MAORI HAVE A SIGNIFICANT victory to celebrate this Waitangi Day. Monday’s announcement by Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta heralds a significant shift in the representative breadth of local government in New Zealand. Maori wards are about to become a common feature of this country’s democratic architecture. Mahuta’s reforms will be remembered as an important historical step towards realising fully the bi-cultural constitutional assumptions implicit in the treaty signed at Waitangi on 6 February 1840.
Not all New Zealanders will celebrate Mahuta’s legal changes. Many will decry the Government’s decision to retrospectively eliminate the legal rights of New Zealand citizens. They will further lament the damage Mahuta’s reforms will inflict upon the unitary character of the New Zealand state.
The world does not look kindly upon states that openly proclaim the existence of two (or more) categories of citizenship. It condemned the United States of America’s “Jim Crow” South (1878-1954). Likewise South Africa’s apartheid regime (1948-1994). The Israeli state’s legal elevation of Jewish over non-Jewish citizens raises similar misgivings. The liberal-democratic tradition – out of which the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born - proclaims the equality of all human-beings, and looks askance at any state which bestows legal rights upon one group of its citizens while statutorily withholding them from another.
In the case of Maori wards, the arguments in opposition are generally represented by the phrase “single standard of citizenship”. Local government representation is based upon the number of New Zealanders living within the democratically determined geographical boundaries of regions, districts and cities. Constitutionally, the ethnicity of those New Zealand citizens (or permanent residents) is not supposed to signify.
Except that, at the level of national affairs, ethnicity has been recognised as a significant aspect of political representation since 1867. That was the year New Zealand’s 13-year-old parliament deemed it expedient to create four “Maori Seats”, for the purposes of giving a voice to, and representing the interests of, New Zealand’s “native” population.
Conceptually, it is but a short step from “Maori seats” to “Maori wards”.
If New Zealand’s constitution has survived its deviation from strict liberal-democratic theory at the national level for 154 years, without serious mishap, then what possible objection can their be to replicating that deviation at the local level? Anomalous though New Zealand’s special “indigenous” provisions may be in terms of liberal-democratic theory, they have proved remarkably successful in practice. Proof to many New Zealanders of their country’s improvisational genius.
Ours may be a No. 8 Wire constitution – but it works.
Why, then, was legal provision made for citizens to challenge councils’ decisions to create single, or multiple, Maori wards? After all, no such provision exists allowing citizens-initiated referenda to overturn the creation/composition of general council wards. What was it that made it acceptable for plans to provide effective local representation for New Zealand’s indigenous minority to be vetoed by its local ethnic majority?
It is very difficult to escape the conclusion that the referenda provision vis-à-vis Maori wards was nothing more than a sop to a deeply racist colonial Cerberus. The well-meaning framers of the legislation understood that it would be impossible for them to deliver Maori wards with their progressive left hand, without at the same time giving Pakeha electors an opportunity to snatch them back again with their reactionary right.
The framers’ understanding of Pakeha prejudice was validated repeatedly when nearly all attempts to establish Maori wards were voted down by huge majorities. The descendants of the Pakeha settlers who made the country called “New Zealand” clearly possessed a strong intuition that the colonial state erected on the tribal lands of its conquered “natives” would not long survive any concerted effort to take the bi-cultural implications of the Treaty of Waitangi seriously.
The results of those referenda make it clear that, were the democratic anomaly of New Zealand’s Maori seats put to the vote, their retention would, almost certainly, be rejected decisively. The Pakeha majority’s disdain for the principle of local Maori representation is likely exceeded only by its antipathy for special Maori representation in the New Zealand parliament.
This is the obverse side to the constitutional coin Mahuta and her Labour, Green and Maori Party colleagues have just tossed.
To the Pakeha majority, the principles of liberal-democracy are morally and constitutionally unassailable. To the Maori minority, they’re simply unbeatable.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 February 2021.