Direct democracy is not the same as direct representation (a privilege intended for Ngai Tahu on Canterbury Regional Council)

The case for entitling Ngai Tahu leaders to appoint two representatives to the Canterbury Regional Council prompted your Point of Order team to check out the differences between representative and direct democracies.

Explaining why it has rejected a ballot-box procedure to decide two places at its table, the council contends it is “reinstating direct Ngāi Tahu representation”.

Is the council confused (we wondered) about the differences between direct and representative democracies?

Whether a democracy is direct or representative, it is supposed to ensure power is exercised by “the people”.

A representative democracy is a system of government where citizens elect representatives to vote on laws on their behalf.

A direct democracy is one where citizens vote on every issue themselves.

The key difference between the two systems is who is voting on laws, elected officials or the citizens.

Ancient Athens was a true direct democracy, where every citizen with voting rights was required to vote on all issues.

The Canterbury Regional Council, of course, is a local authority  elected by eligible voters to make decisions on their behalf (although for a few years the government appointed its members, to the dismay of local politicians including the Greens’ Eugenie Sage).

Its experience of being rid of all elected members for a few years, and of being run by central government appointees, and then by a mix of appointees and elected members for a few more years, seems to have influenced a disdain for the democratic way of doing things.

Now it wants one sector of the community to be guaranteed two seats at the council table and to be able to make those appointments.

It has camouflaged the undemocratic nature of this proposal by suggesting it is promoting a system of “direct representation”: 

The Council recognises the valuable contribution made by the Ngāi Tahu members to the Council’s governance and operations and wishes to reinstate direct Ngāi Tahu representation.

The undemocratic nature of the proposal is acknowledged in the next sentence:

This is why we are seeking a law change that would provide mana whenua representation by empowering Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu to appoint up to two members of the Environment Canterbury Council with full decision-making powers.

Then it argues:

Representation of mana whenua at governance level is an effective way for a council to meet its obligations under the Resource Management Act 1991 and the Local Government Act 2002.

But that’s not the only way for a council to meet its obligations and the council implicitly acknowledges it is steering clear of a voting procedure when it explains why Maori wards have been rejected: 

Within Canterbury there is only one iwi with mana whenua throughout the region and, because of this, the Council prefers direct appointment as a reflection of Ngāi Tahu as mana whenua.

Council’s representation is determined under the Local Electoral Act, which does allow Council to adopt Māori constituencies or wards.

The Council decided, in consultation with Ngāi Tahu, not to have Māori constituencies.

So only the beneficiaries of this arrangement were consulted.

Then we get to the nub of the matter: the aim is not to enable Maori candidates to vie with other Maori candidates at the ballot box.  It is to empower the local tribal elite.

As the council put it:

Those who vote in Māori constituencies are those who are on the Māori roll for Parliamentary elections at a specific date. A Māori constituency does not amount to mana whenua representation.

And the reason for not bothering to consult with Canterbury people (and ratepayers)?

The council is shamefully glib in answering:

The Council has already engaged with Ngāi Tahu on this subject, which extends to all 10 Papatipu Rūnanga.

This does not explain the failure to consult the rest of the people who comprise the great majority of the local population Rather, the council speciously contends:

  • The decision to promote the Bill “is not in and of itself a significant decision” because the Parliamentary process – not a council decision – will determine the Bill’s  final content, and the implications for the Council, communities, and Ngāi Tahu.
  • A review of other local bills showed that in most cases there was no evidence of the councils having consulted as part of the process.  When consultation did occur, it was limited or was because the legislation was a part of a solution to a complex issue.
  • The Bill (once it had passed its first reading in Parliament) would be considered using the Select Committee process, giving everyone in New Zealand the opportunity to express their views.

And so:

Because the Bill will go through the formal Parliamentary process for public feedback, the Council decided at its public meeting on 13 May 2021 that there was no need to undertake a separate, duplicate consultation process.

The undemocratic nature of the intended structure will not bother Ngai Tahu leaders.  It should (but won’t) bother Eugenie Sage.

Ngai Tahu was one of several groups, including Canterbury councils, which asked for the government intervention in 2010 that resulted in the elected councillors losing their seats.

When MPs heard public submissions in 2015 on the Environment Canterbury (Transitional Governance Arrangements) Bill, designed to introduce a mix of elected councillors and government appointed commissioners from 2016, Ngai Tahu was one of only a few groups to support the bill.

“The proposal to return to a fully democratically elected model does not provide sufficient recognition towards the Treaty partnership,” its submission says.

The iwi supported continuing the mixed model after the 2019 elections, proposing to incorporate three Ngai Tahu appointed commissioners alongside three appointed by the Government.

In contrast, in a statement headed Time to restore democracy to  Canterbury,  Eugenie Sage expressed concern in June 2015 at the prospect of the National Government failing to restore a fully elected Environment Canterbury Regional Council.

“No other regional or local council in New Zealand has a mix of elected and appointed representatives,” said Green Party Canterbury spokesperson Eugenie Sage.

“It is high time for the return of a fully elected, democratic regional council in Canterbury.”

After the Key Government a week or so later had affirmed that indeed it would not be restoring a fully elected regional council until 2019, she railed against it again:

“National doesn’t trust the people of Canterbury to elect councillors to act in the best interests of the region,” Green Party Christchurch spokesperson, Eugenie Sage said today.

“National may not like people who get elected to local government, or agree with their views, but that’s not an excuse for crushing local democracy as it is doing by handpicking six ECan members.

“Democracy is our greatest asset yet National is denying Cantabrians a proper vote for almost a decade. Citizens deserve more than the second class council they are getting which the Government can continue to influence and dominate.”

In October that year, Hansard records Sage’s inevitable opposition  to a Bill which provided for a mix of seven elected councillors and six appointed commissioners, two of them from Ngai Tahu.

EUGENIE SAGE:  We oppose the bill. We oppose the truncated select committee process, and we want the restoration of democracy in Canterbury. That is what Cantabrians deserve, not this half-pie model.

It turns out Sage was hot and bothered only about the Crown appointing people to the council.  She supported a bill in 2019 that would have guaranteed Ngāi Tahu two seats on future Environment Canterbury councils.

As she told Stuff:

“This is one way we can ensure there is strong Māori participation in local government.”

Democrats can thank New Zealand First’s opposition (along with National and ACT) for ensuring the Bill was not enacted at that time.  But the Canterbury Regional Council is having a second go at a time when Labour has a majority in Parliament and is strongly influenced by its Maori caucus.

Kiwiblog’s David Farrar alerted his readers yesterday to what is happening in a post headed Double dipping in Canterbury.

There is a bill going through Parliament that will change the law so Ngai Tahu directly appoints two members of the Canterbury Regional Council, or ECan.

This is different to having Maori Wards. Because at least with Maori Wards, it is still one person one vote.

But what this does is give members of Ngai Tahu two votes.

Every resident of Canterbury (of whom 11% are Maori) will get to vote in the elections for ECan. But if this bill passes, then Ngai Tahu will get to appoint two additional members directly. So members of Ngai Tahu get to be represented twice – both by the person they vote for, and by the direct appointees (who are appointed by their Iwi leadership whom they vote for)

This is a radical development in democracy. And if it passes, it will set a precedent.

Radical development, true.  But it will erode – not enhance – the region’s democracy.  And as Farrar notes, it will set a precedent.

The Bill has passed its first reading and is now being considered by the Māori Affairs Select Committee.

Submissions close on February 2.  

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