A child recently asked me: "Why do you have so many freckles?" She couldn't have been older than 4. Her eyes busily processed every small spot as she drew imaginary lines between them with her fingers. I answered as best as I could. "But why?" I love the curiosity of children as their minds work a million miles an hour to understand the big world around them. I take my hat off to parents and early childhood educators currently hearing "but why?" over and over every day from the little ones they care for. Asking questions is an important part of development and encourages a thirst for knowledge and lifelong learning.
Being in Parliament sometimes feels a bit like a kindergarten. There are squabbles, the occasional tantrum, and many questions that can seem quite repetitive to the public, and irritating to the Government too. The ability to question is vital for democracy. As politicians, it's our job to question the policies and intentions of the Government in order to make sense of where we're heading as a country. What laws will the Government pass? What problem are they trying to solve? How will the change impact the life of a child just starting school, the pocket of a solo mum, the small business owner struggling to find staff and pay taxes? How will we know if the policy's been a success or failure?
We question the Government's plan for a Covid recovery, testing of border workers, and the vaccine roll out. This week is budget week, and we'll question how much money the Government plans to spend over the next few years, in which areas and on what projects - film subsidies for the Hollywood elite or more pharmaceuticals for life saving drugs?
It's about accountability and transparency.
Last week, some of my colleagues in Parliament accused others of racism for raising questions about He Puapua, a report commissioned by Cabinet which proposes constitutional changes to New Zealand. The He Puapua report recommends the Government exempts Māori land from rates, establishes Māori wards, gives Māori greater rights under the Resource Management Act and creates a new separate Māori court system and a separate Māori Parliament.
Those are some pretty big changes that would fundamentally shift New Zealand. Any constitutional change should be questioned and debated. A change that could see two children born today in New Zealand from parents with different ancestry given different rights under the law deserves the highest scrutiny. To do otherwise would be to neglect our duty to uphold democracy.
The Māori Development Minister will present a paper to Cabinet on these ideas in the next few weeks, put it out for public consultation this year, and we could see new laws made this term. That's worth debating.
The Minister of Health has already proposed a new Māori Health Authority. Which other ideas from the report will be progressed? Importantly, why?
It is not racist to question policy that creates two systems for New Zealanders.
If we're going to have constitutional conversations, they need to be out in the open, not hidden in the shadows.
I want to live in a country where we can acknowledge our differences and seek better outcomes for all children regardless of race. It's time to focus on our common humanity rather than constantly looking for division. We need better ideas, and to have honest conversations. Accusing others of racism when they challenge your idea is simply lazy. It stifles debate and breeds resentment.
It speaks to a growing sentiment I'm hearing across New Zealand. People are more and more cautious to express their opinions because others choose to take offence at ideas they don't support. We should all be respectful in the way we deal with each other, whether we agree or disagree. We should show leadership by standing up for the ability to freely think and ask questions in our Parliament. How can we teach our children the importance of critical thinking, if we don't expect it from our leaders?
Freedom of expression is one of the most important values our society has.
The issue should not be about race, as some would like to make it out to be. It is about which vision is more likely to give every child born in New Zealand the best chance to succeed.
I don't really care if our country is called New Zealand or Aotearoa. How about we focus on the outcomes for kids?
• Brooke van Velden, MP, is the deputy leader of the Act Party