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Paul Goldsmith: When did we, as a country, decide that the Treaty trumps democracy?

Labour’s Māori Development Minister, Willie Jackson, infamously said on Q&A recently that the nature of our democracy has changed. He’s backed it up in a New Zealand Herald opinion piece declaring, “We live in a new democracy”, while stating that politicians questioning the changes are engaging in “racist dog-whistles”.

What’s going on? Last week Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party passed the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill.

Under this Bill, the people of Canterbury will elect 14 councillors. Everyone gets a vote – Māori, Pakeha and everyone else. And then something extraordinary happens. Ngāi Tahu appoints two more councillors. No voting and no election.

This is not a Māori ward, allocated proportionately to the population. These are additional appointments made by an independent entity – Ngāi Tahu. Something like the English aristocracy of old, or the Fijian Great Council of Chiefs.

National has opposed the Bill and will repeal it, if re-elected next year, because it offends two basic principles – equal voting rights for all New Zealanders, and basic accountability at the ballot box.

Ministry of Justice advice to the Government on the Bill points out that this clearly discriminates against non-Māori. Yet extraordinarily, the Ministry also says in a couple of loose paragraphs that the Treaty justifies this change.

This is a dramatic and radical change to the way we choose our government in New Zealand. When did we, as a country, decide that the Treaty trumps democracy? We haven’t.

The idea of equal suffrage – equal voting rights, regardless of gender, class and ethnicity – has been a pillar of our democracy for decades. Remember Kate Sheppard? All New Zealanders should have an equal say in who governs them; an equal say in appointing the people that make the decisions that affects their lives.

Equally fundamental to our system is the ability to throw poor performers out at the next election – that is the bedrock accountability in our democracy. But not under this Bill. Ngai Tahu’s representatives could never be thrown out.

Why this Labour Government thinks they can casually move away from these principles without a broad national discussion or clear mandate is beyond me. Where are the legal profession; the constitutional experts, the Human Rights Commission, the usual noisy crowd? The silence is deafening.

Kiritapu Allan, the Minister of Justice, says incoherently that “equal voting rights are critically fundamental to New Zealand’s democracy” and that she nevertheless supports giving Ngai Tahu the ability to appoint councillors, after they’ve already enjoyed equal voting rights. She makes no attempt to reconcile the two.

Some Labour MPs have said that Ngai Tahu is a special case; other Labour MPs (Tamati Coffey) have said: “I put a pānui out to all of those other iwi that are listening: Ngāi Tahu have opened the door.”

It’s clear that the argument for the Canterbury legislation will be extended to every other regional council, then unitary councils, then the rest.

If we as a country no longer think that equal voting rights apply at one level of government, pressure will build for change in national elections.

I can’t think of a more divisive agenda for any government to run.

In the absence of any comments from the Prime Minister on the topic, New Zealanders can rightly conclude it is the agenda of the Labour Party to change our democracy away from equal voting rights and accountability to one that points to two classes of citizens.

If Jacinda Ardern and her government Ministers no longer think that Kiwis should have equal voting rights, then they should make the case and ask New Zealanders whether they agree.

If it is dog-whistling to question these things, then we are all lost.



Paul Goldsmith is a National MP and spokesperson for Justice

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