A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the possibility of a populist leader, à la Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, coming to the fore in New Zealand politics. I said that the lack of real choice in policies between the major New Zealand parties, National and Labour, could cause New Zealanders to look for populist alternatives in this year's election, but I also said that New Zealand doesn't have the same groundswell of political division and frustration that resulted in the electoral wins for Brexit and Trump. However, I think we are seeing the rise of an issue that could be a game-changer in New Zealand politics.
New Zealanders have put up with increasingly undemocratic changes to our legal and constitutional frameworks since the 1970s, all in the name of redressing alleged historical wrongs to Maori. People of Maori descent comprise about 15% of the population of New Zealand but those who identify as Maori today often have only a small fraction of Maori ancestry. They are likely to be more of English or Scots descent as Maori, which makes their contemporary grievances all the more ridiculous - they are calling for redress for the actions of one lot of their ancestors against another lot.
The Treaty of Waitangi, signed by many Maori chiefs in 1840, and by Governor William Hobson on behalf of the Crown, made all Maori British subjects, and their descendants (by constitutional succession) New Zealand citizens. Maori today are represented in government both through their vote in general electorates and through a small number of race-based electorates. Tribal leaders, who are chosen through family links and traditional alliances, have no constitutional role in national or local governament - but that is about to change.
The Resource Legislation Amendment Bill, which may pass into law this week, grants tribal leaders the right to sit on local councils with full voting rights. This means every decision of a council in future will be determined by people who are not elected or accountable for their decisions - people who often have conflicts of interest in the matters they are deciding. Few New Zealanders realise the implications of the legislation because the government has been at pains to keep its dealings on this bill from public scrutiny. New Zealanders do not realise that every local government decision concerning their properties, livelihoods, recreation and taxes in future will be subject to the whims of unelected tribal representatives.
I believe this Bill is very wrong for several reasons. Firstly, it is racist and contrary to principles of universal suffrage to give members of any race a position of privilege in our government. Secondly, the tribal leaders do not represent even the vast majority of people of Maori descent, who live in urban areas and often do not have strong affiliations to their ancestral tribes. Thirdly, it shows a contempt for democracy and constitutional safeguards and is likely to lead to corruption.
Lawyer and former member of parliament Stephen Franks says, "So far as I can tell from the Bill there is virtually nothing to prevent power sharing agreements with iwi/hapu [i.e. tribes] from by-passing democracy and diving below the current legal safe-guards against dishonesty and self-dealing."
Former ACT Party member of parliament Rodney Hide says, "Tribalism is the worst form of economic organisation. It’s collectivist, it lacks incentive to perform, the principals can’t readily sack their agents and there’s invariably a complete lack of transparency and hence accountability. The structure works to the advantage of tribal bosses, not members."
I couldn't agree more. This is one of the most significant constitutional changes in New Zealand's history and it is being sneaked into law. Once the public realise its implications it may become the issue that drives New Zealand voters into the arms of a populist leader like Winston Peters (who is of Maori descent but opposed to race-based privilege).
I think the silent majority has had enough of the gradual erosion of democratic rights and legal equality in New Zealand and that people are ready to fight back in the same way as British and US voters did last year. The political establishment will express bewilderment just as they did in Britain and the US, but they will only have themselves to blame.