I have been sitting on the fence – somewhat uncomfortably – watching the race relations debate around Maori and non-Maori. And I have decided that both sides have points, but there are weaknesses in the arguments held by both. One might ask so what is the point of this post then? In re-examining old thoughts on this issue I have found that there are also issues both sides either cannot or will not acknowledge.
The disenfranchising of Maori is not new. It has been happening for some time under both Governments. Whilst Maori participate in all aspects of life – as politicians, teachers, nurses and so forth, the socio-economic problems that have caused Maori to be misrepresented in crime and poverty statistics are as glaring as ever and the surface unity is slowly coming unstuck from underneath by disenfranchisement with a system that fails them as much as it fails everybody else.
The discourse with Maori about voting has always been a controversial one. New Zealand has Maori Electorates, which for the most part all parties except New Zealand First – whose default position is not to have race-based seats – contest in the general election. Indeed, Mixed Member Proportional enables the Maori party to exist, just as it does the other smaller parties in Parliament. And whilst those electorates do indeed enable Maori greater representation in Parliament, they are either unaware of or ignore a bigger problem.
The discourse about favouritism towards Maori is equally controversial. For me this is perhaps more clear cut in that the reasoning behind it stems from. Notably this topic has been aired by politicians such as Don Brash whose conservative principles were demonstrated in a 2004 speech. Revising legislation such as the Resource Management Act to remove references to the Treaty of Waitangi, despite Dr Brash’s assertions to the contrary do go some way towards undermining the very Treaty settlements he said in his speech that National had – and has – a record of getting settled. This gives the radical factions in Maoridom the very voice he is trying to silence.
So, what is that problem? This is a problem across the whole political spectrum about disenfranchised voters who are giving up on the established system because it is rigged/faulty/influenced-by-money. After 30 years of market economics, and the policies both of the major parties with whom Maori politicians have worked, with failing to bring meaningful socio-economic gain to people’s lives it is very easy to say “what’s the point? They don’t work for me or anyone I know and they all act like idiots”. And when the Maori Party, which put a proverbial stake in the ground by claiming to work for Maoridom and Maori, and then does not, it is easy to see why Maori feel disenfranchised.
And then there is a second problem. The problem is about how students receive I loved social studies at intermediate and high school and learnt a lot of fascinating stuff about overseas cultures. However I have no particularly strong memories despite it apparently being in the curriculum of learning about Maori, the Treaty of Waitangi, race relations in New Zealand. How many people would know of the treaty of the independent tribes signed in October 1835? Not very many. If people learned Te Reo at school compulsorily, aside from helping to save what I think is a linguistically beautiful language, it helps connect Maori and non-Maori in a way that balances both worlds.
So in conclusion, when I look at the allegations of favouritism by people like Don Brash, and the controversies surrounding aspects of attempts to reconcile Maori with non-Maori, I deliberately do so against the backdrop of this background knowledge. And I find because of that, there is more to the disenfranchisement than politicians and non-politicians are willing to admit. The way forward is ensure that all New Zealanders are taught from the get go what really happened with the Treaty and is happening with the Treaty. And at the same time, engaging the disenfranchised by teaching civics in school will hopefully address participation in elections.
But is anyone game to make the changes necessary?