Democracy has been a hot topic in New Zealand in recent months, and I’ve been having some thoughts about some of its facets. I’ve already written about the sacking of the democratically elected Canterbury Regional Council (Ecan), and the Auckland super-city setup whereby many processes associated with public assets are being contracted out to non-accountable private entities.
Here’s another facet that’s been teasing me for some time – special race-based seats. (It’s related to the maxim of ‘One person one vote’.) This issue resurfaced when the representative structure for the Auckland super-city was decided and no representation was provided exclusively for Maori (or other ethnicities). But it’s been around – and it’s bothered me – for decades in the form of debate over Maori seats in parliament.
The standard argument against these seats allocated on the basis of ethnicity or race is that people of any ethnicity can become representatives simply by competing on merit in general electorates. If they’re good enough to do the job, they’ll get in through that route.
That’s a perfectly logical and satisfying argument if you happen to be part of the majority culture or ethnicity, and it works okay for those of the minority culture who relish a huge challenge. But for significant minorities – clearly Maori in most parts of New Zealand – this argument is just too simplistic, shallow and patronising.
If you’re an insistent advocate of racial assimilation – of minority cultures adjusting to fit in with a dominant culture – then you probably won’t agree with much from here on. But if you believe that:
- all cultures have some inherent worth (even European J),
- all people should be able to identify with their chosen culture, and live according to it within the fundamental rules of civil and respectful living,
- people of tangata whenua status should have a truly representative voice in governance structures (if for no other reason than recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi), by which I mean their representatives should reflect Maori aspirations,
then there is a strong case for special seats. And it’s not just for ethical or political reasons; in fact it’s really a simple mathematical issue.
Let’s work this through using a reasonable approximation that 15% of New Zealand voters identify themselves as Maori. My argument is stronger for a region like Auckland which has a higher proportion of Maori residents, particularly in some areas such as South Auckland.
If after an election the parliament of New Zealand comprises 15% Maori, then that would appear to be OK. Correctly proportional representation. But is it? Can this set-up reflect the interests of both pakeha and Maori?
If there were no reserved Maori seats and all these elected Maori gained their place in “general” electorates, they would be morally bound to represent the majority of their constituents – that is, the 85% of pakeha voters. And, most likely, they would only be elected in the first place if they appealed to that majority of voters so it would be unlikely they would be able to advocate specifically for Maori unless the pakeha in their electorate approved.
In other words, these 15% of politicians would be people who identified themselves as Maori and presumably sometimes leaned toward Maori cultural viewpoints and solutions to social issues. However, they would rarely be able to advocate for any special Maori solutions on controversial cultural issues because they must be accountable to the whole (mainly pakeha) electorate.
So under this arrangement, even though 15% of the parliament may be Maori, none of the them could ethically advocate for Maori values and aspirations on any issue that the dominant pakeha culture is uncomfortable with. If they did try it – say on some watershed issue such as Foreshore and Seabed or special funding for a Maori education initiative – they would probably be voted out come next election. To survive, they would need to think and vote like pakeha.
It is for this reason that I am pretty convinced that, in a country where race relationships are based on the partnership concepts of the Treaty of Waitangi, there needs to be some dedicated seats (in proportion to population) just for the minority Treaty partner, so they can truly, and without fear of their electorate, advocate for their cultural values.
It’s still ‘one person one vote’, but a special seats option does allow genuine representation of significant minority voices and aspirations to be heard, and for both parties of the Treaty partnership to have influence.