicians are prepared to say where the line on Ma¯ ori affirmative action is; how much is too much and how much is not enough.
Yet it is claimed Ma¯ori remain socially disadvantaged in terms of measures like income, welfare uptake, health and prison population, despite intensive affirmative action over the past 50 years, with Ma¯ori receiving billions in Treaty settlements, their own schools, their own television and radio stations, Wha¯nau Ora, to name a few. Claims are made Ma¯ori are the victims of colonialism and suppression of their culture. So it is claimed that tipping the democratic process in favour of Ma¯ori by giving them supernormal political representation is required, such as dedicated seats on local councils.
The political game of garnering as much as one can from affirmative action calls on the recipients to play the victim. Does such victimhood sit well with Ma¯ori, has it done enough for them over the past half century? Will it help them much over the next century? Does victimhood sit well with a people who have a strong sense of ‘mana’?
Without proper leadership from the politicians and open fact based debate, the people will have to fight Ma¯ori wards out amongst themselves. Citizens who are to vote on this matter should consider their position carefully. If certain politicians have their way it may be the last time we get to vote like this. SELWYN BROWN Palmerston North