Pita Sharples’ speech on race relations day (Sunday), and his comments that followed, certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons. Firstly, and unusually, he commented frankly on working with National:
I have to admit that while we have a rangatira to rangatira agreement with the John Key led National Government, at times it is very difficult and stressful.
(See coverage here). Secondly, and attracting even more attention, Sharples commented on the nature of democracy in NZ. Given the fuss that followed, it’s worth quoting with a bit of context:
Cultural genocide is not too strong a term to describe the history under our feet tonight. This was the background to the Bastion Point occupation, which was engraved in the heart’s of NgÄti Whatua and almost completely unknown by their fellow citizens of Auckland.
It is against this history of the oppression of NgÄti Whatua and the history of NgÄti Whatua’s promotion of British settlement, their role in providing land to rebuild Auckland town, and their protection of those early settlers it is against these events, that I regret the decision made by my Government this term that there should be no designated seats for MÄori on the new Auckland super-city. It seems to me to be poor reward for such a major role played by NgÄti Whatua in ensuring that the city of Auckland could survive, grow, and flourish as acknowledged in the Tribunal’s letter to Minister Wetere. …
It seems that these MÄori principles that guaranteed that Auckland could survive and grown [sic], would be far more important, even in today’s times than such artificial political concoctions such as â€˜one vote for one person’, or â€˜democratic elections’ which were the principles that were cited to decline the two seats on the super-city council. The MÄori kaupapa were principles that promoted â€˜equity’ and â€˜inclusiveness’, surely the ideals of a â€˜civilised’ society. We must begin to recognise that democracy has many expressions, many ways of mobilising voices and representation, rather than statically holding onto dominant axioms.
This was recognised by the Royal Commission when they recommended three, not just two, seats designated for MÄori at the super-city top table. NgÄti Whatua did not care about such things as â€˜equal-voting rights’ or any other artificial device with which to make decisions they applied, measures to ensure equality, as their mandate to help pÄkeha to settle and rebuild this town[.] So I feel that the Auckland city seats decision is a missed opportunity, lost to the politics of the day.
Sharples is of course again lamenting the kick in the teeth that the Maori Party had from National over seats on the Auckland council. But the comments about democratic mechanisms here are actually much more thoughtful than the discussion which followed. “One person one vote” is just a quick slogan, the essence of its meaning is that everyone’s voice is heard, and everyone’s voice is equal. Definitions of democracy have long recognised that some mechanisms, beyond simple voting, are necessary to protect minorities from “the tyranny of the majority”. Hence democracies have constitutional limits on power, an independent judiciary, Bills of Rights, international law, and “checks and balances” such as an Upper House / Senate or a President / Head of State. That seems to be what Sharples is discussing here — other mechanisms to achieve balance and inclusion that serve the aims of democracy (everyone’s voice is heard, and everyone’s voice is equal) better than simple votes alone (tyranny of the majority).
Sadly, Editorial coverage didn’t seem to progress past the sound-bite level. The Press proclaimed:
[Sharples’] latest offering was to describe the principles of “one vote for one person” and “democratic elections” as artificial political concoctions. … But to criticise cornerstones of our democratic system of governance does a disservice to the pioneers of electoral reform in Britain and New Zealand
The Dominion Post editorial (quoted on Kiwiblog) is similar, thundering:
[Democracy is] a concept which millions, including New Zealanders, have given their lives to defend, and a concept that has to be defended against muddled thinking as well as evil doing. Into that first category must be put Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples’ recent musings on the nature of democracy. …
Both of these editorials simply assume that Sharples is proposing ditching the principle of “one person one vote”, but I think (as above) that he was arguing that it is necessary to build on this foundation with other mechanisms. But like a game of “Chinese whispers” Sharples’ comments kept disappearing under further layers of interpretation until we end up with the likes of…
Dr Sharples said the idea of “one person, one vote, was an artificial concoction” used to block Maori votes.
… which misrepresents what was said completely. However, Sharples himself shares as much blame as anyone for this superficial discussion. His own sound-bites after the speech did him no favours:
“There is a democratic process but it’s not working for Maori, they are outside of that system,” Sharples says.
Given the existence of the Maori Party and its role in government, and given the long standing links between Maori and the Labour Party, it is clearly nonsense to claim that Maori are “outside the system”. Sharples may have been expressing his frustration at the lack of outcomes that the Maori Party is achieving in government, but there he should look to blame his coalition partner. Under a Labour government Maori would have had representation on the Auckland council.