Democracy or Partnership – what do we want?

Updated April 17, 2021

The departure of Donald Trump from the White House was a victory for the US democratic system, which only just succeeded.   If then Vice President Mike Pence had wavered under enormous pressure from President Trump and his cult-like supporters, Joe Biden might not be in the White House and there would have been serious civil disorder.  The Republicans haven’t given up, they are now trying to make voting more difficult in several states.  Democracy is a model under threat from many quarters, and losing around the world.

It is easy to forget how recently democracy has become mainstream.  In Britain women over the age of 21 only got the vote in 1928 and in the US, universal suffrage only became accessible to all Afro-Americans in the last 55 years, because, prior to the 1960s voting reforms, there was serious voter suppression in parts of the country.  Some former East European countries like Hungary have retreated from the democratic model and others like Greece and Italy have struggled to deal with major economic challenges. 

At present New Zealand has a quality democracy.   We have fairly-drawn electorates, an easy voting system, and a reasonable level of political literacy.  Money struggles to buy Government policy, which is all as it should be.  

However, we have no reason to be smug, because this democracy is under threat. Governments since 1987 and the Courts have been entrenching a modern view that the Treaty of Waitangi means there is an ongoing “partnership between the Government and Iwi”.  Some Maori leaders want a form of co-governance between Parliament, elected by all New Zealanders, with one which has to negotiate policy with iwi leaders.  

The partnership concept has been advanced in small steps, without the Government first holding an honest conversation with all New Zealanders.  Apart from concerns about the costs in the early stages of the treaty settlement process, New Zealanders have basically remained silent while governments negotiated settlements and wrote the subsequent legislation.  The same goes for the two foreshore and seabed Acts, where to the best of my knowledge, the Port CEO Group which I chaired at the time, was the only non-Maori group involved in the policy process.    

I have voted in general elections for decades, and for referenda on liquor laws, the parliamentary term, MMP, marijuana and end of life choice, but never on whether we should have a partnership model of government with anyone else.    

For the record, while I prefer they don’t exist, separate Maori seats or even Maori wards, do not undermine our democracy, provided each is based on the same electoral numbers as general electorates and wards.  Nor do I think a requirement for central and local Government to have regard for the views of Maori, destroys democratic integrity, provided the consultation process is genuine, and also that it doesn’t necessarily mean agreement must be reached.  

These provisions help create social cohesion that is critical to successful democracies.  However, we could soon reach a point when the word “democracy” will not accurately describe our form of government.         

For anyone who thinks I may be exaggerating the threat to our democratic model, I strongly recommend they read the 2010 iwi-sponsored 129 page “The report of Matike Mai Aotearoa – the independent working group on constitutional transformation”.  It is all laid out with a plan to achieve the transformation by 2040.  The recommendations are not about making the Treaty fit within the current constitutional arrangements; rather it creates a whole new form of Government based around a minority view of what the Treaty means.

The recently released Government commissioned “He Puapua”, report of the working group on a plan to realise the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples of Aotearoa/New Zealand, takes the iwi report a step further. It’s not clear exactly where this report sits with Government thinking, but looks like an indication of a pathway to radical change. 

New Zealanders need to wake up and get real about the Treaty, and the history of this country since Maori arrived around 1200 AD.  The three article Treaty was a well-intentioned effort on the part of the non-democratic British Government, to deal with what it saw as a very untidy situation in New Zealand, where 100,000 odd tribally divided Maori lived alongside a couple of thousand British settlers, some of whom were seriously disorderly.  

A key part of the backdrop to the Treaty were the inter-tribal musket wars in the decades up to 1840.  In his comprehensive book (“The New Zealand Musket Wars”) historian lawyer Ron Crosby, has written about the devastating impact on Maori in respect of the tens of thousands killed, enslaved or cannibalised.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans Maori tribes fought regularly but lives lost were modest compared to the Musket Wars for obvious reasons.  

Captain Hobson was asked to negotiate a Treaty which ceded sovereignty to the British Crown, protected Maori property rights and treated them all as British subjects.  At the time there were around 500 tribes, no secure property rights, no border controls and no central government, notwithstanding the 1835 tribal confederation declaration that New Zealand was a country.  

In the English version, Article 1 unambiguously had the Maori ceding sovereignty to the Crown.  Unfortunately, this was imperfectly translated into the Maori version, which most of the 500 Maori chiefs signed.   A few did sign the English version and some did not sign it at all.  The Treaty itself was written a few days before Hobson met with the Chiefs and the Maori version was translated by Henry Williams over a couple of days.  Inadequate effort was made to ensure both versions said precisely the same thing.   (See Claudia Orange “The Treaty of Waitangi”)

This must have been one of the most sloppily negotiated Treaties between any two countries (in our case Tribes) of the Nineteenth Century.  That it is seriously regarded today, when most old treaties have fallen by the wayside, is a testament to the patience and long game played by Maori leaders, who have used the Courts and lobbied with great skill to claw back what they now see as lost ground.  It also attests to the reasonableness of the Crown in recent decades, to at least partially remedy the errors of the past.     

Regardless of the flaws in the Treaty process and subsequent events, New Zealand has slowly morphed into a fully independent democratic country, where everyone, including Maori, has a reasonable chance of a quality life.  Government legitimacy today derives from the quality of our current democratic institutions, not from what happened in 1840.      

It is a remarkable contrast with Australia where the aboriginals had been for roughly 60,000 years, yet were deemed to own no land – Terra Nullius it was declared to be.  The Maori had been in New Zealand for just 600 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans and were by the Treaty considered to own all the land, notwithstanding the reality there was only about 100,000, over a space now occupied by five million people.

Over the past few centuries, the democratic model combined with a well-regulated market economy, has proven to be far superior to: unconstitutional monarchies, theocracies, military dictatorships, anarchy and tribalism.  It has delivered freedom, higher living standards and increased life expectancy, for people of all races, even though within countries there are commonly divergences between ethnicities.  We should maintain and improve our institutions to meet the varying requirements of our largely successful multicultural society.      

Since 1840 we have seen the breakdown of the old tribal management and lifestyle, which has been replaced by Maori living in a similar way to the rest of the population.  At the same time, they have intermarried to considerable extent, and some like my successful middle-class second cousins, are as pale as myself.  Regardless of blood, all descendants of Maori are legally deemed to be Maori, regardless of skin colour.     

Iwi, newly enriched through the treaty settlement process, are now akin to large managed funds, with some statutory powers, not available to others.   That power can be used to commercial advantage.  It will inevitably lead to opaque public policy decisions which will undermine confidence in the integrity of Government.   

The media and others too frequently stigmatize Maori as impoverished and on the fringes of society.  That was some truth in that 100 years ago, but not today.   Most poor people are not Maori and not all Maori are poor, even though proportionally they are less well off than those of European descent, and have worse statistics in crime etc.  Like thousands of renting Kiwis, they face major hurdles becoming home owners and the same challenges providing for their families.  We have equity issues with the bottom quartile, which requires urgent solutions.     

There are ways of meeting the different needs of Maori and other cultures within one democratic governmental system.  As a strong supporter of the market economy, I recognise that “one size does not fit all”.  There will be ways in say education and health services and possibly even prisons, that different systems can be developed for those Maori who want them.  It has to be handled in a practical manner – separate heart or cancer units in hospitals would for instance be absurd, because we barely have critical mass at present.  

All Kiwis should accept there is still some negative flow on from the previous colonial era.  None of these challenges should be beyond the wit of governments.  However, they should stop naively entrenching iwi powers in statutes, because that will end badly one way or the other, and New Zealand will lose its credibility as a quality democracy, with the same rights for all.  

Its democracy or partnership – we cannot have both.

Authorities: Keith Sinclair “A History of New Zealand”, Michael King, “Penguin History of New Zealand”; Claudia Orange, “The Treaty of Waitangi”; Vincent O’Malley; The New Zealand Wars”; Ron Crosby; “The Musket Wars” – see also Ron’s “The Forgotten Wars”; Elizabeth Rata, “Marching through the Institutions: “The Neoliberal Elite and the Treaty of Waitangi”; Brian Easton’s, “Not in Narrow Seas: The Economic History of Aotearoa New Zealand”; The report of iwi sponsored “Matike Mai Aotearoa – The Independent Working Group on Constitutional Transformation”. 

You can follow my posts at www.barriesaunders.wordpress.com

3 thoughts on “Democracy or Partnership – what do we want?

  1. Thanks for a calm and sensible ‘take’. I see the ‘big picture’ in very simple terms; here we are now, we have a past we must continue to explore and pay heed to, value the best bits of, continue to compensate for the egregious to an end point, but the imperative must be to move forward, for all. All as one.

    Liked by 1 person

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