In recent weeks, debate around Māori representation in local body politics has been heated. Proponents for change have been quick to tar those who resist with all manner of prejudicial epithets. Proponents for the status quo have often responded in kind. Don Brash’s views on the matter are well known and are strongly supported in some quarters, if branded reactionary in others.
Whichever side of the fence you sit on, I don’t think the rhetoric is helping. Any time people’s prime argument involves the colour of their opponents’ skin, it demonstrates at best a shallowness of thinking, at worst the type of prejudice that good parenting should have dissuaded you from around the time you shed your nappies. The clamour for “diversity” in all things has reduced people to their pigmentation, sexuality, gender and body shape, no matter the calibre of their minds or basic ability to get a job done.
There are good arguments for having a Māori voice on council subcommittees. Whether these arguments extend to voting rights for the same individuals is a different matter. Should these been given as a matter of course, cutting across the basic tenets of democracy? If so, why bother having elections at all? If “diversity” demands that a council accurately reflect the ethnic makeup of a community it serves, why not divide the electorate up entirely into ethnically defined wards? Perhaps positions could be filled by in-house appointment, through consultation with appropriately connected elders. Why bother the voters? Māori could have dedicated seats, next to the Indian, the Chinese, the Somali and so on, each arguing in a blinkered, partisan manner for the interests of “their people”. A real recipe for a united future.
It’s safe to assume that expressing such views – even in an exaggerated, borderline satirical manner – automatically puts me in the Don Brash camp. Zealots do not tend to “do” irony. You are either with us or agin us. Swainson is a bigot. He’s old, he’s white, he’s straight, he’s monolingual. Yesterday’s man. In as much as terms like “man” have contemporary relevance. More correctly, he “identifies” as male.
Has anyone noticed how much of this rhetoric has been imported wholesale from the United States? In a recent, rather extraordinary opinion piece, Joel Maxwell celebrates the Hamilton City Council’s decision to co-opt five Māori representatives onto council subcommittees, complete with voting rights. He begins by sarcastically emphasising the race and age of elected representatives. They are all Pākehā. It’s a wonder he doesn’t use the term “honky”, for a couple of paragraphs later, all who oppose Māori wards are labelled “rednecks”. Are we suddenly in the American South? Is this the Dukes of Hazzard?
It’s a cinch that Maxwell considers Hamilton Mayor Andrew King and his deputy, Martin Gallagher, “good old boys”. No doubt there are reasons for criticising both men, though ironically enough, King voted for the proposal and Gallagher, a long-time Labour party stalwart and former MP, did not. No matter, both are reduced to their age and ethnicity and mocked for having a little life experience. Gallagher’s sins involve “being interested in politics at a young age” and – gasp – having visited England in 1960. What’s worse, Maxwell, the taint of colonialism suggested by travel and having relatives in the “Mother Country”, or the fact this happened a long time ago?
By Maxwell’s reasoning, if you oppose his opinions and world view you are by definition racist. He’s a little like those partisan Jews and Zionists who mistake criticism of Israel for anti-Semitism. Might there not be rational arguments against Māori wards and/or unelected committee voting rights that aren’t grounded in prejudice? Can Maxwell not grasp the fact that for many, there are principles involved that don’t relate to race or historic injustices visited upon first peoples?
Personally, I think the problems with local body democracy go far beyond the presence or absence of brown faces around the committee table. Voter turnout and wider community engagement with councils are pathetically low. In Hamilton, King became mayor after winning only 8 per cent of the popular vote. Councillors are generally elected on name recognition alone, which gives a massive advantage to incumbents, whatever their competence.
Rather than add more wards, subdividing the electorate still further, I think the answer lies in abolishing them altogether. That way, new candidates can draw on support across entire cities. Given the Māori population of Hamilton is 21.3 per cent, iwi representatives should stand a good chance, even if they did have to campaign like everybody else.