Do New Zealanders Really Want Political Structures Based On Race?


Written by Dr Don Brash

Late last year, five district councils – Western Bay of Plenty, Whakatane, Palmerston North, Manawatu and Kaikoura – voted to establish one or more Maori wards in their districts. The intention was that those on the Maori roll for Parliamentary elections would vote in these separate wards, but not in the “general” wards.

The law provides that if 5% of ratepayers in a district sign a petition objecting to the creation of these race-based wards, there must be a district-wide vote on the issue. In all five districts, sufficient people signed a petition objecting to the wards for a districtwide vote to be held, and as I write these votes are taking place. The results will be known very shortly.

Local Government New Zealand, the body which claims to speak for all local authorities, has written an open letter to the Government, asking that the law be changed to remove the right of ratepayers to demand a poll on the creation of a Maori ward. LGNZ notes that ratepayers have no such right to object to the creation of a general ward, or the modification of the boundary of an existing ward. Why should the creation of a Maori ward be any different?

In my view, the creation of a ward based on race is fundamentally different from modifying an existing ward boundary, or creating a new general ward, and should absolutely be subject to a district-wide vote.

If Maori wards, then why not Asian wards, or wards for those from the Pacific Islands?

But surely Maori wards are different from Asian wards, or wards for those from the Pacific? Why so?

Aren’t Maori different, as tangata whenua? Didn’t the Treaty of Waitangi give them special rights?

Well, actually no, the Treaty guaranteed that all New Zealanders would have equal rights – Article III of the Treaty is absolutely unambiguous about that.

The Treaty didn’t actually mention voting structures or rights at all – that was hardly surprising because of course in 1840 the idea of all adults having a vote, irrespective of gender or of property owned, wasn’t even contemplated.

There is absolutely no basis for those who chance to have a Maori ancestor – along with many ancestors of other ethnicities in most cases – having different political rights than those enjoyed by the rest of us.

But surely there should be scope to hear “the Maori voice” in local government? This makes the rather extraordinary assumption that all those with a Maori ancestor have a common view on local government matters – most of which deal with roading, drainage, parks, libraries, and the rest. Why would those with a Maori ancestor have a common view on these issues, any more than the rest of the population has?

Moreover, those arguing for the creation of separate Maori wards seem to assume that, without such a “leg-up”, those with a Maori ancestor are incapable of being elected to local government on their own merit. What patronizing nonsense! Maori have often been elected to local government in general wards.

Those pushing for a Maori ward in Whakatane argued that there should be such a ward because more than 40% of Whakatane’s population is Maori. But if that is the case, why on earth should we believe that Maori are incapable of being elected to the district council?

When the first Auckland Council was elected after the creation of the Super-City, three of the 20 councilors happened to be Maori, which meant that Maori councilors were about the same share of the council as Maori were of Auckland’s population.

And what about Carterton, where two Maori – Ron Mark and Georgina Beyer – have both been elected mayor?

Even more striking, what about the number of Maori New Zealanders in Parliament – 29 out of a total of 120? At the present time, the Deputy Leader of Labour, the Leader and Deputy Leader of National, the Leader and Deputy Leader of New Zealand First, the Co-Leader of the Greens, and even the Leader of ACT all have Maori ancestry. And Local Government New Zealand wants the Government to change the law to enable individual local governments to set up special Maori wards without giving their citizens any right to object. Frankly, that is an outrageous assault on democracy.

Of course, it is also high time that separate Maori electorates in Parliament were scrapped – they are a curious anachronism without the slightest current justification. They were established in 1867 for just five years, in recognition of the fact that at that time only men who owned property got to vote; since most Maori property was communally owned, at that time virtually no Maori men got to vote and the creation of separate Maori electorates was a way to get around that.

Those electorates should have been scrapped when all adults, men and women irrespective of property holdings, were entitled to vote. The Royal Commission on the Electoral System also concluded, in the late 1980s, that they should be scrapped if New Zealand opted for the MMP electoral system because that would greatly increase the chance for Maori to be elected to Parliament.

And so it has proved to be. Of the 29 Maori MPs in the current Parliament (almost 25% of the total of 120 MPs), only six got there through the Maori electorates (Kelvin Davis also won a Maori electorate – there are seven Maori electorates in total – but would have been elected to Parliament whether he had won that electorate or not, being number 2 on Labour’s List).

Newstalk ZB political commentator Barry Soper recently argued for scrapping the Maori electorates, but said that of course that won’t happen when Labour is the lead party of Government because Labour holds all of the seven Maori electorates. He suggested that Labour would not now be the Government without those seven Maori electorates. But of course that is quite incorrect: the number of Labour MPs in Parliament depends entirely on Labour’s share of the Party Vote, and Labour would have exactly the same number of MPs as they have now if they had lost all the Maori electorates. Time for the Maori electorates to go.