Last week New Plymouth District Council opted to create a Maori ward for the next local government election. That means local Maori who choose to go on a Maori-only role get to elect a representative directly to the council. Everybody else in New Plymouth will be grouped into wards based on where they live.
The rationale for the Maori ward goes something like this: Maori are a minority in New Plymouth, with a population of approximately 6,000 or just under 10 percent. As things stand currently, if Maori views don’t line up with the rest of the population, they stand a poor chance of seeing their preferences reflected in New Plymouth DC’s decisions. Because of differences in population size, the preferences of their non-Maori neighbours will count for more. Creating a unique place on the council for a representative chosen only by Maori will rectify this, so the argument goes.
However, there’s a lot of assumptions in here and councilor Len Houwers is right to say this sort of decision has no place for emotion. For a start, Maori are only excluded from local government if their views consistently differ from those of their neighbours. That’s a big if, given the wide range of council responsibilities. Do Maori views differ over rating levels, or funding for the library, or parking restrictions for example? On many issues Maori views will line up with those of non-Maori and their voice will be reflected in council decisions – which means the case for a Maori ward dissolves.
While we are not privy to official debates over the issue, there does not appear to have been any attempt to empirically establish that Maori views do in fact differ from those of other residents in New Plymouth. Instead, we read emotionally appealing but ultimately unconvincing arguments for a Maori ward because Maori feel excluded, or because there are no Maori councilors.
It is not our intention to dismiss or be disrespectful to Maori feelings on the issue, but it’s commonplace to hear people, and particularly many groups of common interest say they don’t feel particularly listened to and would like more political power. No way is this discontent unique to Maori. So what is the test that needs to be satisfied in order to justify granting one group more political power than anyone else? Only if it can be shown that the group’s views on a wide range of issues consistently differ from the consensus of the rest, can it be said that the group’s members have less political influence than anybody else and are right to feel aggrieved. Of course this was the original rationale for Maori seats in Parliament – Maori in those days didn’t even have the right to vote! New Plymouth has produced no such evidence in justification.
If there was an absence of Maori councilors (given the council has 14 seats you’d expect one or two) might, prima facie indicate discrimination is occurring and discrimination is unacceptable. But even if that’s established – and in the case of New PLymouth DC it’s not actually the case – then it would be far better in our view, to tackle discrimination directly and urgently. The Human Rights and Racial Relations Acts are the tools to use.
There could be an another rationale behind creating a Maori ward, a rationale arising from an interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi. While there are many things claimed of the Treaty, one that cannot be disputed is that Article 2 created unique rights for Maori over New Zealand’s natural resources and Maori cultural treasures or taonga. In today’s world it means Maori have unique rights to influence what happens to land remaining in public ownership, such as conservation land, and to influence local government natural resource planning. The unique rights Maori have here are more akin to what we think of as property rights. Local governments have a legislative requirement to reflect Maori views on these issues.
But in this sphere the appropriate remedy is contentious. The Local Government Act does not specify how councils are to capture and reflect Maori views. The Maori ward is one way, but having a close working relationship with local hapu is another. Indeed there is a risk that creating a Maori ward gets the council off the hook, since it no longer has to try and develop a closer relationship with local Maori. We are not aware of any empirical work which shows what is likely to be more effective at incorporating the views of local Maori – separate Maori representation or a closer relationship between council and local hapu. What we do know is that in New Plymouth local iwi wanted more time to consider the options. Yet cynically, even on the very issue of how better to involve Maori, these Maori views were ignored. How ironic – you can see why Maori feel frustrated.
Now here’s the rub. The establishment of New Plymouth’s Maori ward creates unique opportunities for Maori to influence all council decisions, not just those relating to natural resources and taonga. It creates a unique opportunity for Maori to influence decisions that affect everyone, not just Maori. That means it creates unique political rights for Maori. Other local councils have also created unique opportunities for Maori to influence decisions well beyond these two specific areas carved out by Article 2 of the Treaty. This exposes a flaw in the Local Government Act. The Act holds that councils must incorporate Maori views but does not limit this to issues around natural resources and taonga. It should. Instead, the Act permits council processes that undermine political equality for everyone.
There are two problems with this. For a start Article 3 in the Treaty protects the principle of political equality. Measures like New Plymouth’s Maori ward are a breach of Article 3. More importantly, consider the adverse impact granting such unique political rights can have over time on social cohesion.
Around the world much thought has gone into the best way to govern countries made up of different ethnic groups. While there is much the experts don’t agree on, they all acknowledge that giving groups defined by descent, unique political rights (for example, special voting wards) risks creating new, or exacerbating existing, social divisions over time. Despite this well respected, international census, New Plymouth DC is just the latest of many government agencies in New Zealand to walk down this path.
The risk to social cohesion does not arise because the rest of the population feels aggrieved and grumpy – they may, but the argument against group political rights is more sophisticated than that. When unique political rights are given to a select group defined by descent, the leaders of that group are incentivised to accentuate the difference between their group and the rest of society. They fear any awareness and acknowledgement of common ground between the group and the wider society, because that may lead to the questioning and ultimately loss of the unique rights held by the group. So, political arrangements like the Maori ward create unique group rights that can trigger a dynamic parting of the ways within society that is artificial but no less powerful for that. Given that cross-cultural connections and empathy in a society are every bit as important as ethnic identity, this incentive to “accentuate the differences” is toxic.
The move by New Plymouth DC is symptomatic of changes elsewhere within government. Those responsible for sorting out how decisions get made in government are turning a blind eye to the international experience, continually undermining political equality (despite its protection under the Treaty’s Article 3) and increasing the long-term risks that come with that.
Instead of looking for short-cuts, we should be looking to reduce discrimination and better connect Maori to the natural resources and taonga which are such an important part of their heritage. And we should base our decisions on clear thinking, an evidence base and the lessons available from around the world.
Why I’m talking about the Treaty