Entrenching the Māori seats is going exactly as you’d expect: racistly

Parliament’s Māori Affairs Select Committee is hearing submissions on a private member’s bill to entrench the Māori seats, and in case you were wondering it’s going exactly as you might imagine. On Tuesday one Pākehā bloke told the committee members never mind entrenchment we should, and I’m translating from 1959 to 2019, cancel the Māori seats entirely. On the same day another group wrote in its submission (I suspect in comic sans) the Māori seats are “fundamentally separatist”, sending along a Pākehā dude to tell the Māori Affairs Select Committee and the Māori seat holders on the committee exactly why that’s so. I wonder whether the committee put the question to him: is our existence as Māori separatist too?

Sometimes I wonder whether the problem is some Pākehā forget the Māori seats were their ancestors’ invention or whether they realise that and think the seats are working so well they’d better take them back. What’s the name for this sort of thing again? Oh, right, they’re “Indian givers”, though after 179 years-worth of history and experience I think we can call this particular phenomenon a “Pākehā promise” instead. Def: agreeing to or gifting something only to renege or demand its return. “John Key said he wouldn’t lift GST, but it was a Pākehā promise”. “Parliament said have these sweet new seats, but it was a Pākehā promise”.

But isn’t this kind of a win? Both the bloke from 1959 and the separatist dude could agree on one thing: the Māori seats work. Too well, of course, with Māori making up 23 percent of the 52nd Parliament but only 15 percent or so of the population itself. On this argument the seats are distorting Parliament. It’s wonderfully thick. If we can reduce democracy to neat percentages we may as well replace the election with the census and outsource governing to Statistics New Zealand. The chief statistician would chair the cabinet.

I know this is stating the obvious, but for the record: they’re missing the point. Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene, the bill’s sponsor and the committee chair, put it best in his personal submission. The Māori seats “guarantee kaupapa Māori representation”. They aren’t a concession to “diversity” or to an “oppressed minority”, as if Māori were just another deficit group to be catered to and courted.  Instead the seats are the bare minimum, like quite literally the absolute least, that a country founded on a power-sharing agreement between hapū/iwi and the Crown can do.

Think about it this way. The Treaty guarantees hapū and iwi retain their “rangatiratanga”, and out of that constitutional power the signing chiefs establish kāwanatanga, the Crown’s power to govern. The chiefs do so on the condition hapū and iwi can wholly participate in that kāwanatanga. The Māori seats are our exceedingly small stake in it.  But this extremely simple thinking is usually beyond many Pākehā, especially the 1959ner and the separatist, because they’re taught to assume the system just is, and so far as there are any principles to it those principles are liberal. It would never occur to them that the people who established democracy in New Zealand were Māori - on the condition they were part of it…

Of course none of this is entirely new. Do read matua Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Matou and He Tipua, matua Mason Durie’s Te Mana, Te Kāwanatanga, and matua Keith Sorrenson’s Ko te Whenua te Utu/Land is the Price. The problem is most people never bother, and so any debate on the Māori seats happens as a series of missed points. The slippery sloppers make arguments like “if we give special seats to one minority we’ll have to give special seats to every minority”, forgetting Māori are tangata whenua. In other words we’re not arguing to recognise a minority right. We’re arguing to recognise an Indigenous right.

I suppose if you’re conditioned to think of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity as a series of percentages it’s an easy mistake to make. But the best way to think about each - race, ethnicity, and indigeneity - is as history made present, which is precisely how Tirikatene, Mita Ririnui, Te Ururoa Flavell, and the late matua Parekura Horomia thought about the Māori seats. Each former MP put forward an entrenchment bill like Tirikatene’s, and each made the argument entrenching the seats is about more than just the entrenchment itself. It’s about acknowledging the seat’s have whakapapa, and that whakapapa deserves the same protection as the general seats (the general seats are entrenched).

That’s worth repeating, too. Whakapapa. Learning about it should be a minimum requirement for anyone wanting to debate the Māori seats, or anything Māori really.