• Dame Tariana Turia is a founder and former co-leader of the Maori Party and a minister in the Key Government from 2008 to 2014.

It's a big year ahead, 2017 marks 150 years since the Māori Representation Act 1867 established four Māori seats in the House of Representatives.

The legislation was intended to bring Māori into the centre of political activity and provide lasting peace between Māori and Pākehā. A fairly major challenge, one might think, but our early Parliament was up for the task.

Of the first four Māori members of Parliament, Tāreha Te Moananui for Eastern Maori was the first to speak in the House. He urged the Government to enact wise laws to promote good, and for Māori and Pākehā to work together. Now, 150 years later, we wonder how our ancestors would look at us. This commemoration year has certainly got off to a less than positive start.


The circus of errors that emerged out of the racism debate in the early New Year show us that we still have much to learn about how to enable Māori and Pākehā to work together in an environment of respect.

It was a debate where power, personality, politics, sports and privilege came together with disastrous impact. As words and worlds collided, in the midst of the scrum were none other than a knight, a dame (and world squash champion), a former National Party president, celebrity advocates from the sporting fraternity, the Warriors, the Mad Butcher, the Race Relations Commissioner.

On the other side was a young Māori woman.

The original episode has been thoroughly rehashed in social media - indeed the initial YouTube clip was viewed over 100,000 times before the young woman took it down. The key statement that created spontaneous Facebook outrage was that Waiheke Island was a white man's island.

To add insult to injury, it was then followed by an array of slurs: that the girl was "coffee-coloured"; that the conversation was just "light banter"; that one couldn't be racist if they had a Māori grand-daughter, that words had been misinterpreted, taken out of context.

I was always told in politics, "explaining is losing". How much better might it have been if instead of defending the indefensible, we had looked at last week as an opportunity to examine racism, to unpack the prejudice and create ways to work together, to promote good.

How then do the events of the last week deliver on the promise to provide lasting peace between Māori and Pākehā? Not that well one would say. But are we surprised?

In 1988 a working group headed by John Rangihau travelled the country, holding a total of 65 meetings on marae, in institutions and departmental offices. Its final report, Puao-te-ata-tū, found that a culture of racism within the Department of Social Welfare contributed to the high number of Māori children placed in state care for minor misdemeanours.


The report classified the types of racism experienced across Aotearoa as personal, cultural and institutional. Particular problem areas were policy formation, service delivery, communication, racial imbalances in the staffing, appointment, promotion and training practices. They concluded that they were "in no doubt that changes are essential and must be made urgently".

Close to 30 years later, and we are still waiting for government to make good on those urgent recommendations. In our debating chambers, to even identify debate as "racist" is considered "unparliamentary".

During his term as Speaker Doug Kidd clarified why "racist" had been declared an unparliamentary word in 1977. "An allegation that a member is racist clearly imputes what most members would regard as an improper motive and is out of order." In other words, racism is so improper that we dare not even utter the word - which begs the question how prejudice is addressed if politicians are unable to name it.

There was another report circulating in 1986, which deserves another look at this time. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System developed a series of principles which finally sought to deliver on the Māori Representation Act 1867, including that Māori interests in Parliament should be represented in Parliament by Māori MPs; Māori electors ought to have an effective vote competed for by all political parties and that all MPs should be accountable in some degree to Māori electors.

Since the advent of mixed-member proportional representation in 1996 the proportion of MPs who identify as Māori has increased, although it would be debatable as to whether all MPs of whakapapa Maori necessarily represent Māori interests. I know from bitter experience that it is extremely difficult to influence a mainstream party to adopt Māori driven policy, or to be responsive to Māori worldviews across a centrist agenda.

So how then, to honour this 150th commemorative year in a way which delivers on the original promise for government to enact wise laws to promote good, and for Māori and Pākehā to work together.

I believe that race relations in Aotearoa needs a comprehensive review across all portfolios. Abdicating responsibility to a single Race Relations Commissioner - no matter how well Dame Susan Devoy is doing in the role - is fraught with danger that the great majority of agencies and individuals fail to give race relations the priority required.

In a Government that takes such pride in nationhood as was evidenced by the $26 million campaign to debate the national flag, I thought I'd help ministers and MPs when they return to work with a few good ideas as to how to best examine and promote the importance of the 1867 Māori Representation Act.

1. Announce, on 21 March 2017 - International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination - a comprehensive cross governmental strategy towards addressing personal, cultural and institutional racism.

2. Introduce legislation to establish a requirement for all state sector chief executives to be responsible for monitoring and reporting of progress on cultural competency.

3. Disestablish the Race Relations Commissioner role on the basis that all organs of the state must be accountable for working effectively across all cultures.

4. Commission advice from marae, hapū and iwi about best practice in improving Māori political participation, based on their local level experiences in achieving mandate.

5. Invite all educational institutions to submit proposals for a social media campaign about how to pay tribute to the 1867 Māori Representation Act by suggesting innovative ways to increase Māori political representation across local and national government.

If there is one thing that the Mad Butcher's ill-considered "banter" has taught us it is that we need more opportunities as a nation to examine racism, to understand our diverse cultural perspectives, to engage in cross-cultural conversations.

Let's hope that this 150th year of Māori representation enables a robust dialogue to occur with all of us at the table with an equal voice.