A real tragedy seems to be unfolding in this country, as councils ponder the issue of Māori wards. One might have hoped that we were steadily evolving towards a society in which our various component cultures, not just Māori and the numerical dominance 'enjoyed' by those of European descent, are recognised, respected and valued. Not long ago we seemed to be doing just that, not with great haste perhaps but slowly and surely. Now we are increasingly focusing on all that divides us.
A cursory examination of our collective voting history over the last generation or two, at both central and local government levels, reveals that New Zealanders don't look to ethnicity when it comes to choosing who will represent them. And nor should they. The best candidate should win, and, with some exceptions perhaps, generally does. Ethnic minorities are not shut out of our political system, but some people obviously think they are.
Two questions need to be addressed. Firstly, is the electoral system biased against ethnic minorities, particularly Māori, and if it is, should the general populace have a say in how we fix that? The answer to the first is clearly no, and to the second an emphatic yes.
The writer is not intimately familiar with the ethnic origins of the Far North District Council's 10 elected members, but a correspondent last week claimed that all but two of them could claim Māori ancestry. To most of us that will be of no interest at all. We looked at those who were seeking election last year and made our choices; it is difficult to believe that anyone made those choices based on the candidates' ethnic origins.
There is much more to this issue than candidates' ancestry, however. The drive for Māori wards is clearly aimed at introducing a specifically Māori voice, people who are familiar with te ao Māori, and are able to represent it in all that the council does. That might have some relevance in terms of some council roles, but it would be drawing a very long bow to suggest that a specifically Māori point of view, or need, differs to any degree from what councils should be doing for every person they represent in terms of maintaining roads, supplying water, disposing of wastewater and rubbish.
Every territorial authority will be different, of course. Some communities have very small Māori populations, while in the Far North Māori are actually the majority. Fifty-one per cent of those who live in this district reportedly identify as Māori, but still there seems to be little appetite for establishing Māori wards here. At least there hasn't been much support for them in the past, and Mayor John Carter, who favours them, clearly suspects that that hasn't changed.
Carter displayed the benefit of his enormous political experience when the subject was discussed by his council, successfully deferring a decision, by referendum, until the 2022 local government elections. He's copped a bit of criticism for that, which is grossly unfair, and doesn't bode well for the standard of debate we can expect over the next couple of years. His logic was this - a vote to establish Māori wards now would almost certainly result in a call for a referendum, the result of which would be binding. Given past antipathy, he believes that a referendum now would result in the proposal being rejected, in which case it could not be raised again for another six years.
Shelving the proposal for a referendum in 2022, however, would allow time for a proper discussion, and a much better informed decision, which he believes would improve the prospects of majority support. We won't know if he's right until the time comes, but his rationale might well see his council adopt Māori wards much sooner than Northland's other councils, which have all voted to establish Māori wards, with fingers crossed that opponents do not call for polls, and if they do, that those polls will fail to stop them.
Some of those who support Māori wards clearly know which way the wind is likely to blow. They are now asking the Minister of Local Government to remove the provision for binding referenda from local government legislation, an extraordinary attack on the fundamental principles of democracy, one that is unlikely to improve the odds of popular support. Even more alarmingly, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta does not seem averse to doing as she has been asked, although it is unlikely that her government will agree with that. One would certainly hope it doesn't.
The case for Māori wards isn't helped by the dearth of information regarding how they will work or how they will change the way in which local authorities function. It is extraordinary that a council would resolve to establish wards without any indication regarding how they will work or what impact they might have. The people who made these decisions have latched on to what seems to them to be a jolly good idea with no concept whatsoever of what they were actually voting for, or, more importantly, proposing to impose upon their communities. Any politician who thinks this is an acceptable way to make such a decision should follow former Northland Regional councillor John Bain's example and resign, and campaign for re-election on the basis of what they supposedly believe in terms of fair representation.
It's probably not a bad bet that none of those who have voted for Māori wards could do that even if they wanted to, because they wouldn't be able to explain in any detail just what they are proposing.
It's all a bit sad really, and unnecessary. Surely we should be focusing on the things that unite us, and there are plenty of those. Do we not all want local authorities that do a good job of providing the basic infrastructure that their communities depend upon them to deliver? Do we really care who does that job, providing they do it, well and affordably?
What exactly are the barriers that are preventing people of any given ethnicity or philosophy from winning a seat on their local council? We spend a lot of time and energy complaining about barriers, but more often than not they are a myth. An excuse. And we don't need any more of those.
Having said that, it might be that Māori wards could make a significant positive contribution to the way in which local authorities function, but those who believe that should be telling us why. It would be nice to think that most voters are reasonable, rational people who will accept a well-argued case for change.
What they are unlikely to accept is an edict from people who are widely perceived as practising political correctness on a grand scale, and in some cases are prepared to deprive the people they represent of a fundamental, legally protected democratic right, to have their way.
If Māori wards are a good idea, tell us why. Tell us, in detail, how they will work, and what they will contribute towards making councils more efficient, effective and responsive, beyond the utterly baseless argument that they will meet some obligation imposed by the Treaty of Waitangi.
Please, tell us why Māori wards would be a good thing. We're listening.