Democracy Under Threat in New Zealand

Gareth MorganTreaty

Howie Tamati, sole Maori councillor on the New Plymouth District Council, sees the granting of Maori wards on local councils as a step in the right direction, “not the right answer but a start” (Insight, Radio NZ, March 1st). He is wrong, very wrong.

New Zealand is a democracy and democratic rights of the individual should be sacrosanct. Goodness knows most of the world struggles with regimes that do not champion proper democracy and grant political rights to sections of society, rights that come at the expense of freedoms and liberty of others. New Zealand has embarked upon a path of granting Group Maori special political privileges as a way of making up for our inability to honour the Treaty of Waitangi. In no way is such a course an acceptable substitute. Democracy in our country is something we should never, ever sacrifice in the name of meeting some other objective.

Rather than trying to address the reality that local councils are not fulfilling their statutory obligations to Maori by having a few token Maori seats on council, councils need to actually address the treaty breaches they are committing by not fulfilling their statutory duty as per the Local Council Act. Maori representation on council is an altogether different matter and irrelevant to the poor conduct of councils. The Wai262 Treaty ruling said as much.

Well meaning people such as Andrew Judd, Mayor of New Plymouth, are misguided in thinking that greater Maori representation is the issue. It is not – the issue is his council is not fulfilling its obligations to Maori as per the Act.

And insofar as entitlements of our indigenous society, Article 3 of the Treaty itself says they must be fulfilled within a framework of equal citizenship or political rights, as does Article 46 of the 2007 UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Continuing the Maori seats in parliament was absolutely against the recommendation of the 1985 Royal Commission on the Electoral System that recommended MMP as being a far better and fairer variant of democracy. Yet the government of the day held on to them – the rationale being that Maori were not yet in a situation where their rights and entitlements under the Treaty were assured.

There we have it. The degradation of our democracy can be expected to continue for as long as the government of the day refuses to honour the treaty. Time and time again we are having to introduce special privileges for Maori as a ‘band aid’ alternative to doing the right thing and honouring the treaty. From granting political privileges to issuing quotas in tertiary educations institutions, these measures are all deemed necessary because of our ongoing failure to honour the treaty. We need to wake up and deal with the underlying issue rather than continue down this path of trading off democracy in some sort of pseudo treaty-honouring, claim-avoiding process that simply is delaying the day and fuelling resentment.

What does “honouring the treaty” look like? These days I often ask people to tell me in 10 words or less what they think the treaty means. By far most respondents don’t understand the question sufficiently so have to use far more than 10 words, running to pages in some sad cases. Their first hurdle seems to be knowing what the treaty comprises of – they are not aware that it comprises, not just the versions of the document transcribed in 1840, but also the principles of the treaty determined over the post-1975 grievance, reconciliation and settlement period by the Courts and the Waitangi Tribunal. In fact without a knowledge of the principles no sense can be made of the treaty in the contemporary context – so those who bury themselves in trying to decipher which 1840 document they should understand, end up getting nowhere in their appreciation of the matter. This is the general ignorance amongst the public I have referred to before – and the Constitutional Review Panel more limply referred to as a ‘need for education’.

The essence of the treaty can easily be summed up succinctly as follows – the rights of two societies to coexist and thrive forever. Once that is understood it becomes very easy to see how we can avoid continuing down a path that has to, by necessity, keep introducing special anti-democratic measures in order to protect Maori.

Enshrining in our Constitution the right of Maori society to exist and thrive makes it very clear to everyone what the operating rules for our New Zealand society should be. We are all New Zealanders, the argument that such a policy is separatist is rubbish, we have one set of laws as well, but what we don’t yet do properly, is acknowledge that as well as the rights around natural resources expounded in Article 2, tangata whenua have full rights to the protection of their customs, institutions, tradition and language. This needs to be made unambiguous via the Constitution.

People ask me when do I think we will have arrived at such a situation? I always say that when all children of New Zealand can be relaxed in either Maori society or their own, then you know we have achieved the bicultural and multicultural society that New Zealanders aspire to.

This nonsense of extending to Group Maori political rights in direct contradiction of Article 3 is most certainly not the way to go – all the international political literature tells us it’s a sure-fired way to deepen ethnic division in New Zealand, to fuel mistrust because of the general misunderstanding of why it’s deemed necessary. Being honest about the rights of Group Maori as per the treaty is a far more transparent alternative and writing a Constitution that embeds that will remove the climate of uncertainty and fear.

Against the importance of this, the current priority to get the Union Jack off the flag is trivial.





Democracy Under Threat in New Zealand was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.