ACT New Zealand’s party leader David Seymour was highly critical of the current interpretation of Te Tiriti O Waitangi this past week, mentioning how current interpretations of the treaty have created a divide between New Zealand citizens.
In a speech presented at the Milford Rotary Club Seymour warned, “[the treaty] is now seeking to create division by saying that there will actually be different legal categories of person, that people will have different rights and different duties based on who their great grandparents were.”
By strangely comparing interpretations of the treaty to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Seymour and ACT have also called for a referendum on the treaty this past week in a need to protect liberal democracy.
The referendum is outlined as The Treaty Principles act, and would be defined as three core principles to the treaty:
- All citizens of New Zealand have the same political rights and duties
- All political authority comes from the people by democratic means including universal suffrage, regular and free elections with a secret ballot
- New Zealand is a multiethnic liberal democracy where discrimination based on ethnicity is illegal
I have an inherent problem with Seymour’s presentation of these principles, although they are seemingly straightforward, they lack an explanation of their intended meaning and can easily be misconstrued.
The second principle in particular seems reasonable enough. I believe, however, based on Seymour’s previous statements, is calling for the abolition of the Māori electoral seats.
These seats, initially created under the Māori Representation Act 1867, gave four guaranteed parliamentary seats to Māori. The move to MMP in 1993 saw the number of seats change in relation to the amount enrolled in the Māori electorate, currently, there are seven Māori seats in parliament.
In 2018, Seymour called for the abolition of Māori seats and a reduction in parliament members.
During a party conference at the time, he stated, “We now have 27 Māori MPs in Parliament — Māori are actually over-represented in Parliament — and the seven Māori MPs have been hopeless,”
This sentiment shared by Seymour is not a new one by all means, discourse surrounding the disapproval of exclusive Māori seats has circulated since their introduction in 1867, for a variety of reasons too, some argue racism or unfairness to non-Māori, or Māori no longer needing the extra representation.
It is a little strange to think that having representatives for Māori and iwi, who have historically and institutionally been discriminated against is somehow discriminatory to non-Māori.
Why are they labelled discriminatory, coupled with calls for their abolition, as soon as Māori achieve some sort of electoral parity? Are the 150 odd years of Māori underrepresentation not discriminatory?
This understanding is mistaken in assuming that special clauses for Māori citizens create racial inequality. The inequality is already present. The inequality has been present since the introduction of New Zealand’s Westminster political system, which has historically remained institutionally biased against Māori by facilitating the loss of Māori land and sovereignty.
Liberal democracy is more than an individual citizen’s political right and universal suffrage Don’t get me wrong these are all necessary to a functioning democracy, but reducing political equality to the right to vote is counter-productive to the political and social rights of every member within society.
Democracy where the institutional and political structures reflect the majority will hold an inherent bias toward marginalised groups.
Announcing every New Zealand citizen has the same political rights may appear neutral and fair, but can and often does systemically privilege the majority.
These biases dramatically reduce the political rights and cultures of national minorities. Seymour’s mentioning of a “Kiwi” identity is indicative of my argument.
During the Rotary Club speech, Seymour states New Zealand’s identity is more than Māori and Pakeha.
“We should celebrate them all. Our Kiwi identity should be one of a modern, multi-ethnic, outward-looking liberal democracy with an equal place for everybody.”
While the argument can be made this is true, it comes with the caveat of being a multi-ethnic culture built upon the values of British colonisers. These values, over the past 150 years, have become dominant and built up what is now New Zealand’s cultural identity.
At what point after Te Tiriti O Waitangi has Māori culture been at the core of New Zealand’s identity? It comes from a place of privilege to say “we can make a pretty good fist of the Maori version of the National anthem,” when only 4% of New Zealand can hold a conversation in Te Reo Māori.
Its ignorant of Seymour to think making a good effort at singing the national anthem in the country’s indigenous language is a meaningful representation of Māori culture. I’m not sure if this is intentional by Seymour, but he conveniently doesn’t ever talk about why so few of the population can speak Te Reo, it may help for Seymour to take a history lesson on how children were punished for speaking it at school or how Māori assimilating into the city forced them to learn English.
The conversation on the significance of Te Tiriti O Waitangi in 2022 New Zealand is an important one to have. As Seymour does, it’s easy to dismiss why we need the treaty if you ignore the facets of how Māori have faced oppression in the past 150 years. The idea that New Zealand’s citizens are on equal footing is misguided and doesn’t clearly address the nuance or historical context of the conversation.
To finish, here’s a quote.
I’m part of a generation that does not resent Maori or Maori culture… Whether or not we’re Maori ourselves, my generation knows that the ‘e’ in Maori is pronounced ‘air’ rather than ‘eh’ or ‘ee.’ — David Seymour