A Maori seats referendum is a bad idea – Brexit proves it

by The Listener / 20 July, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Winston Peters referendum

NZ First leader Winston Peters speaks during a press conference. Photo/Getty Images

The folly of reducing complexity to a single question has been amply demonstrated in the aftermath of Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

New Zealand First’s election policy to hold a binding referendum on whether the Maori seats should be abolished and whether Parliament should be reduced in size is dog-whistle politics at a not particularly high register.

It is more than a little ironic that in his speech to NZ First’s convention, leader Winston Peters enjoined his followers, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have an opinion, don’t be afraid to share it.” If NZ First’s own opinion is that the Maori seats should be abolished – and Peters’ comments can be interpreted that way – then that should be the party’s unequivocal policy, rather than promising a referendum.

The Maori seats are an anachronism. Like the Maori All Blacks, they are hard to explain and justify to a foreigner. Not that New Zealanders have to justify them to foreigners, but we do have to be able to justify them to ourselves, and that has become harder in recent years.

There is no denying they are a form of race-based politics, albeit well-intentioned. It is not unreasonable to think the seats have had their day and are now paternalistic. Over long decades, they guaranteed that Maori were represented in Parliament when, without those seats, there may have been no Maori voices in the House of Representatives. The advent of the mixed-member proportional electoral system should have made the Maori seats redundant. That was the recommendation of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System, because MMP allows parties to manipulate their lists to reflect diversity, if manipulation is required.

Maori have long been able to foot it on merit-based selection, and that is something all New Zealanders should celebrate. But even if New Zealanders think abolishing the Maori seats is something that, at the least, will do Maori no harm, it would be a bad precedent to have them removed by a majority non-Maori vote.

A referendum is an inappropriate way to deal with any issue affecting a minority. Whether the question at stake bestows or removes a privilege for a minority, or inflicts or removes a burden on a minority, the rights or interests of that minority are too easily swamped in a democratic vote.

The greatness of democracy is cherished by those countries fortunate enough to have it and is yearned for by millions elsewhere, but the one thing that democracy does not necessarily do well is protect the rights of minorities. That is the role of governments, and only governments can fulfil it.

“We, the people” elect a government to govern on our behalf. That is its job. Whether the decisions a government faces be big or small, difficult or easy, minor or profound in their effect, its role is to listen to all opinions, look to its own mandate, weigh the evidence, then make a decision. Except in the most limited of circumstances, referendums are not an appropriate substitute. The casual and frequent use of referendums diminishes the significance of the act of voting.

A referendum is, similarly, not the best way to choose the number of seats in the House. Brexit has starkly illustrated the folly of reducing complexity to a single question. It is a simple proposition to ask whether Parliament should be reduced from 120 MPs to 100, but there is no guarantee voters in such a referendum would know which seats would be lost or how proportionality would be maintained. Ignorance is the worst-possible condition in which to decide constitutional questions.

In the promise of referendums, Peters has, typically and unerringly, appealed to a base instinct. Though there are good arguments that the Maori seats are no longer necessary, they are still highly valued by Maori – at least by the just over half of Maori who have enrolled in those electorates. And a national referendum vote to take away a minority’s existing right would be a gratuitous act of vandalism on race relations. Yet, Peters knows the wider population readily responds to suggestions of race-based privilege despite abundant statistical evidence that only Pasifika people have a greater chance than Maori of being at the tough end of most measures of social and economic achievement.

Likewise, reducing seats appeals to the rampant idea that Parliament is a burden on society and that politicians need constant reminding about who is boss. They do not. Most MPs enter Parliament with a sincere belief in trying to do the best for their country. Reducing their number is not the same as lifting their quality.

Some constitutional questions – such as the choice of electoral system – should be decided by the people. These two proposals from NZ First should not. They deserve the consideration of select committees, then a 75% majority of Parliament. We do not need to own a dog and bark ourselves.

This editorial was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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