Dec 8, 2014

Māori wards and the struggle to narrate Māori rights

The New Plymouth District, soon-to-be-home of the newest Māori ward.

The Treaty means whatever you want it to mean, as long as you’re against it. The popular account seems to consist of two jointly asserted and mutually exclusive "facts". Under the first account the Treaty is a rat-eaten relic, a kind of curiosity stored somewhere in Archives New Zealand. It has no application in modern New Zealand. Yet the second account declares that we must dutifully comply with the terms of the English language version. Māori surrendered their sovereignty in exchange for the rights and privileges of British subjects. The Treaty is relevant only as a transaction. 

Which account you prefer depends on whether you want to deny or attack Māori rights. If it’s the former then the claim must be that the Treaty creates no rights – it means nothing – if you prefer the latter then the claim must be that the Treaty creates some rights – it means something – just not what Māori and their guilt-ridden allies think. The truth – or the best interpretation – doesn’t sit somewhere in the middle, nor is it even adjacent, it’s entirely removed from the popular accounts.

Yet you should prepare for a thumping from the popular accounts. In October the New Plymouth District Council voted to approve a Māori ward for the next local government election. The tenacious mayor, Andrew Judd, went a little further in the media and suggested a “reasonable interpretation” of the Treaty demands fifty-fifty representation. Oh, the outrage! Gareth Morgan thinks the decision is an instruction manual for a “divided society”. The New Zealand Centre of Political Research reminds us that the good people of Nelson voted down a Māori ward and so can you. 

Which is a tenuous position. Should Māori rights be subject to the very majority we are seeking protection against? Whatever the answer, democracy is more nuanced than simple majority rule. Democracy must guarantee majority rule, sure, but it’s equally clear it must also guarantee the majority will not abuse its power and violate the basic and pre-existing rights of the minority. Democracy, then, is a careful balance between majority rule and minority rights. This position is as true for John Hart Ely as it was for John Stuart Mill. 

But is it right to think in such rigid – even positivist – Euro-centric terms? We need to recognise the trap. It’s tempting to narrate Māori perspectives in Euro-centric frames, but the claim to Māori wards has little to do with minority rights. I suspect many Māori readers have been flinching at “minority rights” because we understand the argument for Māori wards is based on tangata whenua rights.

Thus our claim to representation is based on the rights we inherit from our tipuna – our rights as Indigenous people – the same rights promised in the Māori version of the Treaty. While the rangatira who signed surrendered governorship over British subjects – "kāwanatanga" - they understood that they retained their unfettered chieftainship – "tino rangatiratanga". The Treaty created a partnership – it was the Treaty of Waitangi, not the Proclamation of Waitangi – and that should be honoured. Fair representation is an integral part of doing so. 

And of course this is causing angst. Gareth Morgan urges New Zealanders to "wake up". Grave changes are occurring, he warns. Yet the push for fair representation along Māori terms has been happening for 174 years, it’s just Pākehā society only seems to pay attention when they fear they have something to lose. Only then are they confronted with the possibility that some injustice may exist - that Māori and their tipuna have been denied their inherent rights. Some Pākehā retreat to their ideological armoury – no racial separatism! – while others confront the past and the place of tangata whenua. I hope there are more of the second than the first.

Note: there was a very poor phrase in here that has been edited out. I won't repeat it, but I do apologise for being thoughtless.